Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The peasants and workers in Maxo Vanka's murals still haunt us
With the G-20 world economic summit and national conventions of the AFL-CIO and International Labor Communciations Association taking place in Pittsburgh in September, I thought I'd post a column I wrote from Pittsburgh during the Working Class Studies Association Conference this past June. It deals with the striking Depression-era murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Entering the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church is not for the faint of heart. The church interior is dark, and its walls covered with murals featuring the large-eyed Slavic faces of the Balkan peasants who came to this area a century or more ago to do the back-breaking work that steel mills and coal mines demanded.
As parishioner and preservationist Diane Novosel says, “It’s not your typical pretty church.” St. Nicholas is beautiful, haunting, provocative, but hardly pretty. There’s too much suffering—Mary at the feet of the crucified Jesus, the Croatian mother weeping for her dead son as her other three sons march off to their deaths in the coal mines, the soldier’s mother mourning over her son’s coffin.
The walls of St. Nicholas, a hilltop church in the community of Millvale, bear stark witness to the evils of the world outside—the fire-breathing mills that consumed the hopes and dreams of the immigrants who worked in them, the wars that sent their sons off to die in foreign lands, the greed-filled capitalist dining alone with his stock reports, his servant, and the beggar at his feet.
The 26 murals of St. Nicholas are the work of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, who painted most of them in a brief frenzy of inspiration during the height of the Great Depression, and, for me, seeing them was a signature moment in my recent visit to this city, which for so long was the embodiment of America’s industrial might.
Once a city of smokestacks, polluted air, and foul rivers, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself into a “green” center whose major industries today are medicine, education, and banking. Downtown sparkles with shiny skyscrapers and bustling streets. Yet, with a population of 300,000, it remains only half its former size, and local folks lament that many of its young are still forced to leave to find jobs the new industries don’t provide.
The monuments to its most-famous industrialists, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, seem to be on every corner—universities, libraries, parks, the large, imposing structures that testify to the might of capital. Harder to find are the monuments to the laborers martyred by the brutal excesses of capital and its demands for a workforce willing to work long, hard, mind-numbing hours for near-starvation wages.
I went to the site of U.S. Steel’s old Homestead Works, a 300-acre operation that produced over 200 million tons of steel in its 105-year history and employed at one time 20,000 workers. Silenced since 1986, Homestead was also the site of one of the great labor battles in U.S. history, the 1892 conflict that pitted union steelworkers against an anti-union Carnegie and his armies of Pinkerton agents and state militia. Ten died, many more were wounded, and the workers, despite beating back the Pinkertons, lost.
Today the Pump House where the killing took place is an historical landmark, a modest brick building overshadowed by U.S. Steel’s nearby research and development center.
Near downtown Pittsburgh is an historical marker on a lonely traffic island at the 28th Street crossing, where a militia from Philadelphia fired into a gathering of citizens during a railroad strike in 1877 and killed 20 people. The crowd was protesting wage cuts.
Preservationists fought long and hard for that marker and to keep the Pump House from the wrecking ball.
The artist who created the murals of St. Nicholas was an angry man filled with the kind of righteous indignation that one finds in the great prophets of the Old Testament, the bearded ancients railing against the mighty who, as Jeremiah said, “builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice, works his neighbor without pay, and gives him no wages.”
Today, more than a century after the Homestead battle, the history is largely forgotten—or suppressed, yet the mighty still swagger about the land, and the workers are suffering wage cuts and job losses in a faltering economy whose failures they did nothing to cause. Where is the anger of Maxo Vanka? Who’s gathering in the streets to protest the injustice brought about by the rank greed of a few? The streets sometimes seem as empty and forlorn as the little traffic island at the 28th Street crossing.
Maybe they’ll fill on Sept. 24 and 25, when Pittsburgh hosts the G-20 world economic summit. Leaders of the world’s industrial nations will gather to discuss the fate of the global economy. Maybe the spirit of the martyrs of the Pump House or the 28th Street crossing and the anger of Maxo Vanka will be awakened. If so, it won’t be an occasion for the faint of heart.