Sunday, December 04, 2005


The best war illustrator you've never heard of is Ivor Hele (1912-1993) who depicted searing images of combat and military life in World War II and the Korean War.

As an official war artist for the Australian government, Hele spent a year at the frontlines in the North African campaign from 1941-42.

Hele then traveled to the South Pacific island of New Guinea where he drew and painted the fierce combat between the Australians and the Japanese in dark and difficult jungle terrain.

He returned to Australia physically and emotionally exhausted and began a prolific period in his career. After a year, he returned to New Guineau where he worked in the trenches with the troops until he was injured. Hele lay unconscious for two days. He was transported to a hospital in Australia where, after a long convalesence, he resumed working. At the height of the Korean War, Hele spent five months in the mud and the cold of Korea, brilliantly recording the struggles of the Australian soldiers in their trenches.

After the war, Hele illustrated a few books, magazines and calendars, but he was mostly kept busy with commissions to illustrate great battles of the second world war. Almost 500 of his paintings and drawings are housed at the Australian War Memorial.

The most striking thing about Ivor Hele was that, after traveling the globe and devoting his life to recording every form of savagery that humans can wreak upon each other, he finally reached his saturation level of death and despair and retreated to an isolated cottage on a remote Australian beach. There he lived the life of a hermit, drawing and painting intimate pictures of his wife.

Other artists have found their muse in a particular woman and shut themselves off from the rest of the world--Gaston Lachaise and Bonnard to name just two. But in my view, Hele was far more poetic and tragic. A scorched human being, he stumbled out of the embrace of thanatos (death) and sought refuge in the arms of eros. His private drawings of his wife from this period are both graphic and lovely. One imagines that these sensitive studies of the human form were the best possible therapy for regaining his humanity.


Blogger =shane white= said...

WOW this stuff is amazing. Some of the portraits feel like Nicholai Fechin's work too. I hope you can get some the links to work though. :) Thanks for the history lesson.

12/05/2005 4:26 PM  
Blogger Cedric said...

Wow, terrific work! Thanks for posting.

12/06/2005 3:29 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, skinshark. I'm working on those links! If you like Nicholai Fechin, have you looked at the work of Ilya Repin? It's sometimes hard to get good reproductions of his work, but he is another extraordinary Russian painter / illustrator in the same vein. If you ever make it to St. Petersburg, they have an extraordinary collection of his work in the state museum there.

12/06/2005 7:32 AM  
Blogger leif said...

Stunning work - a great post, David... and whatta ya know, once again I've learned something! Many thanks.

12/06/2005 12:02 PM  
Blogger =shane white= said...

Yeah I'm familiar with Ilya Repin. I've studied painting in the Russian Impressionistic style of that lineage. Sergei Bongart is another more contemporary artist whose color is bombastic to say the least. I don't know if I'll make it to St. Petersburg any time soon, but there is a Museum of Russian art in Minnieapolis of all things. Again, thanks for posting.

12/06/2005 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Mark Harris said...

Those drawings are nothing short of god-like.
Beautiful stuff David.

12/07/2005 11:09 AM  
Blogger Dik Pose said...

Incredible images and story...Thanks for posting this, I will definitely look more into this artist...

12/08/2005 8:07 PM  
Blogger Drazen said...

Beautiful Work!
great post
another russian painter I like is Valentin Serov

12/13/2005 8:52 PM  
Blogger art tart said...

Imagine drawing amongst all of that and i wonder at how far back the notion of 'war artist' goes? Another interesting aussie war artist is GEORGE GITTOES (hope thats the right spelling!!) who constantly travels documenting horror.. and war and campaigning for social justice issues ..thanks

4/20/2006 6:28 AM  
Blogger John Thompson said...

David, I stumbled on your blog today while googling Leslie Ragan. You write thoughtful posts on a subject I love. Thanks for that.

In this post you touch on a topic that interests me--the rare artist who marries his muse, and stays married to her, and remains inspired by her over a long period of time. I was aware that Gaston Lachaise belonged to that club (he's a favorite artist of mine, so I know a bit about his life), but not so Bonnard (an artist I know little about).

I can add only the photographer Harry Callahan to the list. Can you name others?

And on the topic of Australian war artists: George Lambert, who was an artist during WWI, is worth knowing about.

10/19/2006 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ivor..Is my Great Uncle. He is my Grandpa's cousin. He has the first ever picture that Ivor has drawn. It was from when he was young and it is a black and white picture of a cowboy on a horse. My mothers last name was Hele before she married my father. If any of you would like to talk more.. My email adress is :) thanks

1/07/2007 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ivor..Is my Great Uncle. He is my Grandpa's cousin. He has the first ever picture that Ivor has drawn. It was from when he was young and it is a black and white picture of a cowboy on a horse. My mothers last name was Hele before she married my father. If any of you would like to talk more.. My email adress is :) thanks

1/07/2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger bajel said...

wow, so amazing. thanks

3/14/2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger jonesy said...

i loved his work so much so i had one picture tattooed on my whole back

11/07/2007 9:37 PM  
Anonymous stephen heigh said...

The drawings presented are very fine and inspiring. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.
I'm enjoying your wonderful blog and the comments by others with such passion for great art.

6/09/2008 10:51 PM  
Anonymous A. Hele said...

Im a Hele.
Ivor is my pops uncle.
Ive just been looking at the
history of my family.
Gained heaps from this article.
thanks :)

4/14/2009 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an additional information about this Australian legend..He won the coveted Archibald prize (portrait) 5 times (1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957). His last win was with a stunning self portrait..


9/18/2010 10:56 PM  
Blogger artyjules said...

What a great site and a wonderful tribute to this late Australian war artist who contributed so much to recording the war.
My late father Geoffrey Mainwaring studied with Ivor back in Adelaide, he also was a SA war artist....if you want any details you will find a heap of his work on AWM site...he and Ivor had very similar styles...nice work, thanks for posting this
Julia Mainwaring :-)

5/15/2011 6:14 AM  
Anonymous Dan Burke said...

If drawing is your thing the work of Ivor Hele is right up there with the best. A more recent publication is Ivor Hele: The heroic Figure 2007. This may be a National Gallery of Australia publication, possibly an exhibition catalogue.

Also lookup
Ivor Hele, The Productive Artist - by Jane Hylton

There are also two other publications out there somewhere. For those interested in wartime (WWII) painting and drawing the Australian Armed Forces (Army, Navy and Airforce) published a series of books for each of the services during and immediately after the war featuring a great many magnificent examples of wartime art including the work of Ivor Hele of course.

Keep the blog rolling David

11/23/2013 7:09 AM  
Blogger Kaitlyn hele said...

I'm a Hele too he is my great uncle

1/21/2014 11:58 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn hele said...

I'm a Hele too!!

1/21/2014 11:59 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn hele said...

I'm a Hele! He is my great uncle

1/22/2014 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Sandra McMahon said...

I am looking for a painting Ivor Hele painted of my mother. I have a news paper article which says - Informal snap of two sisters Jean and Myrtle Miller, of hectorville, both serving with W.A.A.A.F. Myrtle (right) has been painted by official war artist Ivor Hele as an "Ideal W.A.A.A.F." The Australian war museum has no record of it so I am thinking it must be in someone's private collection. Sadly my mother passed away in 2012 not knowing of it's where abouts but I would still dearly love to know where it is and hopefully get to see it.

2/16/2014 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother and father knew Ivor very well and commissioned two works by him - one is the only life sized double portrait he ever did. The other called "the Simpson's' is of two horses 3 young men and a small girl (representative of myself, my two brothers and our late sister Torie in a seascape (I imagine close to where Ivor retired). We have many letters between my late father Col. Simpson and my mum (still alive at 90) - a fascinating man who was arguably one of the best artists of the 20th Century - certainly Australia's most celebrated Portrait Painter. He could have gone on entering the Archibold Prize but in true Ivor form he was gracious enough to leave it at 5 wins from as I understand 5 entries.

3/20/2014 10:43 PM  

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