A war of rain and blood' - Ivor Hele's New Guinea art
When Australian war artist Ivor Hele's latest exhibition of drawings and paintings of New Guinea was displayed in Melbourne in March 1945, Clive Turnbull in his review of the exhibition in Melbourne's Herald, called it 'a war of rain and blood - a triumph of the human spirit over appalling conditions.' Another reviewer in Adelaide reported Hele's work as 'truly presenting his fellow-man under conditions of almost intolerable suffering'. They were conditions that Hele shared with the men as he accompanied them into dangerous territories, sometimes only metres from the enemy.
But despite the appalling conditions that he endured, Hele has left us an extraordinary legacy of artworks commemorating the experiences of Australian servicemen at war. Hele's earlier art studies in Paris and Munich, and his academic training in life drawing, portraiture and figure studies, could hardly have prepared him for the rigours of life on the front line during World War II.
Keen to work as a war artist, Ivor Hele first enlisted in the AIF as a private and trained as an infantryman. He travelled to the Middle East with the 2/48th battalion. His artistic ambitions were realised early in 1941 when he was appointed an official war artist and promoted to the rank of lieutenant after a meeting with Major General Thomas Blamey. He spent the next year with troops from the 6th Australian Division AIF in North Africa and returned to his studio in South Australia in 1942 to complete a series of paintings of their actions.
In June 1943, Hele was posted as a war artist to New Guinea where the Australians were starting to take the offensive against the Japanese.
Hele experienced a very different war from that in North Africa as he accompanied the 2/3rd Independent Company and the 58/59th Battalion through the jungle and mountainous terrain of east New Guinea. He contracted a leg ulcer in New Guinea and so two months later he returned to his studio at Aldinga south of Adelaide to recuperate. While he was recuperating Hele started painting his New Guinea series, many of which were in his 1945 exhibition.
In October 1944, he returned to New Guinea and spent three months with the 2/10th and 2/6th Independent Companies but was involved in a serious vehicle accident in Lae which forced him back to Australia. After his convalescence at Heidelberg Hospital in Melbourne he returned to Adelaide where, slowed down by ill health, he found it hard work to complete the series of 12 paintings he had begun and he decided to leave the Army. However, up until the 1960s Hele continued to receive commissions to paint large canvases of World War II events.
During the Korean War Hele received another commission - this time as a Major, the highest rank ever held by an Australian war artist - and he spent five months there with both the Army and the Royal Australian Air Force. He was the Australian War Memorial's longest serving artist and the Memorial houses almost 500 of his paintings and drawings.
In 1945, at the opening of Hele's exhibition of New Guinea artworks, the following comments, in response to some criticism that had been levelled at his work and that of fellow war artists, were made during the introduction:
The war artist has had to contend not only with enemy action but also with adverse natural conditions. In the Middle East he had to endure extremes of heat and cold, and sandstorms which had to be experienced to be believed. In New Guinea he has encountered completely different conditions - tropical storms, mud and swamps and rain forests. The vast open spaces of the North African desert have been replaced by tracks through dense jungle and kunai grass. In the Middle East the artist did at least enjoy the advantage of transport. In New Guinea he has been forced to accompany the troops usually on foot, carrying not only the same equipment, clothing, arms and operational rations as the fighting troops but also his sketching outfit in addition. Like the fighting troops he has to ward off malaria, scrub-typhus, tinea, tropical sores, and dermatitis; to sleep out not for one night but for many in rain and mud and to live for days at a time in wet clothes. Fresh food is often scarce. These conditions, I suggest, must be allowed for when the work of the artists is judged. The Army, which knows the conditions with which they have to contend, has a profound admiration for what they had done and are doing.
[From 'Exhibition of New Guinea Pictures by Ivor Hele' AWM 93 50/8/15]