Exhibition turns spotlight on Andy Warhol’s origins

The US pop artist said he was from ‘nowhere’ while believing he was ‘Czechoslovak’ — but Warhol’s family history isn’t so black and white

Arts & Leisure
Guest Writer | 24.01.2011
Andy Warhol, seen here with playwright Tennessee Williams in 1967, was ‘ashamed’ of his roots, says Factory collaborator Paul Morrissey (background), but curators of a new exhibit say the artist was proudly ‘Czechoslovak,’ though his heritage was Rusyn

It’s a Czechoslovakian custom my mother passed on to me;
The way to make friends, Andy, is invite them up for tea.

— So sang Lou Reed on the track Open House from “Songs for Drella,” the 1990 LP that he and John Cale released in tribute to the US artist and pop culture icon Andy Warhol, who decades earlier had backed the Velvet Underground (and who designed the famous banana cover for the experimental rock band's debut album).

But were Warhol’s ancestors in fact Czechoslovakian? Or even Slovak? The first-generation American artist’s ties to the lands of his forebears are the focus of a new exhibition at the Prague gallery Dvorak Sec Contemporary, simply titled “Andy Warhol and Czechoslovakia,” which sheds new light on his heritage and feelings about his origins.

A silkscreen of the artist’s mother (born Júlia Justína Zavacká)

“It’s an attempt to map Warhol’s relationship to Czechoslovakia, as the original homeland of his parents,” Michal Cihlář, the show’s co-curator, told Czech Position at the opening. Much of the memorabilia and photos were collected by Cihlář (himself a well-known Czech artist) and his colleague Rudo Prekop (a Slovak photographer), who founded the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in the small eastern Slovakian town of Medzilaborce.

Among the items on display in Prague are two dozen works borrowed from the permanent collection at Medzilaborce — the world’s first museum dedicated to Warhol, set up in 1991 with the help of the artist’s brother John Warhola (who, unlike Andy, kept the original spelling of the family name).

A portrait by Warhol of his aging mother, Julia (whose maiden name was Zavacká), done in his classic silk screen style (think Mao or Marylin prints), is a real highlight of the exhibition; it is also among the least familiar images on display, despite their close relationship well into his adulthood.

“For Andy Warhol, the most important person in his life was his mother Julia,” exhibition organizer Boris Kršňák told Czech Position, adding, “His mother didn’t speak English, just Ruthenian.”

The Great War, shifting borders

The Ruthenians (also sometimes called Rusyns) are an ethnic minority with a complex history who come from the East Carpathian Mountain region. Some one million people claiming this heritage are today scattered through Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland.

Warhol’s mother spoke only Ruthenian to him

The birthplace of Warhol’s parents, the village of Miková, was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when his father Andrij Warhola, like many Ruthenians, emigrated to the US in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. The state of Czechoslovakia — created after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire — has been in existence for only three years when Julia followed Andrij to America in 1921.

So while Julia was technically “from” Czechoslovakia, Andrij arguably was not; it’s easy to see why some regard attempts to link Warhol to Czechoslovakia as spurious. The Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture notes that Warhol “himself 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” but his fame as an international artist has been exploited by activists in Europe looking to raise awareness about the minority as a distinct people.

“His mother was in constant contact with people from her homeland, including, of course, her sister Eva,” Kršňák said. “She sent works that Andy had done to [what is today] Slovakia, and he even released a record of his mother singing old Ruthenian folk songs. The links don’t necessarily have to be reflected in his work, but they were definitely reflected in his life.”

As a widow, Julia moved to New York City in 1951 to take care of her son, who often used her decorative handwriting to accompany his illustrations. In 1966, he made a movie called “Mrs. Warhol” that features Julia in her basement apartment in Andy’s house playing “an aging peroxide movie star with a lot of husbands.” She died in 1972, a year after returning to Pittsburgh.

The man from ‘nowhere’

Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on my wall.
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen, can’t tell them apart at all.

— David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol” (from the LP Hunky Dory)

‘Chelsea Girls’ (1966) director Paul Morrissey says Warhol was ‘basically a peasant’ who never discussed his roots

Born in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, Warhol — who could be as cryptic as his iconic art — liked to say he came from “nowhere.” His long-time business manager Paul Morrissey, who joined the legendary Factory in New York in 1965 and went on to direct “Chelsea Girls” and many other works that came to be known as “Warhol’s movies,” told this writer during a visit to Prague some years ago, that his late collaborator had never discussed his “Czechoslovak” background with him.

“He was ashamed of it. He was not Czechoslovak; he was Ruthenian,” said the evidently embittered Morrissey. “The idea that he was sophisticated ... is the idea of a peasant being sophisticated, keeping his common sense. He was not a New York sophisticate.”

Warhol’s best quality was his sense of humor, according to Morrissey. “He was basically a peasant — he had a kind of common-sense sense of humor that came directly from his simple roots in his family’s background in a village in the mountains in Ruthenia.”

However, Michal Cihlář, the Medzilaborce museum co-founder, insisted that Warhol had, in fact, defined himself as Czechoslovak for most of his life.

“At home, he spoke Ruthenian with his mother. It’s a language that’s a little similar to Czech, or more like Slovak. He considered himself to be Czechoslovak,” Cihlář said. “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.”

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