Menu Contact/Location

Vanka’s Art Garnering More Attention

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Maxo Vanka "The Battlefield" is a oil on canvas painting.

Residents often know of special places in their towns that don’t make it into tour books, from the eye-popping taxidermy in the back of Joe’s Bar in Ligonier to the best crab shack between D.C. and Baltimore.

A Pittsburgh secret that’s beginning to gain a wider reputation is St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. The nondescript little church is perched on a hillside in full view of thousands of Route 28 commuters, but few of them have seen the treasure inside.

That’s changing as more people learn about it through public programs such as the current exhibition, “Paintings and Works on Paper by Maxo Vanka,” at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Maximilian “Maxo” Vanka (born 1889, Zagreb, Austria-Hungary; died 1963, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico) painted the murals that cover the interior of St. Nicholas in 1937 and 1941 as his way of expressing gratitude to his “adopted land.” What elevates them above traditional church murals is his incorporation of nationalistic and political subject matter.

Maxo Vanka sketch study for the mural "The Battlefield."

Maxo Vanka mural "The Battlefield." The mural is at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.

The center exhibition comprises 47 works by Mr. Vanka on loan from his descendants, the Brasko family in eastern Pennsylvania, including most significantly some of the drawings and paintings that were preparatory for the Millvale murals. These illustrate the compositional permutations Mr. Vanka tried out as he developed ideas and configured them for available spaces.

The works also show that he was an excellent draftsman, as in a beautifully realized sketch of a torso, or pencil drawings of scenes in New York’s Depression-era Bowery. Paintings range from a tender large family portrait of his wife and young daughter (he’s present as a reflection in a carefully placed mirror) to a gruesome anti-war protest parade.

While some of his themes, such as labor and family, were present in Works Progress Administration murals, Mr. Vanka’s Millvale works “contain a moral intensity and socially critical perspective not generally found in the idealized image of America that emerged within much of WPA art,” Barbara McCloskey, associate professor of art history, University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an essay for the nonprofit Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Dr. McCloskey also recommended Heidi Cook, a graduate student in Pitt’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture, to the society when it was looking for someone to catalog Mr. Vanka’s artworks and archives stored at the family home. Ms. Cook spent two weeks this summer in residence there, making notes about each work she uncovered, including size, inscription and label information when present, and condition, and photographing it. She then spent several more weeks in Pittsburgh to enter that information into a digital database.

She estimates there are approximately 1,000 artworks, including paintings, works on paper and sketches in storage, and that she was able to catalog about 20 percent during her stay. Ms. Cook observed that Mr. Vanka was “really prolific” and that he continued to paint throughout his life. She noted many smaller works, including still lifes and landscapes, possibly made to keep in practice, and large-scale paintings inspired by world travels with his wife, including of festivals in Japan and Bali. A powerful and disturbing painting inspired by an Indian leper colony is in the center’s show.

“What’s wonderful about the house,” Ms. Cook said, “is that there are photographs of when Vanka and his wife lived there, and it looks the same. The art is hung in the same places. The furniture is what he brought from Croatia. There are books that he used during his education.”

Ms. Cook initially intended to study modern German art, but her experience with Mr. Vanka has her considering the broader topic of Central and Eastern European art. She’s researching traditional folk costume — something Mr. Vanka incorporated to make political commentary — for her master’s thesis.

There is intent to catalog the remaining works, but that is dependent upon the society finding funding to do so. I hope that happens because such projects bolster knowledge about the artist and are essential steps to ensuring the art’s survival. Word-of-mouth equity can go only so far.

Three paintings by Mr. Vanka’s great-granddaughter, Marissa Halderman, that are responses to particular works of his, are also exhibited.

Vanka-inspired programs will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the center, and at 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at St. Nicholas Church. They’re organized by HI-REZ, a local independent artist-driven initiative that facilitates nontraditional interactions between Pittsburgh artists and venues. Justin Hopper, (Multimedia project recounts chaotic days of Pittsburgh’s ordinary citizens in late 19th century) writer and artist, will read poetry, and the band Action Camp will perform compositions that each wrote in response to the murals. (Free and public.)

The exhibition continues through Nov. 7 at 6300 Fifth Ave. at Shady Avenue, Shadyside. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The center has produced a full-color catalog ($12) and poster ($18) for the exhibition. 412-361-0873 or

Artwork alert

An exceptional work of art, “Structure of Shadow” by Philadelphia-based artist Bohyn Yoon, is at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts through Nov. 7.

Photography at Frick

“Silver Worlds: Photography’s Wet Plate Era” is the subject of a talk beginning at 7 tonight by Linda Benedict-Jones for Conversations & Cocktails at The Frick Art Museum, Point Breeze. It’s held in conjunction with the exhibition “For my best beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.” Ms. Benedict-Jones is curatorial chair, exhibitions and curator of photography, Carnegie Museum of Art. Completing the evening will be hors d’oeuvres, a gallery discussion and the featured cocktail, the Royal Silver, which honors the silver halide coating critical in the production of photographs produced using the wet plate or collodion process (4 ounces champagne, 1/2 ounce Cointreau, 1/2 ounce Poire Williams liqueur, 11/2 ounces grapefruit juice). Advance registration with payment required at 412-371-0600; $25, members $20.

Carnegie Part II

The second in Carnegie Museum of Art’s “What Are Museums For?” series, “Exhibitionists Unite: How Art Exhibitions Are Born,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Staff members will give an inside look at what goes into bringing a show to you, using the current exhibition “Ordinary Madness” and upcoming “Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective” as examples. Learn about the issues museum professionals resolve as they serve the public, and follow up with your own questions. Free; reception and cash bar follow. 412-622-3131 or

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633