Muralist Maxo Vanka’s drawings come to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 18, 2020) – The 25 murals Maxo Vanka painted on the walls and ceiling of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale are often called his gift to America.

Now the Croatian artist’s granddaughter, Marya Halderman, has made a gift to the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. The Bucks County woman has donated 130 drawings, including Pittsburgh scenes, that Vanka made while planning the murals he painted in 1937 and 1941.

Sylvia Rhor, an art historian who runs the University of Pittsburgh’s art gallery, will serve as curator of the collection. Ms. Rhor is an expert on murals created in America in the 1930s and ’40s, an era when the art form blossomed.

Vanka’s murals portray the Croatian immigrant experience. Women dressed in white prepare a soldier’s body for burial in “Croatian Mother Gives Her Son For War.” In another scene, women dressed in black mourn the death of a man in a mining accident.

The works on paper, Ms. Rhor, said, are beautifully preserved and include Vanka’s sketchbooks. The drawings provide “an amazing insight into his working process” and “gave me a new understanding of his skill as a social observer and a draftsperson,” she said.

Some sketches show “his careful articulation of hands for many of the figures in the mural,” Ms. Rhor said. “People don’t realize how many versions lead up to a final work of art.”

Vanka used pencil, charcoal, chalk and crayon in his drawings. Though well-known in Croatia, “he is not known in the mural histories of America. Yet, he was painting at a time when there was a mural explosion with federal patronage of the arts,” Ms. Rhor said.

Vanka, who spent many hours painting in the church, was aware of other muralists working in Pittsburgh, including John White Alexander, whose artwork is at Carnegie Museum of Art, and Boardman Robinson, whose murals for Kaufmann’s department store portrayed the history of commerce. Inside Downtown’s U.S. District Courthouse, Howard Cook and Stuyvesant Van Veen painted murals that still hang in courtrooms.

“His work is very much in dialogue with some of the murals in Pittsburgh at that time. He is picking up on some motifs from local murals. He was part of this vibrant mural culture in Pittsburgh, which was part of a national trend,” Ms. Rhor said.

Murals created in Pittsburgh “stood apart from the rest of the United States at that time, too.”

Many murals made for public buildings, including post offices, show scenes of historic progress. Pittsburgh mural painters often took a political tack that was “more aligned with worker culture,” Ms. Rhor said.

Histories of mural painting “talk about Pittsburgh being the hotbed of proletariat mural-making in the 1930s,” she said.

The idea of Vanka as artistic genius holed up in a church working nonstop with only a ghost as company is a romantic notion.

“We want that myth because [the murals] are so astounding. He was part of a larger context and they are still unique,” the art historian said.

The drawings will allow Ms. Rhor and other scholars to contextualize Vanka’s work and use the research to create lesson plans for classrooms. “The Gift of Sympathy” was a 2001 exhibition of Vanka’s paintings at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts exhibited Vanka’s work and and the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka launched a fundraising campaign to conserve and light the murals.

Anna Doering, managing director of the society, said new lighting was unveiled in 2016 that illuminates the 12 murals that have been conserved. Thirteen more must be conserved.

“We’re planning for the next phase of conservation,” Ms. Doering said.

Credit for securing the Vanka family’s donation of the 130 drawings goes to Diane Novosel, who co-founded the society, and Bill Lafe, one of its early leaders. Ms. Novosel is a docent who leads tours of the church.

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