The sign welcoming visitors to Miková, Slovakia

Travels after the pandemic #4: east Slovakia

’Nowhere’ was undeniably ’somewhere’ for Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol once quipped that he "came from nowhere". While it is simple enough to look up a biography and discover that he actually left the womb in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 6, 1928, his parents had lived in the east Slovakian village of Miková, and this explains why today on the road outside this rather obscure place is a sign showing the pop-art icon in his trademark wig of wild hair and the message “Rodisko rodicov”, Slovak for “Birthplace of parents”.

The first-generation American artist’s Mum and Dad were Ruthenians, also sometimes called Rusyns, a little-known ethnic minority from the East Carpathian Mountains region. About one million people claiming this heritage are known today as the Carpatho-Rusyns, scattered through the quiet borderlands of Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Poland.

Miková is described by one Warhol biographer as hungry then at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and still hungry now. The village on the remote eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had fewer than 500 occupants when Warhol’s father, Andrij Varkhola (later Americanised as Andrew Warhola), was born there in 1886. In 2020 the population was 131, and the roadside sign seems to be the only evidence of the Warhol link.

There’s no “Warhol house” but there is a Greek Catholic Church of St. Archangel Michael, and in the United States Andy Warhol followed his parents in being a devout follower of Eastern Byzantine Catholicism (Greek Catholicism).

Like many Ruthenians, Andrij emigrated to the United States, in his case shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to escape conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army. He left behind his wife Julia, a fellow villager whom he had married in 1909, never to return again.

The nation state of Czechoslovakia, created in 1918 from several provinces of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been in existence for only three years when Julia, whose maiden name was Zavacká, followed Andrij to America in 1921. She, then, was technically from Czechoslovakia while Andrij arguably was not.

Their son Andy usually referred to Czechoslovakia as the family’s homeland, even though he was well aware that it was a purely artificial political entity of recent date. When he offered the cryptic comment that he was from “nowhere” this was apparently what he meant, rather than a reference to the questionable appeal of heavy-industry Pittsburgh for new, poor, working-class Slavic immigrants.

Andy’s parents, then, were Rusyn peasant stock who spoke their own Ruthenian language with their three sons and never quite learned English. They lived in the Rusyn ghetto of Pittsburgh, Andy from 1928 until mid-1949 when he moved to New York and achieved world fame as an artist and film-maker.

A Miková Festival of Ruthenian Culture is held every year. The “Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture” observes that Warhol “never contributed anything to Rusyn culture, although some writers have attributed the choice of themes and motifs in his paintings to his Carpatho-Rusyn background”. For whatever reasons, Andy never travelled there to explore his roots, with the region sealed behind the Iron Curtain for the entirety of his adult life. A couple of years after his death in 1987, Czechoslovakia threw off the communist yoke.

His mother kept in constant contact with people from her homeland, notably her sister Eva. She sent works by her son to what is today Slovakia and Andy released a record of her singing Ruthenian folk songs. Julia was artistic herself, and Andy often used her decorative, stylised handwriting to accompany his illustrations. In 1966 he made a film called “Mrs Warhol” that features her in her basement apartment in his house playing “an aging peroxide movie star with a lot of husbands”.

A bus stop outside the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia – Photo: Brendan Hoffman

(Hopefully it is more watchable than the five hours and 20 minutes of “Sleep”, showing his lover asleep, or “Empire”, eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of a singular view of the Empire State Building, only the atmospheric light changing.)

Just down the road from Miková is the town of Medzilaborce, population about 6600, where a large communist-era post office has been turned into the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art and the town’s main street has been renamed Andyho Warhola. Nearby is found the Penzión Andy. The museum was the world’s first dedicated to Warhol, set up in 1991 with the help of the artist’s brother John Warhola, who, unlike Andy, kept the original Americanised spelling of the family name.

Michal Cihlář, the co-founder, says Warhol defined himself as Czechoslovak for most of his life. “At home he spoke Ruthenian with his mother,” Cihlář says. “It’s a language that’s a little similar to Czech, or more like Slovak. He considered himself to be Czechoslovak. But about a year before he died he spoke to a Czech woman in a pub – and she didn’t understand him. He was horrified because it turned out he wasn’t really ‘Czechoslovak’ after all. He had been speaking to her in Ruthenian, which she couldn’t understand.”

John Warhola said their mother often used to speak to the children about Miková, about her going by wagon to Medzilaborce. When John told Andy he was going home to see Slovakia, Andy said: “Take as many snaps as possible for me”.

But it was on February 22 1987, half a year before John’s actual visit, that Warhol died. John visited his parents’ native country – a remote, forested land of cornfields, crucifixes and onion-dome churches – in September that year, eventually starting the museum project to show respect and preserve the memory of his brother Andy and their mother and father.

The museum has some 160 original Warhol works of art, mostly drawings and silkscreens, including the communist-themed Red Lenin, and Hammer and Sickle, plus Campbell’s Soup II, portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger, and self-portraits.

The museum also possesses an extensive collection of memorabilia: family photographs and letters, and personal possessions – his snakeskin jacket, his first camera, a Walkman, a pair of sunglasses, clothes including a christening robe – displayed in glass cases like holy relics.

There is a real Campbell’s Soup tin signed by him. A jacket pocket contained a sample of the decorative handwriting of his mother, from whom Warhol got his artistic leanings. On display are examples of her lettering and drawings, and a newspaper cutting she kept about one of her son’s exhibitions. According to the museum’s literature, one of his first breaks came through incorporating her example into shop-window displays.

Outside is a life-size statue of the diminutive artist. It all builds a picture of his Eastern European background, and Warhol, whose work is said to have been partly inspired by the religious icons put up at home by his mother, would hopefully have approved. Pre-pandemic the museum had 30,000-40,000 visitors per year, mainly from abroad such as Germany, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic. The only larger collection is at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Other attractions in the east Slovakian area include the Museum of Ukrainian-Ruthenian Culture at Svidník, containing traditional implements for farming, spinning and berry collecting that allude to a humble way of life, as does the nearby 10-hectare outdoor museum of folk architecture, where traditional buildings from local villages have been reconstructed.

Elaborate iron crosses top the Rusyns’ wooden churches, and there are many of these artful buildings dotted around the region, most Greek Catholic. The UNESCO-listed Church of Saint Michael the Archangel at Ladomirová is a good example, its roof intricately constructed from tiny overlapping pieces. Even more remarkable is the interior: a dense, gold-lined extravagance of rich colours. Its centrepiece is the iconostasis, the wooden screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave, decorated with panels of painted saints.

Also consider the protected landscape area Východné Karpaty and the zoo park in the town of Stropkov.

Back at the museum, its rural home makes the line running from St Michael to Marilyn Monroe that much clearer. And the conclusion towards which we are being steered becomes clear: Warhol’s art didn’t come from nowhere, it came from here.

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