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 »  Home  »  Croatian spirituality  »  Maxo Vanka, a famous Croatian painter
 »  Home  »  Culture And Arts  »  Maxo Vanka, a famous Croatian painter
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Maxo Vanka, a famous Croatian painter
By Prof.Dr. Darko Zubrinic | Published  06/19/2008 | Croatian spirituality , Culture And Arts , Religion | Unrated
Croatian spirituality of Vanka in the USA, part 1

Maxo Vanka in 1946

Croatian painter and muralist Maximilian (Maxo) Vanka (Zagreb 1889 - Mexico 1963) completed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, where later he became professor of painting. He also studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium.

As a young student he exhibited at an international show in the Belgian capital and in 1914 won the gold medal of King Albert at this event, for his Bistricki proštenjari (Marija Bistrica fairgoers) with beautiful Croatian folklore motives. He made a nice portrait of Croatian female composer Dora Pejacevic (1885-1923):

Dora Pejačević, portrait by Maxo Vanka, distinguished Croatian painter

Vanka exhibited throughout Europe, and obtained many honours, among them Palme Academique of the French Legion of Honor. Having moved to the USA in 1934, he became noted for his beautiful church murals, for example in St. Nicholas Croatian Church, Pennsylvania. Some american specialists consider these murals the best church frescos in the USA. He depicts not only traditional Catholic scenes and symbols, but also the lives and spirituality of the Croatian immigrant community.

Vanka founded the art department at Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in New Britain, Pennsylvania. After his tragic death (drowned in the Pacific) a bird sanctuary was established in his honor at the Washington Crossing Nature Education Center.

Details from Croatian Catholic church of St. Nicholas, Pittsburgh, USA

According to Croatian art historian Nikola Vizner, most of his works are in possession of his family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA has a formidable collection of his works; there is a large collection of his work in Modern Gallery, Zagreb, Croatia, as well as in the Memorial Museum Maximilian Vanka in the town of Korcula (on the beautiful island bearing the same name), Croatia. Here is Vanka's philosophy of painting:

I painted so that Divinity in becoming human,
would make humanity divine.

His main interests were in folklore and social motives, human destiny in general. One of his deeply moving masterpieces is Lepers, a result of his short stay in India.

Details from Croatian Catholic church of St. Nicholas, Pittshburgh, USA

From Pittsburgh History (an excerpt): In Millvale, at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, one very unusual wall mural blends religious and political themes to express a strong personal message from its artist, Maxo Vanka, a Croatian artist who fled to the U.S. in the mid-1930's. On the ceilings and walls of St. Nicholas, Vanka painted Jesus' mother weeping at the Crucifixion; a Croatian mother weeping as she raises her sons for war; an immigrant mother weeping as she raises her sons for hard labor in the manufactories; and the famous statue of Injustice wearing a gas mask. On the ceilings below the choir loft he painted images of war, mixing images of Christ with 20th Century soldiers, and at the back, a greedy capitalist sitting at a table ignoring a beggar at his feet.

The controversial commentary on social classes and injustice sparked debate at the time, and a prominent Pittsburgh family even offered one million dollars to the Diocese to whitewash what they felt was a personal attack. The offer was refused, and today the controversial images still exist along with Vanka's more pastoral images depicting rural life in a Croatian village. In those less provocative mural images, people are dressed in traditional Croatian costumes, and they dance by a sea that "flows" into the hills of Pittsburgh, surrounded by a painting of the parish priest and the immigrants who helped to build the church.

Maxo Vanka told the story of Croatia's tragic heroes through war, and immigration, and work on the walls of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. These murals are definitely not just for decoration like the murals in homes. What story do they tell? See here.

Maxo Vanka: Factories in Pittsburgh, 1935, USA

Maxo Vanka: New York in 1936

Maxo Vanka: In the cinema

Maxo Vanka: Wounded friend

The Gift of Symphaty; The art of Maxo Vanka, monograph

David Byrne (member of rock group "Talking Heads", New York):

...The church is Croatian and the murals, by Maxo Vanka, are spectacular - the Diego Rivera of Pittsburgh, I would say. The murals were done during eight weeks in 1937, and they cover the interior of the church. Of course there is the Virgin holding the child, but below her, for example, on each side of what is now the altar, are Croatian people, on the left from the Old World, and on the right from the New. A steel foundry can be seen belching smoke behind them.

But more amazing are the political murals that echo the crucifixion. Widows mourn over a soldier in a coffin containing a bleeding corpse; crosses cover the hillside behind them. Another wall depicts a corrupt justice in a gas mask holding scales on which the gold outweighs the bread. Clearly World War II had a big effect on Maxo.

The Virgin, on the verge of being bayoneted herself, separates two soldiers.

Maxo Vanka mural. Photo by David Byrne.

On another mural an oligarch done as Death reads the stock reports while being served a chicken dinner by two black servants.

One more: Jesus is stabbed, a second crucifixion.

Maxo Vanka mural. Photo by David Byrne.

These are badly in need of renovation; probably years of coal dust have darkened them. But one can hope that these amazing things will survive and be cleaned soon.

Mia Slavenska, Croatian-American ballerina, portrait by distinguished Croatian painter Maxo Vanka

Please, go to the next page below.

  • Comment #1 (Posted by Vesna Maltaric)

    Hvala na tako izvrsnim informativnim stranicama o velikom hrvatskom slikaru, da nema interneta nebih ni znala da is naseg malog naroda ima tako veliki ljudi.
    Jos jednom, velika vam HVALA!!!
    Vesna Maltaric
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Marijana)

    thank you for your message!
  • Comment #3 (Posted by Dittman)

    Enjoyed the article, but the portrait on page 4 is not a self portrait. It was done after Vanka's death by another Croatian artist.
  • Comment #4 (Posted by Car26)

    Increibles esa obra y esa vida en la que el drama estuvo siempre presente
    gracias por hacerlo conocer!
Submit Comment

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