German prisoners getting daily ration of water at Mersa Matruh

Hele’s love of the figure and desire to capture the full experience of war enabled him to objectively approach subjects from both sides.This group of German soldiers, many stripped of their shirts, provided Hele with the perfect figure and composition study needed to complete his grand scale figure paintings, such as Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece. Hele made various studies of soldiers in North Africa, recording not only the weariness of Australian troops but also the plight of Italian and German prisoners.

German prisoners

German prisoners getting daily ration of water at Mersa Matruh
drawn in Mersa Matruh, Egypt in 1941 reworked in Aldinga, South Australia in 1942
red crayon, carbon pencil on paper
39.1 x 60.1cm
acquired under official war art scheme in 1941
(21888)

Hele’s early academic training is visible in this drawing, particularly in the overall balanced composition and the structural forms of the figures. At Moritz Heymann’s school in Munich, where Hele studied at the age of seventeen, students were required to draw moving poses for two to three hours each evening. This training provided Hele with a strong base from which to attempt large groups of figures.

The strong horizontal line of the men queuing for their daily ration of water leads the viewer to the soldier on the far left as he turns swiftly. The positioning of the three figures squatting to the right leads the eye into the composition. Hele has emphasised their placement in the drawing with a scattering of black lines.

The lack of attention or detail given to the background buildings is indicative of Hele’s concentration on the figure. He presents an abbreviation of the subject as he aims to capture the essence and action of the moment.

Questions and discussion
Can you find any similarities among the figures in this drawing?

Why did so many young artists at the time feel the need to travel to Europe?

Practical exercise
Hele’s power of observation enabled him to capture fleeting moments. Take your lunch and drawing equipment to a park or shopping mall. Draw people in bus queues or involved in relaxed activities, such as reading papers, chatting and eating.

Using continuous lines, produce one-minute drawings of a moving figure.The subject can walk across a room slowly or perform an athletic throwing action.

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