ANDY WARHOL never set foot in Mikova, the remote village in the far eastern corner of Slovakia where his mother and father were born. But in September 1991, four years after his death (and 70 years after his parents emigrated to America), a museum dedicated to the Pop artist's work, his family history and avant-garde art in general opened in the nearby little town of Medzilaborce.
Medzilaborce lies in the rugged wooded foothills of the Carpathian mountains about six miles from the border with Poland and 30 miles from Ukraine.
The idea of an avant-garde art gallery in a remote Carpathian town had fascinated me even before it opened. Months earlier, an art historian at the Slovak Culture Ministry had regaled me with stories about wolves howling in the surrounding snow-covered mountains as he met with local officials to discuss the setting up of what is now the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art.
Still, when I finally did manage to reach Medzilaborce (pronounced MED-zil-uh-bor-tseh) last fall, I wasn't quite prepared for the contrast. At first sight, the town of 6,000 seemed little different from the others I had passed through on a drive of nearly 90 minutes along winding roads from Presov, the nearest good-sized city.
A hilltop Russian Orthodox church, its interior a bright display of lighted candles and folk painting, towered over drab Communist-era concrete buildings stretched along a grimy main street. In the center of town, an Eastern Rite Catholic church with an onion dome, a primitively painted roadside wooden crucifix and a few old houses were all that was left of anything prewar.
It was a cold, gray, wet Sunday, and the rain turned to snow as I walked down the street. Congregations spilled out of both churches; loudspeakers broadcast the services outside, and church bells, first from one church, then the other, rang out.
As in many villages in this area, the western edge of what used to be called Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, many of the people, like Warhol's parents, Julia and Andrej Warhola, are Ruthenians, a Slavic ethnic group related to Ukrainians. The Ruthenian language is a dialect of Ukrainian. Many Gypsies live here, too.
On the main street downtown, I got a taste of post-Communist cultural clash: a teen-age Gypsy girl with long, dark hair was rhythmically practicing break dance moves on the sidewalk while watching her reflection in a shop window that advertised flashy American films: "Sleeping with the Enemy," "The Player," "Twins," "Double Impact," "Ruby," "Shining Through," "Stone Cold."
The street may once have been named for Lenin or some other Communist hero: today it is called Ulica A. Warhola, or Andy Warhol Street. A few steps away, below the Orthodox church, I found the museum. It would have been hard to miss. It is a bright, white, clean-lined new masonry structure, a long rectangle at least 35 feet high, set in a broad paved plaza. Picture windows run the length of the ground floor, and narrow vertical windows, apparently two stories high, are arranged on the overhanging upper section. The building gleamed in contrast to the rest of town.
Two giant mock-ups of Warhol's trademark Campbell's soup cans -- one Cream of Celery, one Tomato -- stood on either side of the broad glass entryway, like red and white sentinels at the entrance to another world.
I walked around the soup cans and felt a sense of dislocation as I looked up at the ornate, old-world Orthodox church and the mist-shrouded, forested autumn hills beyond and listened to the church bells -- while reading the familiar slogan above the perfectly painted giant bar code: "Campbell's Soup is 'M'm! M'm'! Good!"
Stepping into the museum was another dislocation: Medzilaborce into Manhattan. Sort of. An American video about Andy Warhol, with a voice-over in Slovak, blared from a monitor in the gift shop. The shop sells reproductions, posters, postcards and -- my favorite -- cans of locally made "Warholova Rajcinova Stava" ("Warhol's Tomato Soup") bearing red and white labels with Warhol's face in a yellow circle in the middle, in a parody of Campbell's labels.
An elderly attendant unlocked doors for me and an Austrian couple, the only other visitors. Our feet echoed on the marble floors as we entered the cavernous galleries.
The building's austere exterior conceals a complex of spacious, airy exhibition halls arranged on various levels. The ground floor is largely given over to the shop and offices, works by local artists and temporary shows, with the Warhol material on upper levels reached by broad stairways. The stark white walls of the two-story-high main hall showcase a well-lighted and well-hung group of 13 big, bright Warhol seriographs: more Campbell's soup cans (Hot Dog Bean and New England Clam Chowder), portraits of Lenin and Ingrid Bergman, a cow, an electric chair, flowers, a hammer and sickle. Wall placards in several languages reverently quote Warhol's ruminations on life, death and art, and high-tech neon decorative lighting adds to the New Yorky ambience.
In smaller galleries off the main hall are some works by Warhol's brother, Paul, an amateur artist, and a Warhol nephew (who, the guide said, is a science fiction illustrator), as well as other contemporary artists like the Warhol protegee Ultra Violet, who had a one-person show at the museum in August.
One entire gallery and several side exhibits in cases outside the main exhibition area are devoted to an extraordinary display of Warhol family history and memorabilia, a gluttonous feast for devotees of the trivial. Here I found Warhol's octagonal sunglasses, his first camera, his transistor radio, his mother's diary, the little white gown that he and his two brothers were all christened in, old letters from Warhol's mother to her sister back in the village, old photographs, Christmas cards, clippings -- even some bills.
This material has been lent or donated by Warhol family members, and the 13 Warhol prints are on long-term loan from the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also gave a small grant for the museum's educational programs.
The museum itself was conceived and established by the Slovak Ministry of Culture, which also runs it. According to a former Culture Ministry official, in 1988 and 1989, after the death of Warhol, Slovak artists and other public figures circulated petitions urging the ministry to open a museum in his honor. After the so-called Velvet Revolution ousted the Communist regime, the new Slovak Culture Minister, Ladislav Snopko, took an active role in getting the project off the ground.
"We did not want to 'prove' to the Americans that we can do something American-like here, in this region of the republic," said Michal Bycko, a bearded, shaggy-haired local artist who is deputy director of the museum and one of the artists who pressed the Culture Ministry to create it.
"All we wanted was to render homage to people who gave birth to the man who has influenced the world of the 20th century. Those people were Julia and Andrej Warhola from Mikova."
Mr. Bycko told me that increasing numbers of tourists, mostly from the region but also many foreigners, had found their way to the museum. Some 1,200 people visited in September, he said. Indeed, the guest book had signatures from as far away as Israel and Japan, as well as one entry, in English, that declared, "Ruthenia Rules O.K." I was told that 50 Italians had been there two days earlier and as I was leaving three Polish tour buses pulled up.
The Warhol museum, remote as it is, gave me a good excuse for exploring what is a beautiful but little known area, mostly poor and little touched by private economic initiatives or other outwardly visible post-Communist changes. I even passed a few rusting left-over propaganda billboards of the Peace Equals Communism variety.
The rugged landscape, the remoteness and the ethnic mixture of Slovaks, Ruthenians, Gypsies and, before World War II, Jews, has given the area its flavor. Bulbous-domed Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches rise picturesquely on hilltops above otherwise drab villages, and a number of villages in the area, including Humenne, Korejovce, Mirola and Hunkovce, have some exceptionally beautiful wooden churches, built between the 16th and 19th centuries, that bristle with cupolas, turrets and carved detail.
The ruins of several ancient castles also dot the craggy wooded hills, including those of 13th-century Kapusany Castle and 14th-century Zborov Castle. More modern ruins exist, too; the area near Svidnik, the scene of a major World War II battle between the Red Army and the Germans, is not only full of commemorative monuments and military cemeteries but also contains the remains of many destroyed tanks.
The ancient town of Bardejov, the gem of eastern Slovakia, has an exceptionally well preserved complex of Gothic and Renaissance buildings around its beautifully proportioned central market square. There is a fascinating icon museum, a well-presented local history museum in the 16th-century town hall, a 15th-century church with 11 altars, and also a massive abandoned synagogue dating back to the 18th century. POP GOES SLOVAKIA The Museum
The Warhol museum is open daily except Monday, from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. Admission is about 40 cents. The best way to get there is by car, but be careful: The winding roads can be treacherous with rain, fog and snow as early as October and as late as April. From Presov, take Highway 18 to the turnoff for Highway 73, follow 73 north, then follow the turnoff signs on small roads for Stropkov, Havaj and Medzilaborce. From Bardejov, take Highway 77 to Svidnik, then take Highway 73 and follow the turnoff signs, again, for Stropkov, Havaj and Medzilaborce.
There are few good eating or sleeping possibilities in the immediate vicinity of Medzilaborce. I had a fairly pleasant single room with bath in Presov for $12 a night at the Socialist-style Hotel Saris, 1 Leningradska, Presov 08001, Slovakia; telephone (091) 46351. The direct dialing country code for Slovakia is 42.
The Saris also has a decent restaurant featuring typical Continental dishes and local specialties like trout and sausage. You can have a full meal, with wine, for well under $10 a person.
Another hotel in Presov is the Hotel Dukla, Nam 2 Legionarov, Presov 08001, Slovakia; (091) 22741, fax (091) 32134.
About four miles from Bardejov is Bardejovske Kupele, a pleasant spa resort with a fairly good modern hotel, the Hotel Mineral, Bardejovske, Kupele 08501, Slovakia; (0935) 4122. The town also has many remnants of Hapsburg-era charm (including Sunday band concerts) and an open-air folk architecture museum featuring some fine wooden churches and peasant buildings. There is also a modern hotel in Svidnik, another Hotel Dukla, KPT Nalepku, Svidnik 08901, Slovakia; (0937) 22255.
Kosice is the biggest city in eastern Slovakia and has several hotels, including the first-class Hotel Slovan, 1 Hlavna, Kosice 04001, Slovakia, (095) 27378, fax (095) 28413. I find it a little too far away, though, to make a good base to explore the Medzilaborce area.
Source: New York Times, 21.2.1993, By RUTH ELLEN GRUBER