Published: March 20, 2001
DOYLESTOWN, PENN. – Nearly four decades have passed since Maxo Vanka drowned while swimming off the coast of Mexico, a sudden close to a life of passion, paradox and prodigious accomplishment. His vibrant pictorial sense, drawn from a combination of the Old Masters and the early Moderns, flowered in numerous paintings and drawings. On March 31, “The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka,” the first retrospective of the artist in this country, will premiere at the James A. Michener Art Museum through July 1, 2001.
In “The Gift of Sympathy,” guest curator David Leopold traces a lifetime of Vanka’s work through a representative selection of paintings and drawings. Assembled in the exhibition are works from every part of his career, divided into four sections that show how his style evolved, while also illuminating the artist-émigré experience in America in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
“This is a re-discovery of a great artist,” Mr Leopold said, “In this exhibition we provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a selection of the best Vanka works in America.”
The first section is “Homeland: Croatia, 1916-1934.” Born in Croatia in 1889, perhaps the illegitimate son of Austro-Hungarian nobility, Maxo Vanka was raised by peasants until the age of eight. Despite the mystery of his parentage, he clearly identified himself as a Croatian, and was steeped in the history, mythology and customs of his homeland: The Byzantine frescoes in churches, the contemporary painting, the performing arts, and the centuries-old textile designs that were part of everyday life.
He studied at the Zagreb Academy of Art, and the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts in Brussels. He soon became one of the country’s best portrait artists and leading painters, as well as a highly respected teacher at the Academy of Beaux Arts in Zagreb.
In Croatia, Vanka was torn between an admiration for the classical art and the lure of the modern. His portraits draw upon a Renaissance-flavored style that turns his subjects into monuments, but are composed in the looser, spontaneous style associated with early Twentieth Century Modernism. Socially conscious paintings reflect his experiences as an officer in the Belgian Red Cross during World War I, and directly confront the atrocities of war; while images of Christianity occur as symbols of human suffering and human goodness.
“It’s rare to find an artist whose work shares so much with both classical and contemporary art,” Mr Leopold observed. “Maxo Vanka was a man of his time, whose work has a timeless quality.”
“A New Beginning: New York and Travels in America, 1934-1941” is the second section of the exhibition. Vanka arrived in New York during the Depression, and was awed by America’s sheer technological progress. In a series of drawings from New York and his cross-country travels, he concentrated on the architectural marvels of this New World. Though he lived in a penthouse on Riverside Drive, he kept a studio in the Bowery, donning old clothes and exploring the underbelly of the city for a series of paintings and drawings. His subjects – homeless people, African-American laborers, and prostitutes – were transformed from outcasts to icons.
Next the show moves to “Pictures of Modern Social Significance: The Millvale Murals.” A commission in 1937 by Father Albert Zagar to paint murals in the Croatian Catholic Church of St Nicholas in Millvale, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, brought international fame to Vanka. In an intense eight-week stint, he single-handedly created a set of eleven murals that encompassed, Croatian life (both of the Old and New Worlds), the labor movement and war. These monumental works have been compared to those of Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton, and described as more daring.
In 1941, Father Zagar asked him to return to create another series of murals. With Europe engulfed in war, Vanka’s second cycle is primarily didactic in expressing his long-held revulsion to war. For Vanka, the message in these murals was simple, “Everywhere they tell men that they must kill. Men must revolt against ‘must killing’.” He described the murals in their entirety: “Divinity became human so that humanity might become divine.”
“At Peace: Bucks County and International Travels 1941-1963,” is the final portion of the show. The second set of Millvale Murals is a coda to Vanka’s immigrant experience in America. In December 1940, he became a naturalized citizen and six months later, he made White Bridge Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, his home. Perhaps it was his understanding of the fragility of life in the atomic age that led him to turn his attention from the world’s problems to the simple beauty outside his window. It seems that after the war, Vanka found a relative tranquility in his Bucks County surroundings, where he sublimated his concern for the world’s problems into the emotionally charged palette and brush style in his later works.
Vanka re-imagined the Bucks County landscape as one filled with emotion. His art was an expression of his philosophy. He viewed the woods, and their flora and fauna, with constant wonder and reverence. A deeply spiritual man, whose sanctuary was in nature among the trees, birds, and plants, Vanka empathized with his fellow man as well as animals which were mysteriously attracted to him.
The James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 4:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm; and Wednesday evenings until 9 pm. For information, 215-340-9800.
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