These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.


Modern art in a desolate town

 photo: Chris Togneri

Medzilaborce is one of those places people visit without really knowing what to expect. But they go anyway, because this is also one of those places people visit just to say that they’ve been there.

The town itself is nothing more than a few churches and a series of uninspiring, often derelict, buildings. Medzilaborce is remote and poor - over 30% unemployment and an average monthly wage of less than 200 US dollars - and it shows. In short, you need a reason to visit this place.

Across the street from the domed Orthodox church sits your reason: the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art. The museum, a white boxy building announced by two giant concrete Campbell’s Soup cans out front, is here because Andy’s mother, Julia Warhola, was born 15 kilometres away in the village Miková. It was opened in 1991 and today houses 23 originals donated mainly by the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York.

On an early March weekend, I was the only visitor, which the curator told me was typical. Few locals come, most unable and unwilling to pay the 100 crown (two dollar) entry fee. And besides, few Medzilaborcians are Warhol fans. When a local high school art teacher named Michal Bycko proposed the establishment of the museum in 1991, the town resisted. Many locals, he said, did not want to promote the art of this “decadent American homosexual”. One man on the street told me that Warhol was “a freak”.

 photo: Chris Togneri

The museum does not help matters. It treats visitors like unwelcome guests. A sign on the front door announces that admittance is permitted only to those “in dinner dress”, while those who pass the clothing inspection are forced to put on a pair of slippers over their shoes. “To keep the art clean,” I was told, even though the exhibits are on the walls, not the floor.

Fortunately, the exhibit is worth the scrutiny, the fee and the trip. It starts with personal items donated by Warhol’s relatives, including some old photographs from the family album. The next room features artwork by Andy’s brother John and his son Paul, who uses chicken feet to press imprints on canvas.

Finally, the Warhol originals. Most are prints on cardboard, some hand-coloured, the oldest of which are the Campbell’s Soup I and Campbell’s Soup II pieces. The Red Lenin print and the Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland painted photo are two examples of Warhol’s innovative use of colour. Otherwise normal pictures are manipulated so that the subjects appear other-worldly, even god-like.

Unless you’re a rabid Warhol fan, Medzilaborce seems like an awful lot of work to get to: from Bratislava, the trip takes about ten hours by train. In the end, though, thanks entirely to the artwork, I cannot say that the trip was a waste.

But I spent five hours in Medzilaborce, four hours too many. Ah, well. At least now I can say I’ve been there.

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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