‘Nowhere’ was undeniably ‘somewhere’ for Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol once joked that he “came out of nowhere”. While it’s straightforward enough to look up a biography and find out that he actually left the womb in Pittsburgh, Pa. On August 6, 1928, his parents had lived in the eastern Slovak village of Miková, and that explains why today on the road outside this rather obscure place is a sign showing the pop-art icon in his trademark wild hair wig and the Slovakian message “Rodisko rodicov” for “Birthplace of parents” .
The first generation American artist’s mom and dad were Ruthenians, sometimes referred to as Rusyns, a little-known ethnic minority in the Eastern Carpathian region. Around a million people claiming this heritage are known today as the Carpatho-Rusyns, scattered across the peaceful borders of Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Poland.
Miková is described by a Warhol biographer as being hungry then at the turn of the 19e-20e 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 Americanized as Andrew Warhola), was born there in 1886. In 2020, the population was 131, and the road sign appears to be the only evidence of the Warhol link.
There is no “House of Warhol” but there is a Greek Catholic Church of St. Archangel Michael, and in the United States, Andy Warhol followed his parents by being a fervent follower of Eastern Byzantine Catholicism (Greek Catholicism ).
Like many Ruthenians, Andrij emigrated to the United States, in his case shortly before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to escape conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army. He left behind his wife Julia, another villager whom he had married in 1909, never to return.
The nation-state of Czechoslovakia, created in 1918 out of several provinces of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had only existed for three years when Julia, whose maiden name was Zavacká, followed Andrij in America in 1921. She was then technically from Czechoslovakia while Andrij was probably not.
Their son Andy generally referred to Czechoslovakia as the homeland of the family, although he was well aware that it was a purely artificial political entity of recent date. When he made the cryptic comment that it came from ‘nowhere’, that was apparently what he meant, rather than a reference to the questionable attraction of Pittsburgh’s heavy industry for new Slavic immigrants. poor working class.
Andy’s parents were therefore peasants of the Rusyn race who spoke their own Ruthenian language with their three sons and who had never really learned English. They lived in the Rusyn ghetto of Pittsburgh, Andy from 1928 to mid-1949 when he moved to New York and gained worldwide fame as an artist and filmmaker.
A Miková festival of Ruthenian culture is organized every year. The “Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture” observes that Warhol “never contributed anything to Rusyn’s culture, although some writers have attributed the choice of themes and motifs in his paintings to his origins. Carpatho-Rusyniennes ”. For whatever reason, Andy never traveled there to explore his roots, with the region sealed behind the Iron Curtain throughout his adult life. A few years after his death in 1987, Czechoslovakia threw down the Communist yoke.
Her mother remained in constant contact with people from her native country, especially her sister Eva. She sent her son’s works to what is now Slovakia and Andy released a record of his Ruthenian folk songs. Julia was artistic herself and Andy often used her decorative and stylized writing to accompany her illustrations. In 1966, he made a film called “Mrs Warhol” which features her in her apartment in the basement of her house playing “an aging movie star on peroxide with many husbands”.
(Hopefully it’s more watchable than the five hours and 20 minutes of “Sleep,” showing her sleeping lover, or “Empire,” eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of a singular view of the Empire State Building, only atmospheric light changes.)
Just down the road from Miková is the town of Medzilaborce, about 6,600 residents, where a large Communist-era post office has been turned into the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art and the town’s main street was renamed Andyho Warhola. Nearby is the Penzión Andy. The museum was the world’s first dedicated to Warhol, established in 1991 with the help of artist brother John Warhola, who, unlike Andy, retained the original Americanized spelling of the surname.
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 looks a bit like Czech, or more like Slovak. He considered himself Czechoslovak. But about a year before his death, he spoke to a Czech woman in a pub – and she didn’t get it. He was horrified because it turned out he wasn’t really “Czechoslovak” after all. He had spoken to her in Ruthenian, which she could not understand.
John Warhola said their mother often used to talk to Miková’s children, as she traveled by wagon to Medzilaborce. When John told Andy he was going home to see Slovakia, Andy said, “Take as many pictures as you can for me.”
But it was on February 22, 1987, six months before John’s actual visit, that Warhol died. John visited his parents’ homeland – a secluded, wooded land of cornfields, crucifixes, and onion-domed churches – in September of 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 works of art by Warhol, mostly drawings and silkscreens, including the Communist theme Red Lenin, and Hammer and Sickle, plus Campbell’s Soup II, portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger and self-portraits.
The museum also has a large collection of memorabilia: photographs and family letters and personal effects – his snakeskin jacket, his first camera, a walkman, a pair of sunglasses, clothes including a christening gown – on display. in display cases like sacred relics.
There is a real Campbell’s soup tin signed by him. A jacket pocket contained a sample of his mother’s decorative handwriting, from which Warhol derived his artistic inclinations. Examples of her letters and drawings are on display, along with a newspaper clipping that she kept from one of her son’s exhibits. According to the museum’s literature, one of his first breaks came by incorporating his example into the display cases.
Outside is a life-size statue of the little artist. All of this builds up a picture of his origins in Eastern Europe, and Warhol, whose work is said to have been partly inspired by the religious icons put together at home by his mother, would hopefully have approved of it. Before the pandemic, the museum welcomed between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors per year, mainly from abroad such as Germany, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic. The only largest collection is in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Other attractions in the Eastern Slovakia region include the Ukrainian-Ruthenian Culture Museum in Svidník, which contains traditional tools for farming, spinning and collecting berries that evoke a modest way of life, everything such as the nearby 10-hectare open-air folk architecture museum, where traditional buildings from local villages have been reconstructed.
Elaborate iron crosses top the wooden churches of the Rusyns, and most of these artful buildings are dotted around the area, mostly Greek Catholics. A good example is the UNESCO-listed Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Ladomirová, its roof intricately constructed from tiny overlapping pieces. The interior is even more remarkable: a dense, golden extravaganza of rich colors. Its centerpiece 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 zoological park in the town of Stropkov.
Back at the museum, his rural house makes the line from St Michael to Marilyn Monroe much clearer. And the conclusion we’re headed for becomes clear: Warhol’s art didn’t come out of nowhere, it came from here.