Wartime 49 - Feature Article: Artist in the aftermath

Ivor Hele’s immense canvas provides a valuable record of the evacuation of Greece in 1941.

By Lola Wilkins

From the outset in April 1941, the Greek campaign was one of the most ill-conceived of the Second World War; it took too many resources from the North African campaign, but gave too few to the Greeks. The Commonwealth force of British, Australian and New Zealand troops was meagre. They and their Greek allies were outnumbered by well equipped and well trained German troops, who in seven weeks were able to break through Allied defences and force them to evacuate, many finding their way to Crete. There had been no British plan to hold Crete, but one was rapidly improvised. At the end of May, after a determined German assault, about half of the remaining 33,000-strong Commonwealth force on Crete was evacuated; of these, many were lost when their ships were sunk, and only the remainder reached Alexandria.

Ivor Hele, Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece. ART22230

Ivor Hele, Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece, 1943, oil on canvas, 136.9 x 206 cm  ART22230

The Australian official war artist Ivor Hele was in the North Africa when the short-lived campaign commenced, and found himself in Alexandria when the battle-weary Australian troops arrived, exhausted and defeated. Hele’s response to their plight was personal and empathetic, but to express this in paint his interest needed also to be artistic: a quay full of troops provided a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate his skill in painting the human figure, in all its permutations, in a tightly packed composition.

Hele’s early  appointment as an official war artist was orchestrated by General Sir Thomas Blamey, who had seen his painting Sturt’s reluctant decision to return. It won the 1938 New South Wales Sesquicentenary Prize – a competition which allowed Hele to demonstrate his ability to paint historical figures on a grand scale. At the outbreak of the war, Blamey recalled the painting and was confident that Hele would be able to depict the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the Middle East.

Blamey encouraged Hele to enlist as a way to speed up his appointment; so in June 1940 Hele sailed to North Africa with the 2/48th Infantry Battalion, arriving in December. On 9 January 1941 the two met, and Blamey appointed him an official war artist in the AIF. Hele was promoted from the rank of private to lieutenant, was provided with a truck and a batman-driver, and was told to join the Australian 6th Division in the Libyan desert as it prepared to drive towards Tobruk. With money to buy art materials, Hele first travelled to Jerusalem, where he also bought a copy of R.A.M. Stevenson’s 1939 publication, Rubens’ painting and drawings, which accompanied him during his twelve-month stay in the Middle East.

Ivor Hele, Wharf at Alexandria. ART90262

Ivor Hele, Wharf at Alexandria, 1941, pen and ink, gouache, wash, graphite pencil on paper, 19.4 x 27.8 cm. ART90262

Hele had received his early art training in Europe and found the artists of the past a continuing source of inspiration. Hele was a master of the rapid sketch and from early on demonstrated a keen interest in drawing. He had attended art classes from the age of eight, and from the age of 16 had received intensive training in Paris and Munich. His facility and expertise in drawing and painting the human figure made him an excellent choice to accompany the troops. He was the only official artist present to capture these early Libyan campaigns, and he remained with the division throughout, painting and sketching the exhausted men and all the phases of desert warfare.

In the middle of 1941 he joined the Military History and Information Section of the AIF, Middle East, which included in its activities control of official war artists. He was promoted to captain and despatched to Cairo to paint a portrait of Blamey. Hele now had a studio at Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, which he shared with Lyndon Dadswell, a sculptor from Sydney, and John Dowie, another South Australian artist. From Cairo, Hele travelled to Alexandria to experience firsthand the Australian troops returning from the failed Greek operation.

There are a number of drawings in the Australian War Memorial’s collection which reflect Hele’s presence at Alexandria and his early interest in recording the event. A small pen and ink drawing, Wharf at Alexandria, inscribed “Background for Disembarkation” suggests that Hele was already considering a painting of the Australian troops returning from Greece. This sketch captures the train carriages and townscape which would later appear in the final large-scale painting. Hele’s method of recording events followed those he had developed as an art student in Europe – drawings rapidly executed on the spot, which would later be reworked into larger-scale drawings and finally paintings in his studio back in Australia.

Ivor Hele, Study for Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece. ART21925

Ivor Hele, Study for Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece, 1942, sanguine crayon on paper, 38.4 x 53.6 cm. ART21925

The subjects of the large sanguine crayon drawings of exhausted men in various poses would later appear in his large work, Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece. John Dowie would later recall how Hele asked him to pose in his full battle uniform, replete with weapon, on the balcony at Hele’s studio in Cairo. This is a powerful drawing that forms the central and pivotal figure in the final painting. There was no opportunity in Cairo to complete a large-scale work.

By 1942 Hele was suffering from an eye complaint and was frustrated by the lack of art materials, which had to be sourced from the outlying regions and were often not available at all. Having spent more than 12 months in the Middle East, he was eager to return home where art materials (particularly flake white) would be more readily available. He needed to paint undisturbed in his Australian studio, away from the difficult conditions he experienced in North Africa with its extreme temperatures, either soaring or freezing. While he was with the troops, he was constantly travelling; and in his studio at Heliopolis, Hele found the atmosphere chaotic. Since the early 1930s he had been used to the quiet environment of his studio at Aldinga, South Australia; now he found the disrupted life with the military not conducive to his work. Blamey at one point complained in a letter to John Treloar, then Hele’s superior in the Military History and Information Section and still director of the Australian War Memorial, about Hele’s output in the Middle East:

I regret to say that I am tremendously disappointed in him. He, no doubt, is an excellent artist, but it does not seem possible to get him to apply himself seriously. He is full of complaints and excuses. He has a great deal of work half done, and I am not sure that it may not be best to send him back to Australia after a little more here to complete his unfinished work there.

Ivor Hele, Study for Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece. ART21264

Ivor Hele, Study for Australian troops disembarking at Alexandria after the evacuation of Greece, 1942, sanguine crayon on paper, 76.2 x 36.8 cm. ART21264

There was little understanding by the authorities of the need for an artist to have an opportunity to reflect on his experiences, sort through pictures and refine compositions for paintings.

The 6th and 7th Divisions returned to Australia early in 1942, and it was decided that Hele should also return. Meanwhile his completed pictures were packed for shipping when disaster struck. The works had been loaded onto a lighter to carry them out to the vessel bound for Australia, but the lighter sprang a leak and a number of the crates were submerged in a metre of water. Treloar and the artist Frank Norton were on hand to pull the pictures out. In the few hours available to them, they tried to wash the paintings in clean water, dry the drawings and repack them in time to be loaded aboard. Only basic remedial work could be completed in the time available. To compound the problem, the vessel carrying the crates to Australia took 11 weeks rather than four. By the time they arrived, some of the works were beyond repair.

Hele undertook to replace some of the drawings which were crumpled and smudged. He was a perfectionist who refused to submit any work he considered unfit for display, meaning that he kept or destroyed some sketches. In later years Hele was known to commit some of his earlier work to the bonfire rather than leave it as evidence of his working methods. Wharf at Alexandria only came into the Memorial’s collection after the death of the artist, when his niece presented over 90 works, including a sketchbook.

In April 1942 Hele was at last back in his studio at Aldinga, ready to start an ambitious series of pictures. Before his return he had submitted a list of possible subjects to paint, which included at the top of the list Troops resting after disembarkation from Greece. Treloar supported Hele’s proposed program of pictures, which was to include 12 paintings and also 12 etchings. What would eventuate was one large painting and four smaller ones and no etchings – Treloar eventually stopped pressing Hele for them. He was, however, very keen to see the progress with the large picture.

It will be interesting to see your painting of the Disembarkation of the Australians Returning from Greece. The canvas is a large one, but the subject is worthy of it, and I have no doubt that it will become a treasured possession of the War Memorial and of our nation. I shall look forward very much to seeing it.

Treloar asked Louis McCubbin, director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and a member of the Memorial board, to inspect the work and to arrange a photograph. Before Hele embarked on the large painting, he first painted a smaller work, which is also in the collection, and which allowed him to develop a composition of tightly packed human figures in various stages of collapse. The photograph which arrived at the Memorial gives an indication of the overall composition, but the figures are still merely impressions. McCubbin’s report was positive and Treloar was satisfied with the progress.

I found the large painting … to be very far advanced, and the artist assures me that it is near completion. I was greatly impressed with this work. It conveys a wonderful impression of thousands of men who have just disembarked on the quay at Alexandria; in the distance several long trains are drawn up in readiness to take them to camps and hospitals; the city of Alexandria is suggested in the distance in the top of the canvas. It is a scene of indescribable confusion – wounded men lying about on stretchers; walking wounded; others sitting about in groups with heaps of equipment strewn all over the ground. The colour scheme is restrained. The artist has succeeded in massing hundreds of figures in the picture in interesting groups without giving any feeling of obvious arrangement.

Hele in his own report to Treloar in December 1942 wrote to explain why the work was taking so long to complete: “For a picture like this you must know, one had to take a certain licence, to include all the incidental details, & I’m afraid that is where I’ve taken such a long time – in the initial composing of the picture.” The painting finally arrived, with three smaller works, in early April 1943 and Treloar made arrangements for Blamey to see it in Melbourne and for it to be included in an exhibition.

It is a powerful work in which the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and defeat is reflected in the heavy bodies of the soldiers and their fixed gazes. Their resignation is also evident as they wait to be transported to their next location. The colour palette is muted, and a haze of dust envelops the men – some barely standing, while others have already taken the opportunity to sit and smoke or sleep.

Hele has provided us some of the most powerful and emotionally charged pictures of war, which engage viewers and provide an insight into the many aspects of military life. His career as an official war artist would prove to be one of the longest as he continued his appointment in Papua, and later during the Korean War.

Lola Wilkins is the Head of Art at the Australian War Memorial.