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Maxo Vanka film to be made | American Sistine Chapel
By Nenad N. Bach and Darko ®ubrinić | Published  12/7/2020 | People , In Memoriam , Education , Culture And Arts , Religion | Unrated
My Friend Maxo Vanka, part 2


Maxo Vanka in his atelier in Zagreb.

Maxo Vanka with rev. Albert Zagar, Croatian priest in the USA


p. 167

He lived in Brussels during the six years immediately preceding the war, and for some months during the war. There he began to grow a beard and acquired the already-mentioned nickname "Inri." He became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth, formerly a Bavarian princess, who, Maxo suspected, knew whose son he was. She was extremely kind to him, sending him weekly bouquets of flowers from the royal gardens, inviting him frequently to musicales at the Court, and bestowing upon him other favors as though they were his due; while her husband, the late King Albert, was also graciously attentive to him whenever they met.

At the war's outbreak in 1914, Maxo was twenty-five, officially an Austrian, and, as such, internable in Belgium as an enemy; but with Queen Elizabeth's great influence he was made an officer in the Belgian Red Cross, in which capacity he witnessed the German conquest of Belgium.

As Queen of the Belgians, Elizabeth went into exile to England; but as an erstwhile Bavarian princess and a niece of the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria, she gave Maxo a letter addressed to the German High Command, requesting he be given every possible consideration without being subjected to humiliating examinations or questioning. The German military authorities did not know what to make of Maxo, but respected Elizabeth's wish.

Feeling a sudden need to go to his beginnings, to see Dora Yug in Pustcha Kuplenovo, Maxo wanted to return to Croatia, and was allowed to do so, in charge of a trainful of Croatian miners, whom war had caught working in Belgian mines, and who had been interned until the German occupation.

In Croatia, being of military age, he was subject to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army; but, unwilling to be a soldier because opposed to killing under any pretext, he communicated with some one in high authority in the Hapsburg Empire who knew of his secret parentage and procured for him an exemption from military service and immunity from molestation on the part of any Austro-Hungarian official.

He lived in Zagreb all through the rest of the war, devoting himself to art and the amelioration of war's horrors in Croatia. He had considerable money, which had been sent him, through devious channels, by his mother; also, he sold the estate on which his maternal grandfather had established him; and he frequently visited Dora, his "real mother," helping her financially, and generally giving full play to his inclination to favor the lowly. He spent much time living in poverty-stricken Croatian villages.

Puzzled by, and deeply unhappy, about the whole mess of things, feeling now like a Hamlet, then like a Van Gogh or a character out of Dostoievski, he studied various religions and philosophies, including those of the Orient, and upon the base of his Catholic youth he built a structure of mystical concepts in an atmosphere of speculative freedom, which (and this is also important to remember if one wishes to be able to theorize about his subsequent adventures in America) kept his psychological makeup open to anything and, I think, helped to make him unusually attractive to a vast lot of different people.

p. 168

After the war, when Croatia became a part of the new Yugoslav state, there was a great, Europe-wide currency confusion, in which Maxo lost most of his money, but he did not care greatly about that—he had enough left to build himself the little seaside villa on the island of Korchula which I have mentioned; he became professor of painting at the Academy ... and thereupon led for many years a quiet, industrious life in Zagreb, till Margaret Stetten invaded it.

In the spring, 1935, the Vankas took several weeks to drive from New York to California, stayed West most of the summer, and returned to New York early in the fall. Maxo brought back a load of paintings and sketches he had done during the trip, and he told me of encounters with people which were monotonously strange. An old man in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who probably was an unemployed immigrant steel-worker, and whom he asked to pose for him for a quick sketch as he sat in a park, burst into tears when Maxo showed him the picture, and exclaimed "Oh, you think I am good!" A middle-aged Indian in Oklahoma came up to him at a filling-station and reaching for his hand, said, "How!" and passed on. In Los Angeles, a man made him a proposition to start a new religion, "because you have the personality for a religious leader," and spoke of being willing to guarantee him a huge annual sum in profits therefrom. ...

During the rest of 1935 and through the winter months of 1936, my own work took me out of New York and I saw little of the Vankas, while the following spring they went to Yugoslavia, to attend to some of their affairs there, and they did not return till late in the autumn. I saw Maxo briefly soon after. He had just taken out his first naturalization papers, and was glad he finally was in America to stay, for in Europe a new war seemed almost a certainty. But he still felt uneasy about himself in this vast, strenuous New World. Did I really believe he would make a place for himself here as an artist? He was forty-six; happy with Margaret and Peggy, both of whom he adored, and they him; but he would hate to live off his wife for the rest of his life. Should he not open an art school? ... Hardly knowing what to advise him to do, I chided him about his masculine pride. I had overworked the past year and was tired; Stella and I were going on a trip to Guatemala, and rest.

Months later, early in 1937, when we returned, Maxo met us at the dock. He seemed dejected. He had worked hard all winter, had painted several pictures that he considered better than anything he had done in Europe, but ... there was the old "but": he was not earning anything. "Don't be silly, Maxo," I said, repeating what I had said to him many times before, "you're doing Margaret a favor by living on her money." He was seriously thinking of starting a school of painting; he had several prospective pupils.

He accompanied us from the pier to our apartment, where I found a basketful of mail that had accumulated in our absence ... and one of the first letters I opened was from a Croatian priest of whom I had not heard before—the

p. 169

Rev. Albert Zagar, pastor of the Croatian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas at Millvale, an industrial suburb of Pittsburgh. He inquired if I knew the whereabouts of Mr. Vanka, explaining that his parishioners and he were thinking of "decorating" their church with murals, and would like to know as soon as possible if Mr. Vanka painted murals and was interested, for they hoped to have the job completed by mid-June, the time of one of their celebrations.

"Maxo," I said, handing him the letter, "your future in America seems about to begin. This looks like the opportunity you've been hoping for."

Maxo hastened to Pittsburgh to see the priest and the church, returning in a few days ablaze with creative enthusiasm. Father Zagar, he bubbled, was a grand fellow, a Franciscan and, in many respects, a true follower of Saint Francis of Assisi; instinctively intelligent, simple, direct, well-intentioned, and much beloved by his people, who were exclusively Croatian immigrants and their American-born children, most of whom were for letting him do what he liked with the church. He had been twelve years in America, and parish priest of St. Nicholas for half that time. The murals were his idea, and he was giving him (Maxo) entire freedom to paint what he liked on the walls, so long as, at least, some of the pictures were to be of a religious character.


Rev. Ante ®agar in mid 1930s. Source.

Maxo told me further that, along with the parish house and the parochial school, which was in charge of nuns, the church stood atop a knoll, overlooking a vast industrial area, which included a street-car barn, an extensive railroad yard, and several factories and mills, with rows of workers' houses. It was not a very large church, nor an architectural masterpiece. "But," said Maxo, "I think I can do something with it. In fact, the walls, although mostly concave, curving in all directions, are well-nigh ideal for murals. It is a marvelous opportunity, and I would be willing to paint the whole place for nothing." But the priest—a thoughtful, generous man who momentarily had a considerable sum of money at his disposal—had insisted on giving him a substantial advance on the amount he had himself suggested in payment for the work, and to which Maxo had agreed.

While the church in Pittsburgh was being readied for him, according to the instructions he had given to a contractor, Maxo worked in New York on his sketches for the murals; then, early in April, he returned to Pittsburgh, whence I received a note from him: "I begin tomorrow. I'm not going to write to you till I finish, which must be by June tenth. I shall have to work day and night. Meantime, please don't come here, and don't let Margaret come. I hope to surprise you all with the completed work."

During the next two months nearly all the news I had of Maxo were a couple of Pittsburgh newspaper clippings describing his work-in-progress at Millvale. The photos accompanying the stories showed him doing immense and lovely figures on the church walls and ceiling.

Finally, exactly two months from the day on which he had begun, I—along with Margaret and the Stettens—received word from him: "Finished! Dedication on Sunday; please come; am eager for you to see what I have done." And

p. 170

so we all journeyed to Pittsburgh, to dismal Millvale ... and I was never more amazed by anything in my life. Here was work single-handedly and superbly accomplished in two months that would doubtless have taken most artists a year, except that very few could have achieved a corresponding artistic excellence even in that time.

Over the main altar was a five-times-life-size Madonna with the Child, both in costumes decorated with Croatian peasant designs; and beneath the Madonna, on either side of the main altar, two pictures, each with several lifesize figures: one depicting religion among Croatian peasants in the old country; the other, religion among Croatian immigrants in America. Over one of the side altars was a picture of the Crucifixion; over the other, of Mater Dolorosa. Upon the arched ceiling were the strikingly beautiful figures of John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew; and on the two straight walls beneath the choir, probably the two best pictures of the lot—one showing Croatian mothers in the old country sorrowing for their sons fallen in wars; the other, Croatian immigrant mothers in America weeping over the body of one of their sons killed in an industrial accident. Executed in indescribably vivid colors, all the murals and other elements of the interior were—with sheer artistic power and with the aid of ornamental strips of Croatian peasant designs, which occurred also in the garments of many of the figures in the pictures—closely integrated into an exquisitely blended whole, a superb composition whose quality was the sum total of all its parts which, in turn, enhanced the quality of the parts.

Had I not known when he had begun, I would have had difficulty in believing that my little friend Maxo had done all this in eight weeks, which had allowed him only four or five days to a mural; and as I remarked to him to this effect, he said that he himself could scarcely believe the calendar and his own eyes. I learned that he had not only done every bit of painting himself, but had mixed most of his paints; only Father Zagar—whom I found a remarkable, intense, marvelously genuine, spontaneous, and delightful man, a few years younger than Maxo, and also small and baldish—had helped him occasionally at night. He had used almost no models, painting nearly everything from his imagination.

To my question "How did you do it?" Maxo answered, seriously, "I don't know." Father Zagar smilingly advanced the explanation that God, the Madonna, and St. Nicholas had helped him. I noticed—as had Stella, Margaret, and the Stettens—that Maxo was terribly thin, but he insisted he was not tired. He felt better at the finish than at the start, which was evident in his work. We were informed that, except on Sundays, he had worked every day, under great creative tension, from nine in the forenoon till two or three the next morning, and had slept very little when not painting, and eaten rather less than a sparrow, but drunk much coffee.

The church was packed for the dedication ceremony, during which Father Zagar delivered an impassioned address, thanking Maxo for his an and bringing tears to most eyes. In the afternoon, there was a picnic in a near-by wood,

p. 171

attended by thousands of Croatian immigrants and their children who, on several spits, roasted scores of lambs; and people, mostly steel-workers and their wives, crowded around Maxo to take his hand, congratulate him on the completion of his work, and express their gratitude to him. Many exclaimed, "Vi ste nashe suntse, vi ste nasha zviezda! (You are our sun, you are our star!")—moving Maxo to the brink of tears and open hysteria. The praise and gratitude of these people meant more to him than the subsequent favorable articles about his murals in the magazines and newspapers.

In the ensuing weeks strangers by the dozens, by the score, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, people of no definite religion, began to come to the little, externally unattractive Croatian church in Millvale, to ask the happy, proud, bustling Father Zagar to let them see the paintings. This stream of visitors continues as I write, and the majority are deeply impressed, especially when the priest tells them that the artist had done all this in two months. But they are unaware—as I was, when I first saw the murals—of the extraordinary, really fantastic circumstances under which Maxo had worked.

From Pittsburgh, Maxo returned East in my car; we were alone and he seemed to me half hysterical most of the way, talking incessantly about what a marvelous man Father Zagar was; how he loved him; how fortunate he was to have received his first big job in America from a man like him, and been free to paint what he liked; how fine it was to have earned so large a sum of money in a couple of months; how glad he was he had come to America ... and often about nothing in particular, or at least I could not make out what he was driving at. He was repeating himself, just talking, talking, till it became a strain to be with him. At first I ascribed this to his weariness; then, somehow, it occurred to me that he simultaneously wanted desperately to tell me something and was trying just as desperately not to tell me. But I let him be, thinking if it was anything important he was sure to tell me by and by.

During the next two months I saw him once a week or so; he looked better, enjoying the publicity his murals were receiving throughout the United States and Europe. One critic had called them "the best church murals in America." But Maxo had continued a bit hysterical or uneasy ... till one day late in August he suddenly said, "I must tell you something that happened in the church while I worked there. Terribly strange. I would have told you long ago, but Father Zagar and I had promised one another we would not tell anyone for a while. We were afraid it might result in some crazy, inappropriate publicity. Now I want to know what you will think of it, and I hope you will have Zagar tell you his version of the thing. I know he is nervous about it, for a few other persons connected with the church know or suspect what happened; and, with visitors coming daily to see the pictures, it is possible the story will eventually reach the ears of some newspaper man or writer and get into print—in all likelihood, I fear, superficially, inaccurately, to the possible damage of the reputation of the murals. ...


p. 172

"Well, when I got to Millvale, on April fifth, I was obliged to wait four days before I could start work, because the scaffolding—although it already hid the entire ceiling and most of the wall space—and other preparations were not yet completed. This was all right; for I could spend the next few days procuring my paints and other supplies.

"I had a meeting with the church committee, under the chairmanship of Father Zagar, and I promised them—without knowing how I would do it—to complete the job by about June tenth, in time for their celebration in the middle of that month.

"I asked Father Zagar to request everybody around the place please to remain out of the church while I was working inside. I did not want curious people to come climbing up the scaffolding to watch and distract me, and possibly fall. I knew that if I was to complete the job in two months, I would need every minute I could get; and, therefore, I also suggested to Father Zagar that, so far as possible, he, too, stay out. I feared that, if he came in too often, I might spend too much time talking with him, for I found him from the start very charming, intelligent, and entertaining. He said, 'O.K.,' which is one of his favorite expressions; and proposed to have all the church doors locked every weekday from nine o'clock on, after the last mass—for, as you know, there are two priests in the parish—Zagar, and his assistant, the Rev. Nezich. I was given a key to a small side door, entering under the choir, which enabled me to go in and out as I pleased.


Rev. Ante Neľić in 1930s. Source.

"On April ninth the church was ready for me, and I locked myself in; and, with all my materials on the scaffold, I began the Madonna and Child, which, because of the curvature of the wall above the main altar and the size of the figures, was very difficult to do. Also, I had never done anything like it. To save time, I had decided not to draw even an outline of the figures before I started to paint, but to work directly with paint, as I would upon canvas; and as the paint I used dried very quickly, I had to work extremely fast and carefully. But I felt fine and—except for the few minutes I took out for lunch, and the few minutes for supper—I worked from nine in the forenoon till two-thirty the next morning. Or, rather, I discovered that it was two-thirty when I came into the parish house, where I had my room, for I had determined to have no watch with me on the job. My reason for this was that if I had the watch where I could look at it and see how late it was getting I might feel tired before I was really exhausted for the day, and quit earlier. Throughout the two months I never took my watch with me into the church.

"By way of further introduction to what I have to tell you, let me add that everytime I came from the church to the parish house after quitting for the night, which was always between one-thirty and three-thirty after midnight, I found Father Zagar waiting for me with a pot of coffee on the stove and cake and fruit on the table. This annoyed me, and I told him not to stay up for me; I could take my own coffee if I wanted it. But he said, 'Never mind, gospodine profesor'—he called me professor at first. He assured me that he seldom slept

p. 173

more than three or four hours, anyhow. ... So every night I had coffee and a bite, and chatted with Father Zagar for a while; then we both went upstairs and to sleep.

"At night while I worked the church was dark except for the powerful moveable lamp on the scaffold, whence a few sharp sheafs of light reached down, illumining parts of the altar or the communion table, depending on where I had the lamp. Mixing the paints, I turned the lamp down, so I could see what I was doing; and at such times most of the altar below me was doused with light—but I scarcely had time to look down.

"Now, too, before I come to the story that I want to narrate to you, I should probably help you to imagine the atmosphere of the church at night and, so far as I can tell you, how I felt working in it. The scaffolding, of course, creaked all the while, all over the church; but that did not bother me. It rained a good deal, and it was cold and damp, and on some nights I wore two shirts and two sweaters and a windbreaker; which kept me warm enough in my body, but my hands frequently were none too warm to be efficient in holding the brush.

"For an instant, now and then, it felt a bit strange to be alone in the church; but only for an instant—I had no time for feeling strange or otherwise. Outside I could hear the whir of automobile traffic on the road below-hill, and the clanging of locomotives and the clattering of trains in the railyard. Every once in a while the church—the whole hill—shook when a heavy truck passed, or when the trainmen were joining cars, making up their trains .... Occasionally, the two dogs that belonged to the parish house—a police she-dog and a nondescript hound—barked, squealed, howled violently outside .... On the second or third night, a sudden long sound came out of the organ in back of the church, which startled me; but then I thought it was due to the vibrations from the motor traffic or from the railyard. ...

"On the fourth night, as I say, while mixing paint and feeling rather cold and tired, but not exhausted, I glanced at the altar beneath me, which was rather fully illumined by my lamp's downward flood of light ... and there was a figure, a man in black, moving this way and that way in front of it, raising his arms and making gestures in the air.

"I thought, of course, that the man was Father Zagar, and, in my frenzy of work, I did not take a very good look at him. I was slightly annoyed for a moment. He had agreed to stay out like everybody else; now here he was! But then I said to myself I had no right, really, to require him to keep out. I went on mixing the paint, then began to put it quickly on the wall, and could not help wondering why he should be going through all those motions in front of the altar at this time of night, for—having no watch, remember—I judged by my weariness and by the work accomplished since nightfall that it was around midnight. Thinking about it, it occurred to me he might be a perfectionist and was practicing ritualistic gestures; and I said to myself, 'To the devil with him! I'm busy!' But then another question popped into my head, 'Why didn't he say something to me as he came in?' This seemed strange, for

p. 174

Zagar is a very talkative, almost effusive, man. After a while, however, I decided that he had kept silent in order not to disturb or distract me; and, the Madonna being one of the hardest jobs I had ever attempted to paint, I finally dismissed him from my mind. It never occurred to me that the man could be the other priest, Father Nezich, who, I knew, always went to bed early in the evening.

"That night I quit shortly after two o'clock. As I got out of the church, the dogs, which had been barking violently during the past several hours, dashed up to me, terribly excited. They rose on their hind legs and pawed me and licked my hands. But I thought nothing of this. As I entered the parish house, there was Father Zagar, as usual, full of talk and concern for my welfare. Was I cold? Would I have a brandy? He hurried into the kitchen to fetch me coffee and cake and a dish of canned peaches; whereupon we chatted, perhaps till three o'clock. But he said nothing about having been in the church. I thought this was strange, and almost asked him about it, but did not; I was tired and wanted to get to bed as soon as possible, and did not care to start any sort of long conversation, which, I feared, might be the case if he began to explain to me why he practiced those ritualistic gestures. Besides, shta me briga!-none of my business!

"The fifth night, working till past two o'clock, I saw nothing out of the ordinary; and I noticed, by comparison with the previous night, that the dogs were quiet. When I quit, again coffee, cake, fruit—talk with Father Zagar and so to bed.

"The sixth and seventh nights, the same.

"On the eighth night, skipping Sunday, which is to say on April nineteenth, I happened, about midnight, to look down from the scaffold while mixing paint, and there was the figure again, the man in black who I assumed once more—without looking carefully—was Rev. Zagar. His gestures were a bit fantastic, but I thought this was due to the fact that I saw them from above, and there were shadows; and I was annoyed again—why was he coming in like this? Was he, perhaps, a little crazy? The explanation that he might be a perfectionist practicing ritualistic gestures, which had satisfied me four nights before, now suddenly impressed me as improbable. I felt weird, cold; and, trying not to think of him, I worked furiously on the Madonna, who was practically finished. ...

"A while later I heard him walking slowly down the main aisle of the church, mumbling rhythmically. 'Well,' I thought, 'he's praying. To the devil with him!' But, vaguely vexed and feeling very unpleasant, I determined to have a talk with him tonight. I would ask him, as a sort of joke, what he thought he was doing in front of the altar so late at night? Didn't he do enough praying in the daytime? ... He paced the aisle, mumbling, for half an hour or an hour. Glancing down, I saw him momentarily as he cut the light, here and there, that poured down through the scaffolding. Then—all quiet; only the dogs were barking outside, the cars honking and, way off, a locomotive bell clanging.



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