Wolves and bears still prowl the wooded foothills of the Carpathian Mountains along the border between Poland and Slovakia, and the local populace — a motley blend of Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, gypsies and Ruthenians — still clings to ancient rural ways.
It’s a corner of the world where nothing would seem more out of place than a museum dedicated to Andy Warhol.
“I come from nowhere,” the artist once famously quipped. Yet sub-Carpathian Ruthenia — a region that was once part of the former Czechoslovakia and is now divided among Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland and Romania — is where Warhol’s parents came from. Warhol himself never visited the area, but in 1991, his brother John made the trip to this remote corner of what is now Slovakia to found the Andy Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in the town of Medzilaborce.
People in the nearby village of Mikova, where Warhol’s parents were born, had always known that Warhol was a painter. But it wasn’t until he died in 1987 and Polish newspapers first wrote about Warhol’s Slovak connection that they learned that he was world-famous. Soon the Slovak papers were writing about his roots, too. Everyone wanted to claim him as a native son.
Yet when it opened, the museum stirred suspicions in this deeply religious, conservative part of rural Slovakia, where decades of communism had left their stamp. There were campaigns to close it down. It didn’t surprise me to learn that the director, a high school art teacher by the name of Michal Bycko, had been accused of being a CIA agent, or that the museum was seen as a cover for U.S. intelligence operations in part of a dark plot to spread Western decadence to Slovakia.
This at any rate was the story as related in the Czech media. Looking to find out more, I headed to Medzilaborce to get the scoop for myself.
The train from Prague left at midnight. Surprisingly, it was full, but I managed to find a seat in a compartment occupied by a babushka wearing a floral headscarf, her son, and three Ukrainians in ski hats.
Five minutes into the journey, the Ukrainians uncorked a bottle of vodka and began a boisterous game of cards, playing for pistachio nuts. I dozed off, and as the train hurtled through the dark eastern night, I glided in and out of sleep, half-aware of the din around me.
An hour out of Prague, the conductor came along to check our tickets. A great piece of theater ensued when one of the Ukrainians suddenly discovered that he had no ticket. The ticket had been stolen! The conductor, in no mood for games, stood in the corridor with his arms crossed and tapped his foot impatiently. The Ukrainian would have to get out at the next stop.
As day broke, I woke up at the border into Slovakia. Civilization was gradually petering out. We rushed past gypsy shantytowns of crude shacks with corrugated metal roofs. Gaudy clothing blew on laundry lines. A horse plodded lazily along an icy road. A turbid river churned under wooded mountains dusted with snow. We passed the High Tatras, jagged, romantic peaks rising up from a brown plain overhung by a haze of coal smoke.
The passengers were getting fidgety, passions rising, tempers starting to boil. The babushka began berating her son, telling him what a lout he was.
“Shut up, you old bag!” yelled one of the Ukrainians.
But the babushka went on ranting until finally, exhausted, she took out a bar of chocolate that she’d bought from a station vendor. It was frozen. She struggled to bite it with her false teeth, grimaced grotesquely, masticated.
Finally, after 15 hours, at the end of the line, on the very eastern verge of Slovakia, we arrived in Medzilaborce, a small town nestled in a picturesque valley, surrounded by rolling hills. Frosty lumber lay in a stockyard; a green-domed Orthodox church stood watch over the town. And here in the center was a large, socialist-era concrete bunker-like structure that said “Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art,” the exterior graced by an absurdly oversize Campbell soup can (Cream of Tomato, of course).
Fighting a fierce wind, I made my way up A. Warhola Street to the Hotel Laborec, a concrete-and-steel monstrosity on a small square crowned with a freshly painted and flower-bedecked Soviet war memorial.
Inside the hotel, merchants were cleaning up after the weekly bazaar in the basement ballroom, while old men drank Turkish coffee and Zlaty Bazant beer in the hotel cafe.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” inquired the blond receptionist in English. Owing to the lack of central heating, she was wrapped in a thick rabbit-fur coat.
“Tourism,” I said.
She gave me a suspicious look as she handed me the key to my room, where the decor apparently hadn’t been updated for many decades. Still the same socialistic, pseudo-wood furniture and walls hung with paintings of red-flag-waving revolutionaries. I threw my things on the sofa and turned on the TV, which popped and fizzled and then began working in a hesitant way, allowing me to catch the tail end of a Ukrainian handball match. Before long I had drifted off to sleep.
I slept till late the next morning. It was nearly noon when I made my way up A. Warhola Street to the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art on Andy Warhol Square, formerly the Communist House of Culture on Lenin Square.
Still half asleep, I wandered through the museum foyer. The walls were papered with serial images of Marilyn Monroe. In the cafe, done up to look like Warhol’s Chelsea Factory, complete with aluminum foil clad walls, a bearded man in thick glasses hailed me. This was Bycko, the museum director. He stood up and gave me a hearty handshake.
Eager to show me the museum, he led me into the main hall, a cavernous space hung with bright Warhol silk-screens: more Campbell’s soup cans, portraits of Lenin, Ingrid Bergman as a nun, flowers, a hammer and sickle, Absolut Vodka.
In the center of the hall stood several glass vitrines displaying Warhol’s possessions like saintly relics: the artist’s snakeskin jacket, a pair of octagonal sunglasses, Warhol’s first camera, Warhol’s mother’s diary, and the prize of the museum — Warhol’s baptismal gown, preserved in a case beneath a drawing of an angel by Warhol’s mother.
“Please look at this pen-and-ink drawing of the Annunciation of Our Lord’s Birth by Julia Warhola,” said Bycko. “You will notice it is remarkably similar to Andy’s early advertising illustrations.”
I nodded in appreciation.
“Everyone in the West knows Andy Warhol Superstar,” said Bycko. “But do they know the other side of Andy? Do they know Andy, the boy from Ruthenia?”
I put it to Bycko that Warhol himself hadn’t cared, reminding him of Warhol’s “nowhere” quote. How important was his Ruthenian heritage, really?
“Ach,” said Bycko. “No one can say if Andy was really serious about these words.”
“Andy’s Ruthenian heritage was absolutely important to his art,” he averred. “There are the cow images, for instance, yes? But also the stories which his mother told him. And then there is the religion.”
“Was Andy Warhol a religious man?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Bycko. “During the last years of his life, he was very devout. He went to church on holy days and began to paint icons. Andy’s first meeting with art was through Ruthenian icons, which decorated the bedroom of his mother. That flat style of painting, the idea of serial production — all this has its foundation in the icon.”
I asked about the museum’s reception in Medzilaborce, and Bycko agreed that it had inspired hostility in the locals. “This is why I am trying through education to show these people that there is more to Andy than just the homosexual aspect and the drug parties,” he said. “But they are very closed in their mentalities. Everything from the West is suspicious to them. They do not want anything to do with Warhol, this decadent American homosexual, as they are seeing it. So I am trying to show that Andy was really a communist.”
“A communist?” I said.
“Yes, I believe so. There is the hammer and sickle motif, yes? And the Factory was really something like a commune. Everyone can be an artist, said Andy. Everyone can be famous. This is Andy’s idea. This is a very communist idea. We must also not forget that Andy was a son of the working class.”
A mobile of giant fiberglass dollar bills turned ponderously beneath the ceiling in a room displaying contemporary homages to Warhol by Czech and foreign artists. I wished Bycko good luck and left the museum.
The town of Mikova, where Warhol relatives — who go by the name of Warhola, or Varchola — still live, was a short walk into the hills east of Medzilaborce. Bare-limbed plum and pear trees lined the road. I passed an old Soviet tank on a plinth. I passed the village cemetery, which was full of Varcholas, and came upon a group of walrus-mustached men in rabbit-fur caps who were fixing a car exhaust. They showed me the way to the house where Michal Warhola, Andy Warhol’s cousin, lived.
Michal Warhola was a tattooed, hatchet-faced man who appeared to be in his early 60s. He lived with his elderly mother, Warhol’s aunt, in a primitive farmhouse with overly active floral wallpaper decorating the rooms, which were full of crucifixes and icons. The story was that toward the end of his life, Warhol sent a suitcase of his pictures to Mikova. Not knowing what the stuff was, Warhol relatives stored them in the attic. A leak destroyed them, and they were later thrown away.
“Na zdrovje,” said Michal in Slovak, lifting a shot glass of bile-colored slivovitz. It was early afternoon and Michal appeared to be already drunk.
“To Andy,” I replied in Czech.
“To Andrej,” said Michal. “And it isn’t Warhol. It’s Warhola. That’s how it is. Na zdrovje.”
Warhol’s aunt pottered around making coffee while I spoke with Michal about his famous cousin.
“Before we had democracy,” said Michal, “Andy was strictly forbidden. Now he’s permitted, of course. Everybody has his rights in democracy.”
That Andy was homosexual Michal didn’t want to believe.
“No homosexuals come from Mikova,” he said. “I don’t believe it. I’m against it on principle. But I bet my life he wasn’t a homosexual.”
“And if he lived here, we’d have forced him to get married,” put in Warhol’s aunt. “Even against his will.”
After numerous shots of slivovitz, I said my farewells, went back to the hotel in Medzilaborce and picked up my bag. At the station, I bought a bottle of vodka and boarded the slow train to Prague. I had a compartment all to myself and managed to sleep soundly all the way to the city, where, upon awakening, I discovered that I had been robbed of my wallet, my camera and a bottle of Old Spice after-shave.
Rigney is a freelance writer based in Berlin. He previously lived in the Czech Republic.