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Art Preview: Croatian artist left his adopted homeland a compassionate legacy

Saturday, July 28, 2001

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

The enthralling murals that cover the interior of the small St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale have long been recognized as local treasures, but their creator, artist Maxo Vanka, has been somewhat a mystery to contemporary visitors.

"Children's Garden," which was painted about 1959, features a miniature Croatian church that artist Maxo Vanka made for his grandchildren, and a palette that seems inspired by his frequent visits to Mexico. (Images from the exhibition catalog: "The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka.")

"The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka," which opens today at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, corrects that by telling Vanka's adventurous story and displaying more than 50 works by the sensitive, talented and passionate artist.

Born in 1889 in Zagreb, Croatia, Vanka never knew his parents, and accounts suggest that he may have been an illegitimate child of nobility. He was reared by a peasant family until he was 8, and then was moved to an aristocratic estate and was given an elite education.

His rural childhood and experience with the Belgian Red Cross in World War I were lifelong influences, as was an ethnographic expedition near Zagreb that he participated in.

Vanka was a professional success -- teaching at the Zagreb Academy of Beaux Arts and exhibiting throughout Europe -- when he was pursued by, and married, Margaret Stetten, the daughter of a prominent New York surgeon. They lived in Zagreb -- where their only child, Margaret, was born in 1932 -- and summered at Vanka's home on the island of Korcula, Croatia.

In 1934, as war threatened, Vanka resigned from the Academy and, with the help of Croatian writer Louis Adamic whom he'd befriended earlier, moved with his Jewish wife and daughter to New York.

While he exhibited in New York, he didn't achieve the same recognition in America that he'd enjoyed in Croatia. All of that changed, however, when he painted the St. Nicholas murals, which garnered national attention and praise.

"The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka"

Where: Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

When: At 3:30 p.m. today, exhibition curator David Leopold will give a gallery talk, followed by a reception. The exhibition runs through Jan. 20.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

Admission: $6, $4.50 seniors (62+) and students with ID, $3 ages 6-18, children 5 and under and members free.

Exhibition/Mural Tours: Bus leaves from History Center to St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, Millvale. Sept. 29, Oct. 20, Nov. 17 and Dec. 8. Pre-registration required; $24, $15 members.

Slavic Holiday Festival: Dec. 28.

Catalog: Well-illustrated with extensive curatorial essay, $12.95.

Information: 412-454-6000.



When David Leopold was invited by the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., to curate the exhibition, he says he was at first only mildly interested. But meeting Vanka's daughter, Peggy Vanka Brasko (who died last year and to whom the exhibition is dedicated), and having the opportunity to talk with other family members who live in eastern Pennsylvania convinced him to commit. He also traveled to Croatia, where the show will go after Pittsburgh.

While there are still some components missing from Vanka's story, Leopold has compiled a fascinating account of a man whose curiosity was surpassed only by his compassion.

By manner and physical appearance, Vanka was compared by friends to Christ, and the self-portrait of 1915, which was painted as a "final exam" for the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts in Brussels, is of a bearded, lean, nude figure with a hand to his chest, which is pierced and bleeding.

This painting is among several in the first section of the show that establish Vanka's mastery, whether in conte crayon drawings that recall Michelangelo's studies or a portrait of a "Mayor's Wife" completed in Renaissance style.

An arresting, double-sided canvas, introduces the visitor to the intensity that Vanka would bring to the St. Nicholas murals. A poignant scene of village women mourning a son killed in battle, painted around 1918, is backed by a stomach-wrenching 1950s depiction of a leper colony that was inspired by global travels.

His social consciousness was heightened in New York as he observed the contrast between the technological achievements of America and the Depression-era suffering of its citizens. Alongside sketches of Manhattan's architectural grandeur are drawings of the residents of the Bowery and Harlem, which he frequented. Notable is the beautifully rendered, handsome and dignified portrait, "Head of a Young Black Man," of 1935. Another ambling figure, in hat and full coat, recalls a character of playwright August Wilson.

Glimpses into the creation of the St. Nicholas murals are given by preparatory sketches and paintings. But even more delightful are the insights to Vanka revealed through period photographs in the church, richly humorous illustrated letters sent to family and a sketch of the legendary "ghost" Vanka saw while painting in the dark hours of the night, perhaps a projection of the somber spirit that resided within him.

Other sections of the exhibition include paintings made after he and his family moved to bucolic Bucks County in 1941 and drawings of 1930s Pittsburgh, where he found another underclass subject in the coal miners, many of Croatian ancestry, who were being exploited by American industry. The former works -- some derivative as with a painting of "Sunflowers" that places Van Gogh's subject, color and brushstroke against a Jackson Pollock drip painting background -- show his interest in contemporary art trends and the exploration that he continued through his life.

Vanka, who drowned while swimming off the Mexican coast in 1963, said that he painted the St. Nicholas murals to give thanks to his adopted country. "Every man who comes to America from the European cemetery should show his gratification to his adopted land by making a contribution to its culture. This church will be mine."

We in Southwestern Pennsylvania are the most immediate beneficiaries.

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