There is a curious postcard on sale at the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art at Medzilaborce, in northeastern Slovakia. It shows the American Pop artist pushing his bike down the town's slushy main street. With his trademark silver-white hair, Warhol looks slightly out of place amid the communist-era low-rises lining the street.
For a good reason. Though his parents emigrated from the area in the early 1900s, Pittsburgh-born Warhol never visited Slovakia, much less Medzilaborce, a remote town of 6,500. But that has not stopped the locals, few of whom had ever heard of Warhol or Pop art before 1989, from adopting him as one of their own. "If you want to know Andy Warhol the superstar, go to Pittsburgh," says Michal Bycko, the museum's curator. "But if you want to know him as a person and what he was like before he became famous, you need to come to Medzilaborce."
The region is an unlikely setting for the world's second-largest museum dedicated to Warhol's work and life (Pittsburgh has the biggest). It is a forgotten land of mountains, storks, scarecrows and industrious people a quarter of whom are unemployed struggling to adjust to post-communist life. "It's so strange to find Warhol here, in the middle of this nowhere," says Heiko Schramm, 36, a visitor from Chemnitz, Germany.
But those who make the trip 16,000 a year on average don't leave disappointed, even if they fail to grasp what Bycko says are "obvious" similarities between Warhol's prints and local eastern Orthodox church icons, or don't connect Warhol's famously reclusive personality with the ways of the suspicious natives. On display are more than 120 original prints and drawings, some of them Cow, Shoes, Flowers, Red Lenin, Hammer and Sickle and Absolut Vodka chosen to suit uncomplicated local tastes, Bycko says. There are also such Warhol personal effects as a snakeskin jacket, green-tinted sunglasses, a scrap of paper titled "Calligraphy Fragment Found in Pocket of Andy's Leather Jacket" and historical records mentioning Warhol's parents, both ethnic Ruthenians.
Some of the most remarkable exhibits have to do with Warhol's mother, Julia, an artistic woman of little education who had a close relationship with her son the two shared a New York City apartment for many years and even collaborated artistically. They include two black-and-white photos, one of Julia's family before she moved to the U.S., the other of teenage Andy, both hand-colored by Julia in a style that resembles Warhol's technique, Bycko says. In another exhibit, a greeting card with a picture of the Last Supper, Julia used long parallel stitches to highlight the robes of Jesus and some of the Apostles. A pen-and-ink drawing of a messenger angel she drew on a Christmas card has been reproduced by the museum as a chandelier.
Julia kept in close touch with her relatives in Slovakia, particularly with sister Eva Bezekova, who visited her in New York in 1967. But when Bezekova returned from her U.S. trip, all the relatives heard was her lambasting America and Warhol's lifestyle. "They build tall houses there, all the way to heaven ... God will
punish them for it," she told Bycko in 1987. "Andy is strange. He is never quiet. He is always doing something, telephoning, carrying around a box out of which a human voice speaks. Satan's work."
The Communists didn't acknowledge Warhol and his art either, and so the relatives were left wondering. "I knew he was a painter, but I thought he worked as a house decorator," says Jan Zavacky, 57, a Warhol cousin. In fact, the relatives put so little stock in the value of Julia's correspondence, sketches and even Warhol's famous shoe designs that came in the mail a few times that, at one point, they threw them in the river.
Such doubts were dispelled just after Warhol's death in 1987 when his older brother John visited Medzilaborce. With his help, the museum opened in 1991 and survived initial protests 1,700 signed a petition against it and a fair share of financing and operating problems: it took the town nine years to fix the museum's leaky roof that at times would flood the exhibition halls.
Now there is a Penzion Andy across the street from the museum, itself on A. Warhola Street. A mineral water company has put Warhol's Red Lenin, Marilyn and Elvis on its labels. And a gallery called Endi (Andy written phonetically in Slovak) was opened by an occasional Warhol impersonator last year in a nearby village. All this probably wouldn't have pleased Warhol, who used to say he came from "nowhere." But the locals feel he is definitely from Medzilaborce.