Probing the Mystery: The Art of Maria Gabankova

Both artists and scientists have long been fascinated by the human body, the place where time and eternity,

flesh and spirit meet in the mystery we call humanity. The links between anatomy and the visual arts have a

long history. Perhaps the most famous work illustrating this connection is a painting by Rembrandt of The

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp  (1632): ‘The picture oscillates … between a pessimistic and optimistic

spectrum of meaning. At one end of the spectrum, we are asked to reflect on our own mortality, whilst at the

other end, we are urged, nevertheless, to celebrate the wisdom of God who has reserved for humanity a special

place in creation.’ 1  The work found in this book resonates with these themes.

Attention to the human figure was largely lost in the twentieth century as artists turned to works of abstraction,

installation pieces and a general commitment to conceptual art driven by self-expression. But the interest in

the human figure did not completely disappear. In America, Philip Pearlstein produced near-photographic

likenesses; in England, there was the ever-solemn and at times unsettling work of Francis Bacon, and the raw

realism of Lucien Freud; and in Canada there was the magic realism of Alex Colville. Recently other visual

artists have been paying attention to the human figure. This group includes artists of Christian faith such as

Bruce Hermann, Ed Knippers and Tim Lowly in America, and in Canada, Erica Grimm-Vance, Gerald Folkerts,

David Robinson—and Maria Gabankova. Gabankova’s career-long commitment to figurative art manifests the

influence of her great European predecessors. But her fascination with the human figure is rooted in the belief

that gestures and emotions are powerful tools for expressing ideas and discovering insights.

Maria Gabankova’s sensibilities were deeply shaped by her early environment. She was born in Czechoslovakia

when it was still under a communist regime. Her father was an artist, but also a conscientious objector and

a political prisoner at the end of the Stalinist era. After the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia by the

Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, her parents, Antonia Lanik Gabanek and Joseph Gabanek, left their homeland

and emigrated to Canada with their two children, Maria and Jan. Both of Maria’s parents are figure

painters, and her own interest in this field developed early. The work and encouragement of her parents and

the training and experience she received while studying at the Art Students League of New York enabled her

to pursue this interest, despite pressure to follow the popular trends in the 1970s of turning to conceptual

art and self-expression.

Religious faith began to stir in Gabankova in her early twenties, and she began to pay more careful attention

to the wonder of God’s creation. Art historian Hans Rookmaaker’s book The Creative Gift  encouraged her by

providing insight into how being a Christian and a contemporary artist need not be in conflict. She followed her

artistic calling with the spirit captured in Leonardo Da Vinci’s words: ‘For painting is a way to learn to know

the Maker of all marvellous things—and this is the way to love so great an inventor.’  Evident in her work is a

sense of joy, wonder and discovery as she observes the natural world and specifically the human body.

Narrative characterizes Gabankova’s paintings, and we are invited to participate in these deeply personal

vignettes on canvas. The work you will find in this book is personal in two ways. It is born out of the rich and

indelible experiences of the life of the artist, which speak to the stark realities of our world, and it is personal in

its attention to the human condition in all its complexity. Gabankova is always aware that we may not see  what

we are looking at , and that both life and art call us to an engaging gaze if we are to see below the surface of

things. Through her art, she seeks to gain glimpses of the meaning of ordinary objects, and most particularly of

the meaning of human existence.

Gabankova is an astute observer of human beings, both in the physical world of flesh and blood and in the

internal realm of the spirit. The individual portrayed in her paintings is not the self-sufficient individual of

modern Western culture but rather the individual isolated, vulnerable and alone, longing for something more.

This is art that unmasks the pretence and hubris that so often attend human behaviour. It is art that protests

against the dehumanizing influences that plague us: the violence, destruction and despair that attend the deep

divisions in our social, political and religious landscape, the battles that rage around us and within us.

Gabankova’s work is philosophical; it looks for the deeper meaning of life. It probes beyond the fragmentations

common to postmodern culture and searches for coherence and harmony. It acknowledges the truth about

our existence as fragile and vulnerable; yet, the pain and suffering that afflict body and spirit are illuminated

by a reassuring ray which sustains hope amidst the darkness of life. There is a play of light and shadow in her

depictions of the human figure that evokes not only what is seen with the eye but also what is experienced in

the soul.

Body Broken—Body Redeemed  illustrates how Gabankova brings together the reality of human brokenness

and the hope of human redemption. The work collected here avoids the polarities of nihilism and triumphalism.

Much of contemporary art leads us into a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. While, too often, the art

found in religious settings is triumphalistic, naive in its inclination to pander to our desire for joyful harmony

while neglecting or perhaps avoiding the chaos of human brokenness and the dark side of our individual and

social realities. Gabankova’s approach resonates with the biblical story which offers us a holistic understanding

of humanity, refusing the temptations of both nihilism and triumphalism. Instead, it reveals the same sort

of oscillation seen in Rembrandt’s painting—the oscillation between human mortality and immortality, the

dialectic of life and death.

But in addition to this, Gabankova’s paintings also express the fuzzy lines between the real and unreal. The

figures in Report from a Leaky Boat  and Freedombound  exist on the threshold between living flesh

and static, lifeless mannequins. The Leaky Boat  echoes The Ship of Fools  by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516).

The theme of an aimless voyage accompanied by selfindulgent play resonates in a postmodern culture. Freedombound  provides us with a telling metaphor for a superficial understanding of freedom which is ultimately self-destructive. In the self-portrait The Joker’s New Clothes  the mixture of animate and inanimate in the figure leaves us unsure whether the joker’s dance disregards or celebrates the technology that surrounds her.

Society’s current concern with ‘body image’ focuses purely on surface appearances. Gabankova’s anatomical paintings, however, take us below the surface and disclose the bones, organs, arteries and veins that make our bodies what they are. These works challenge the false glamour of contemporary self-understandings and remind us of our vulnerability and of the wonder of the body’s intricacies. And in a surprising way, Gabankova takes this ‘inside’

view of the body as the means of depicting an image of The Cross: flesh and blood—broken for the sake of

all humanity. The bold and surreal paintings of Hammer in the Head and Globalization   have an arresting impact. At first it is difficult to discern what one is looking at, but soon the picture comes clear and we are left with stark and disturbing representations of the state of our society and of individuals. The unsettling reflection depicted in

Selfportrait—Fear  could be an icon for how many in our world experience life. The Fall suggests

the chaos and vulnerability of the human condition as bodies float downward with no apparent capacity to

control their fall, while their flesh seems to undergo a transformation. All this is accompanied by the sinister

presence of the face of evil—a satanic figure. Another aspect of the brokenness addressed in Gabankova’s work is our

failures of compassion. Forgotten News vividly shows how easily pain, suffering and tragedy become yesterday’s news. Famine, poverty, war, homelessness, violence and oppression are set aside in a pile to be recycled while we await the next wave of information. The faceless figure prompts us to remember how quickly we can become immune to the stark realities of life, whether half a world away or on the streets of our own town. Kosovo can be read as a lament for a war-torn country where the innocent suffer while those in power work out their ill-advised plans.

Within the blood-red cloak we see gentle compassionate hands and the pained and almost prayerful face of a young woman carrying some of the weight of the surrounding conflict. The drawing series Sleeper I, II and III manifests a compassionate gaze on figures weary from the weight of life’s demands and the diminished strength of an aging body. We are drawn to these simple figures bent by the cares of life, and are made

grateful for the gift of sleep. Gabankova’s work plays on paradox: what is depicted points to its

opposite. Our awareness of brokenness becomes the means through which our need for redemption is disclosed. In these paintings we are not left to despair but find, instead, a breaking in of hope with the promise of

a body redeemed . There is no magical escape from the human condition, only signs that this is not all there is.

Undergirding the work is the artist’s conviction that the spiritual is revealed through the physical. The spirituality woven into her imagery is not a disembodied spirituality but one which accepts the material world

as a gift of the divine artist who has created all things. The transforming power of faith is captured in the

painting titled Psalms. In this work she juxtaposes word and image, drawing on the rich resources of the

biblical psalms. While praying, the kneeling figure is being changed from mere stone to flesh and blood. Just

beside the feet of this figure are words from Psalm 119—‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet’. The Bible serves

as a foundation that grounds and shapes the perspective informing all of Gabankova’s work. Her art is never

preachy, but it is saturated in the biblical narrative. Hope provides another image where the sacred text

with its well-worn pages can be seen as a resource for ordinary life.

We should not overlook the cleverly constructed heads, part of a series of seven titled Special Department

(Paper Head I  and II). These well-executed paintings are full of humour and make us laugh a little

at ourselves. But humour, as one author put it, is a signal of transcendence; it suggests to us that there is more

in life than meets the eye, more than the collection of my experiences. Humour gives us a sense that hope is not

futile. A glimpse of this hope is found in Waiting for a Miracle. The foot washing in this painting takes

place across social boundaries, indicating our call to be servants to one another and not to be deterred by social

expectations or by our differences. In the unclothed bodies of the two main figures, where the emotions are

much more in view, the artist captures the joy and gentleness of the giver, while uncertainty and even a sense

of being undeserving can be seen in the face of the receiver. Those who witness this act of service seem almost

oblivious to what is happening—and appear to have little concern for its depth of meaning. It is easy to miss

the meaningful in ordinary life.

Messenger 1  and 2  are two examples from a series inspired by the biblical book of Revelation.

These are no sentimentalized angels; they are assertive young women clasping trumpets that they are ready

to sound to awaken us from our complacent self-indulgence and alert us to the divine judgment on human

disobedience. These images hint at human accountability and suggest that what we do in time may have

implications for eternity.

In Messengers of Light  we are reminded that the body broken can become the body redeemed because of

the resurrection of Jesus. Here is where light comes to dispel darkness, where despair is overcome by hope, and

where we find the promise that brokenness will be transformed into wholeness. This same promise is eloquently

expressed in New Song, where those gathered around the table are participants in a fellowship, joined

together by common faith as beneficiaries of the work accomplished by ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the

sin of the world’. Musical instruments are there to speak praises to God, while food and drink symbolize a

celebration of the richness of divine provision. This image focuses our gaze on a promised future, one that we

can catch glimpses of in the present. These works express the hope that one day all things will be made new.

This book contains only a selection of Gabankova’s work, for within her repertoire of painting you can find

still-lifes, architectural studies and portraits. The art found in these pages are strong works, bold, compelling,

insightful and deeply spiritual. They serve as windows into the mystery of human existence and the mystery of

human salvation. There is a prophetic thread in these paintings, not a self-conscious one, but one that emerges

from the integrity of the work and of the artist as she seeks to depict the drama of the human spirit in the

struggle for meaning and significance. Born of a sense of wonder and a hopeful spirit, these paintings invite

us to look afresh at what it means to be human. Despite the darkness in life, they call us to nurture a spirit

of hope. In this rich collection of visual art we sense that life is not a possession to be grasped but a gift to be

received, a miracle that inspires gratitude.

John Franklin

John Franklin has lectured in theology and philosophy. At present he is the Executive Director of Imago,

a registered charity that promotes the work of Christians in the arts in Canada (

He is also the editor of the quarterly Imago Newsletter. John is based in Toronto.

Maria Gabankova

Photograph by Joseph Gabanek

Sleeper I

This drawing from life was done on the New York subway in 1980, during commutes from Queens to Manhattan, where I studied at the Art Students League. At times I would even travel a few stops past my destination in order to finish a drawing. Many homeless persons lived on the city streets and the subway. I was deeply moved by the vulnerability of their body positions, with their faces often obscured.

Forgotten News

Report from Leaky Boat


The Joker’s New Clothes

body broken

body redeemed

published by Piquant Editions in Carlisle, United Kingdom

copyright 2007 by Maria Gabankova


PDF version

A selection of drawings and paintings

published by Piquant Editions