Wartime Observations Continues
WWII Drawings by Henry F. Hellert
The July reception for the Henry Hellert exhibition at the Art Space Vincennes gallery at 521 Main Street drew more interest than we anticipated. Those attending the J. Patrick Redmond book signing the following weekend also found the work on the walls compelling. People appreciated the written information along with the works themselves, some of which were created on the spot as Hellert moved with his 83rd Infantry Division from training at Camp Atterbury to Wales, Normandy, Britanny, Luxembourg, Bavaria, Belgium, Holland and across Northern Germany, stopping short of Berlin. Participating as a scout in battle after battle with his especially aggressive division, Hellert sought information about enemy troops before an attack, often drawing pictures of enemy encampments for his commanders. He continued to draw pictures of his day-to-day experiences as a soldier as well. He apparently sent these to his mother, who kept them for his later use in creating in the late 50’s and 60’s, through revising and remembering, fuller pictures of the war done in a comic book or graphic novel style.
Many were surprised to see the amount of work by Hellert, who died in 2008. Some shared stories about their fathers’ or grandfathers’ experience in the war. One man walked through the gallery with tearful eyes, (see more here) explaining that his father was a prisoner of war in a German camp for a couple years before Americans found him. He was hospitalized for a year due to complications from starvation.
The Indiana Military Museum, owned by Judge Jim Osborne, loaned the work to Art Space Vincennes after the gallery owners expressed interest in showing artwork that the museum might have that was created by soldiers on active duty. Hellert, a Vincennes native, dominated the collection and his was the only work created in the field during the war.
One can trace the development of Hellert’s art over the course of his tour of combat duty. When he arrived in Wales, his work began to become more sophisticated, leading one to surmise that he was exposed to art that he saw there and tried to emulate. He began using pen and ink, whereas in training he only used pencil. From then on he carried watercolors, ink, a brush and pen, crayons and paper. On the ship crossing the English Channel he used watercolor and ink to document the destruction of ships waiting for landing. His work progressed in France, when he copied the style of French artists there. This continued through Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium where his unit stopped for reorganization and the replacing of lost men and machinery. While his division developed a strategy to cross Germany toward Berlin he received a pass to visit Paris. He drew on the backs of maps and posters, as well as using sketchbooks and wrapping paper. As he entered Germany materials were more difficult to find and awkward to use. After experiencing terrible battles and destruction and witnessing the concentration camps in Germany his drawing regressed. The compositions became less organized and his observation hazier for lack of time, focus and energy.
Many drawings show the life of the soldier at a camp or base during training, and on bivouac in the field or on a march. He also illustrated scenes of equipment in the field and officers gathering to draw up plans for the following day. He portrayed what he saw of destruction and death; however he avoided gratuitous violence or lack of respect for the dead, so common in our cinematic and video game representations of today. Even with his comic book style, Americans and Germans were all shown as people with their humanity. He did not reduce them to abstract nonentities or inhuman monsters as our enemies are now depicted. We are reminded by this that there is a difference when we consider our enemies human rather than inhuman. The restraint used by American troops in their efforts to recognize the difference between Nazis and German citizens who had not embraced Nazi ideology helped us to build a nation friendly to the United States long after the war ended.
We can learn several things from this exhibition. There is a difference between an observation at the scene of a war, and the memory of that war later. This is clear when we compare Hellert’s images drawn on location and those drawn years afterward. We see the effects of war through one man’s drawings and his persistent compulsion to try to communicate its horror as defined by his revising memories informed later by the media interpretations that evolved in the decades after the war.