James A. Michener Art Museum

Doylestown, PA



photo by Jeff Hurwitz


The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka


"If there was something to see and experience, Maxo Vanka, if anyone, would see and experience it." Louis Adamic, 1938


Nearly four decades have passes since Maxo Vanka (1889-1963) 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 painting 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 and run through July 1, 2001. (left: cover of exhibition catalogue with detail from Self Portrait, 1915, oil on canvas, 34 x 28 inches, Private collection)

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 20th 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."

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. (left: Lady in Blue, n.d., oil on canvas, Private collection)

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 20th 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 -- 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. (left: Four Men Drinking, c. 1934-41, watercolor on paper, 20.5 x 16 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Vanka Brasko)

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 11 murals that encompassed religion, 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. "If he had done nothing else, the Millvale Murals would be reason enough to revisit Vanka," Mr. Leopold remarked, "that he produced such a rich, varied body of work demands it."

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 -- The second set of Millvale Murals is a coda to Maxo 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.

Maxo 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. He expressed throughout his life and work "The Gift of Sympathy."

The Gift of Sympathy will travel to Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 29, 2001 and remain there on view until January 20, 2002.


Preface to Exhibition Catalogue

by David Leopold, Curator


"In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honorable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief."

Rebecca West wrote these lines in her book Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, a classic examination of what was then called Yugoslavia, its people, its history, and its politics. Written in 1937, her observations of the people and the land seem as accurate today as they did nearly six decades ago. Born seven years before Maxo Vanka, West first visited Croatia, Vanka's homeland, soon after he left. Nevertheless, she saw the world Vanka had inhabited, and was exposed to the ancient culture of the area that meant so much to the artist. She marveled at the Byzantine frescoes in churches, the contemporary painting, the performing arts, and the centuries-old textile designs she found in the Croatians' daily life. She recognized that it was passion that made the culture of Croatia so beautiful.

West also wrote, "There is no end to political disputation in Croatia. None." "Political disputation," to use a mild euphemism for war, is perhaps the reason many today know of Croatia. Its fight for independence in the 1990s provided a steady stream of indelible images of war. Croatia, and the states that make up the Balkans, have such a long history of conflict, that to "Balkanize" means to break up into small hostile units. The passions run deep and the memories run long. Despite the mystery of his parentage, Vanka clearly identified himself as a Croatian, and was steeped in the history, mythology, and customs of his homeland, yet this exhibition -- and his work -- is not about politics. Vanka did not shy away from political battles, but he used specific incidents to touch on universal themes. For example, Would War I, which he saw firsthand in the Red Cross, came to represent all wars in his work. Images from that conflict became a visual shorthand for the atrocities of war, no matter when it was fought or who was fighting, just as Vanka also frequently employed the images of Christianity, not as a badge of his faith, but as symbols of human suffering and human goodness. Vanka was not a religious man, but he was spiritual. Nature was his church, with the flora and fauna his sanctuary and fellow congregants. It was his empathy for his fellowman, the "gift of sympathy" that manifested itself early in his life, that was the impetus for his greatest works.

His vibrant pictorial sense, drawn from a combination of the Old Masters and the early Moderns, flowered in numerous paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Thousands have seen Vanka's unforgettable Millvale Murals in Pittsburgh, and many more were touched through his teaching and painting in Bucks County. Yet since his death in 1963, only a fraction of his work has been exhibited in America.

The goal of The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka is to examine, for the first time in this country, Vanka's full body of work. It is the intent of the exhibition and this catalogue to show the evolution of this unique artist's work, while at the same time to illuminate the artist-emigré's experience in America in the first half of the twentieth century. In the following five essays, each devoted to a period of his career or to a particular work, we investigate Vanka's themes and techniques, and uncover Vanka's art, which until now has been obscured by both legend and neglect.


Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Michener Art Museum

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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