If a focus on workers tied Vanka with New Deal artists, he diverged by drawing on Catholic spirituality and forcefully critiquing capitalism.

By Gavin Moulton 

Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka, curated by Steffi Domike, continues at the Rivers of Steel Museum, Bost Building (623 E 8th Ave, Homestead, PA) through October 26, 2023. 

Gledaj!—meaning Look! in Croatian—is the second-ever museum exhibition of Croatian American artist Maksimilijan (Maxo) Vanka’s works in the United States. Referencing the artist’s favorite exclamation, Gledaj! follows Vanka’s eye through the tumultuous decades of the interwar period and invites visitors to witness his artistic and political development across Yugoslavia, Mexico, and the United States. Bearing Vanka’s prophetic message against economic inequality and police brutality, the exhibition is appropriately housed in Homestead’s historic Bost Building, location of the union headquarters during the 1892 steel strike. The building is currently home of Rivers of Steel, a cultural heritage non-profit dedicated to preserving the legacy of steel in the Mon Valley. With a small museum located on-site, artifacts from the steel industry surround the exhibition.


View of Gledaj! at Rivers of Steel Bost Building in Homestead, PA

If you are not from Pittsburgh, you may have never heard of Maxo Vanka. And if you are from Pittsburgh, you know Vanka for the formidable Millvale Murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Roman Catholic Church in Millvale. Dubbed America’s “Sistine Chapel,” Vanka frescoed the church in 1937 and 1941 at the invitation of the visionary Rev. Albert Zagar. Bringing together Croatian folk traditions with the political radicalism of the Great Depression, murals such as “The Capitalist” and “Immigrant Mother Gives Her Sons for American Industry” harnessed diasporic religion for social justice. A progressive priest and leader of the Croatian community, Zagar proclaimed the Depression as a “great social revolution.” The artistic response to Zagar’s activism, Vanka’s murals stand as a monument to migrants and the communal culture of Slavic Catholicism.

Charting Vanka’s path to the Millvale Murals, Gledaj! answers how a successful Croatian artist and bastard child of Austro-Hungarian nobility radicalized during the Great Depression. Broken down in roughly three geographies, the exhibition traces Vanka’s artistic and politic development through Yugoslavia, the industrial United States, and Mexico, culminating in preparatory sketches for the Millvale Murals.

After serving in the Belgian Red Cross during World War I, Vanka returned home. Previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia was allowed to join the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918 (later renamed Yugoslavia in 1929). In the new state, Vanka traveled to rural villages and collected traditional textiles. As Heidi Cook—a leading scholar of interwar Yugoslav art—has argued, Vanka utilized folk patterns to support the new pan-South Slavic identity.

A selection of Vanka’s personal textile collection on display testifies to his nickname “the embroiderer.” In Angelus, painted in 1924, a peasant family portrayed in traditional costume kneels in front of a cluster of angels. Like Paul Gauguin’s more famous Vision After the Sermon, from a half century earlier, Vanka looked to the bold colors and mysticism of folk culture for solutions to modern problems. But his success in Yugoslavia was not to last. Vanka’s life shifted forever when he fled Europe in 1934 fearing for the safety of his Jewish American wife, Margaret Stetten.

Maksimilijan Vanka, Angelus, 1924. Private Collection – Christie Clayton & Michael Burkitt

On the streets of New York City, Vanka encountered the extreme poverty of the Great Depression. Mirroring broader political shifts, Vanka’s radicalization began by witnessing police brutality toward protestors and striking workers. A watercolor from 1935, No More War! epitomizes Vanka’s political development. Protestors on the city streets proclaim, “Down with war and fascism.” Each carrying a white wooden cross, their future gravestones, the marchers blend in a black stream. Boxed in by skyscrapers, the city’s fire escapes become tally marks scratched on jail cell walls. In Vanka’s haunting vision of American society, the bars of inequality and militarism imprison protestors and bystanders alike.

After the stock market crash of 1929, widespread poverty and economic stagnation convinced most Americans that unrestricted capitalism needed reform. The electoral sweep of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 promised reform and an end to austerity. One such relief program was the Federal Arts Program, launched in 1934, the year Vanka migrated to New York. Embarking on a national artistic program, the government commissioned over 1,000 post office murals to promote the New Deal and celebrate progress. Vanka’s sketches of industrial facilities and workers from this period, including Johntown’s steel mills and California’s oil workers, embrace the New Deal art’s emphasis on production and labor.

Traveling to Mexico in 1935, Vanka encountered a society in transition. Following a successful revolution, Mexico offered artists from across the globe a different vision of the future. The new Mexican government employed artists to narrate history from the perspective of the masses and forge a national identity. Public education campaigns and mural commissions proliferated. To promote the new national cultural policies, artists including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco powerfully brought folk customs and anti-capitalism together in massive fresco cycles. Two of Vanka’s charcoal drawings from the trip reflect these themes. At a festival, a couple in folk attire dances in the village square, while in the other three laborers load crates. The two drawings hint at Vanka’s coming synthesis of folk culture with anti-capitalism that would reach their apotheosis in the Millvale Murals.

If a focus on workers tied Vanka with New Deal artists, he diverged by drawing on Catholic spirituality and forcefully critiquing capitalism. As a rule, New Deal artists did not address religion in government-funded projects and often avoided politically sensitive topics. Vanka’s pervasive Catholic imagery and a deep knowledge of scripture challenge the exhibition label’s claim that “Vanka was not religious as an adult.” Irrespective of church attendance, Vanka’s cooperation with Rev. Zagar at St. Nicholas differentiates him from American contemporaries. Already in Europe, Vanka’s works combined religion and social action. In Wounded Friend, a protestor holds a moribund comrade as shots break out on the street below. The iconography of sacrifice is almost Christ-like, recalling the message of the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Maksimilijan Vanka, Wounded Friend, pre-1934. Vanka Murals Collection of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka

Migration to the United States intensified Vanka’s religious references to suffering. For diasporic working-class communities, like the Croatians of Millvale, dangerous working conditions made loss of life and limb common. Slavic churches responded to the industrial crisis by expanding to provide insurance, hospitals, and orphanages. Church complexes grew to occupy multiple city blocks, often boasting a social hall and school. In company dominated towns, like Homestead, churches offered rare space not under company control where workers could meet without surveillance. The strong community of Slavic congregations provided a natural basis for labor organization.

Drawing from Irish and Slavic traditions, Western Pennsylvania became the leading center for religious radicalism in the interwar United States. Although it is unclear if Vanka met Catholic reformers in Pittsburgh such as Rev. Harvey Cox who led tens of thousands of unemployed workers in a march on Washington in 1932 or Rev. Charles Owen Rice, co-founder of the Catholic Radical Alliance, he was not the only Depression painter to fuse religion and political activism.

Renowned liturgical artist Ade Bethune won her first commission at St. Paulinus Church in Clairton, a mill town upstream from Homestead, when she was only 23. Designed and built by laid off steelworkers in 1935-37, Bethune painted working-class saints for the new church and condemned class traitors as the enemy of Christ in the Stations of the Cross. Where Vanka appealed to Croatian folk culture, however, Bethune explicitly removed national signifiers to assimilate St. Paulinus’ Italian community with the rest of the congregation and forge an American working-class. Following the closure of St. Paulinus in 2007, the stations of the cross were moved to the nearby St. Clare Church and the Diocese of Pittsburgh stored the saint panels and statues. Earlier this year, the St. Paulinus rectory reopened as The Cornerstone Residence, a recovery home for veterans. There are plans for the adaptive reuse of the church in the future.

Vanka’s activism and attention to local culture matches the spirit of exhibition curator Steffi Domike. One of the pioneering women steelworkers who integrated the Clairton Works in the mid 1970s, Domike advocated for civil rights as a member of United Steelworkers Local 1557. Since the mill closures of the early 1980s, Domike has been a leading voice for preservation of labor culture in the Monongahela Valley. Decades of activism in the steel industry imbue the exhibition with Domike’s unique perspective and expansive knowledge of the region.

Gledaj! sheds light on a critical period of Vanka’s artistic development. With a rich display of drawings, textiles, and paintings from private and museum collections, the exhibition contextualizes the Millvale Murals and gestures toward a synthesis of recent scholarship. History enthusiasts, activists, and artists alike will have something to take away from Vanka’s extraordinary artwork and Domike’s thoughtful curation. Although painted almost a century ago, the growing chasm between rich and poor today and reemergence of right-wing politics in Europe and the United States amplifies Vanka’s artistic cry for social justice.

Gavin Moulton is a cultural historian with a research focus on the impact of industrial capitalism and migration on twentieth century architectural and religious traditions. He holds an M.A in History from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. in History of Art and Architecture and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. His doctoral dissertation, Revolver on the Altar: Fighting for Church and Factory in the Slavic Industrial Belt, 1877-1941 reveals how diasporic church construction helped transform Slavic migrants into labor activists.