Maxo Vanka's Millvale murals cry out for preservation

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Henri Matisse's legacy is his Rosary Chapel in Vence, France. Mark Rothko's is the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. And Maxo Vanka has the Millvale murals that transformed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.

Each is an encompassing masterwork created by an internationally respected artist in a manner reflective of its site and time. Each is an intimate experience of the individual artist's vision and also a setting for contemplation of essential questions that reach beyond place and historic period.

Mr. Vanka (1889-1963) doesn't have the name recognition of the other two, but that's changing. An open house will be held at St. Nicholas next weekend. It's also the unofficial kickoff of a campaign to bring the grandeur (and plight) of the murals to local and, eventually, global attention.

"It's about institutionalizing and permatizing an important work of art so that Pittsburghers of many generations can enjoy it. But also so it becomes one of the important elements of Pittsburgh's cultural landscape," said project coordinator William Lafe.

The murals' journey has been part romantic fairy tale and part saved-in-the-nick-of-time adventure.

The Millvale Murals of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church

What: Open house with docent tours of the murals, coffee and pastry.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 1, 2010, and 1:30 to 4 p.m. May 2, 2010.

Where: 24 Maryland Ave., Millvale (Exit 3 from Route 28 North, left onto Ohio Street, bear left to stay on Ohio Street, right onto Maryland Avenue before reaching the underpass and follow to top of hill).

Parking: In lot across the street; parking assistants will be available.

Admission: Free, donations accepted.

Tours: To schedule a tour on other days, call Mary Petrich at 412-681-0905 or Diane Novosel at 724-845-2907.

Information: www.vankamurals.org.

The story of Maximilian (Maxo) Vanka begins in 1889 when a baby, born in Zagreb and the presumed illegitimate child of Austro-Hungarian nobility, is delivered to rural Croatian peasants to raise. It continues as he flees Zagreb in advance of the Nazis with his Jewish-American wife and young daughter.

The story of the murals begins in 1934 when Mr. Vanka exhibits his work in Pittsburgh. The Rev. Albert Zagar of St. Nicholas sees the exhibition and in 1937 commissions the murals.

The story of rediscovery begins in 1990 when church members, alarmed at their deteriorating condition, form the nonprofit Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. It continues in Eastern Pennsylvania this summer as University of Pittsburgh graduate student Heidi Cook catalogs a cache of Mr. Vanka's works stored in an 8-by-8-foot tin-lined attic room of the Vanka family estate.

The latter includes "stacks and stacks and stacks of paintings, drawings, ceramics and a variety of stuff," Mr. Lafe said. "A huge notebook with hundreds of hand-painted postcards from ports around the world. They are delicious. They are just quite amazing. They are charming ... Raw drawings, big boxes of Social Realism of the '30s."

There are also studies and archival material pertaining to the Millvale murals, said Laura Domencic, director for the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, which will exhibit some of the works in the fall.

"There are tons of sketches that show he was a master draftsman -- pages of hands, arms, other parts of the anatomy, of Christ's feet on the cross. I was struck by the amount of work that he did," Ms. Domencic said.

More than typical church art

The three stories -- of the artist, the murals and the preservationists -- braid to form a compelling whole that is as much about one man's love of homeland and sensitivity to inequity as it is about the longing, sacrifice and values of the congregation of a humble, working-class parish.

There are many elements that distinguish the Millvale murals from more typical church art.

Mr. Vanka dressed the Virgin Mary in the traditional clothing of Croatian women, making her simultaneously representative of the parish and a symbol of Croatia itself. He framed the altar with scenes of the parishioners' native land and of their New World community.

More startlingly -- and perhaps unique for American church art -- he painted politically charged panels that rail against exploitation, greed and war. These scenes are religious, narrative and allegorical.

In one, an anguished Holy Mother intercedes on a battlefield; in another, a soldier thrusts a bayonet into Christ's crucified body. Women mourn the loss of sons to war in the Old World and to a mine disaster in the new -- murals inspired by actual contemporary accounts. A figure of Justice corrupted wears a gas mask and holds a bloody sword while the gold in her scale far outweighs the bread.

Most are layered with meaning. The towering "Prudence" is depicted as an angel with finger held to lips, alluding to the virtue of restraint. But there was more to that for immigrant viewers who would also read it as "a warning to keep their mouths shut," Mr. Lafe said, "because as soon as someone heard their heavy accent they would lose credibility, access and influence."

The murals have gained visibility and support in recent decades. In recognition of their aesthetic, historic and cultural value, they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation created a special award in 1981 to recognize and protect them.

In 2001, the Heinz History Center was host to "The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka," which originated at The James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Bucks County, and broadly explored the artist's biography and work.

The murals have been featured in publications such as Life, Harper's and National Geographic; praised in a book by musician David Byrne; included in Rick Sebak's WQED-TV special "Holy Pittsburgh;" and are the subject of David Demarest's play "Gift to America," the title derived from Mr. Vanka's assessment of his Millvale work.

Preservation campaign

But preservation society founder/president Diane Novosel recognized that more had to be done. Last year, she asked Mr. Lafe if he would head a campaign to raise approximately $600,000 in two phases to restore, preserve, light and increase public access to the murals.

"At first I said no," Mr. Lafe recalled, "but then I reconsidered. This is really significant. These murals are what this region is all about. It was an opportunity, before I retire, to do something important for this area."

The campaign has raised $120,000 toward its Phase I goal of $230,000, which provides for the cleaning and restoration of seven murals, installation of energy-efficient lighting and expansion of public information. A substantial loan from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese has been granted for building upgrades. Restoration of the remaining 15 murals is included in Phase II funding, which is forecast at $350,000.

The murals suffered water damage from Hurricanes Ivan and Frances, and most, having never been conserved, are coated with decades of industrial grime.

A team of conservators led by Rikke Foulke has begun to evaluate the condition of the 11,000 square feet of painted surface, and samples were sent to a specialist laboratory to determine the makeup of Mr. Vanka's paints.

The project paid for the partial translation, from Croatian, of art historian Nikola Vizner's doctoral dissertation on Vanka, which is being reformatted as a book. Scholars have been invited to weigh in on the murals' art historic significance, and there is now a website (www.vankamurals.org).

Mr. Lafe sees this as a pivotal stage for the murals. Working with fundraising consultant Anna Doering, he hopes to make a vastly larger audience "more aware of the importance, quality and existence of the murals."

The project is off to a good start.

"The [preservation society] realized, over time, that far from diminished interest in these murals, the public interest was increasing," Mr. Lafe said.

"Last year, 1,100 people toured the church with a docent. In the last decade that number has been going up almost yearly. The people who come are Catholic, non-Catholic, non-religious, old, young. They're representative of the population at large."

"I think it is fair to say, without exaggeration, that the people who see the murals are always blown away. They are emotionally very potent," he said.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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