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Medzilaborce: Serendipitous Brilliance – the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art

I’m jolting along in a pickup truck along the potholed back lanes of rural north-eastern Slovakia, with an ugly, utterly unremarkable-seeming small town, the centre of one of the nation’s most deprived districts, gradually looming into view. Kids walking shoeless along the street, a run-down glass factory: first impressions are not breathtaking. It would be fair to say that this is beyond the end of the road: there is nothing after Medzilaborce, the community I’m approaching, save a little-used route on into Poland. But there is, if you are a devotee of the arts, something of massive interest within the town…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The parents of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, Ondrej and Julia Warhola, lived in the village of Miková in the Medzilaborce region (before seizing the opportunity to emigrate to the US in 1914 and 1921 respectively) and, once settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they gave birth to a son, Andy – who, as most of the world already knows, subsequently became the world’s most renowned exponent of Pop Art. And this connection helped give this unlikely spot one of Eastern Europe’s most important art museums. The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, celebrating twenty-five years of existence in 2016, is a veritable Pop Art shrine, with several original works exhibited. It’s Europe’s biggest collection of Andy Warhol originals, too: indeed, only the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh itself can claim to have more.

The connection between Medzilaborce and groundbreaking art might very well have been, in the first instance, tenuous. Miková, for starters, is almost 20km outside Medzilaborce (the town’s odd name, by the way, derives from its location between (medzi, in Slovak) two sources of the Laborec river). Andy Warhol was not born in Medzilaborce, anyways, or anywhere in Eastern Slovakia for that matter, and even his parents wanted to leave when they got the chance. “I am from nowhere” Warhol himself once said. And this shabby small town is a good candidate, if ever there was one, to epitomise nowhere. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that the artist’s attitude towards his roots was not solely one of renunciation. Warhol’s brother John is reported to have said that just before his death, Andy, aware that John was returning to their parents’ erstwhile Slovak home, asked him to make for him “as many photographic shots… of Miková village and local people there” as he was able. Who knows? Photographic shots could, had Andy lived long enough, have led to paintings. Paintings could have led to the artist reconnecting with the ‘Slovak’ in his blood. As it was, Warhol died in 1987. But within four years, John Warhola and others had made the connection anyway, when this art museum in Medzilaborce opened its doors in 1991.

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

There is a surreal hiatus for the just-arrived Medzilaborce visitor, however, after the initial impressions described above, and that is when one pulls up at the car park outside the museum and properly gets the chance to see what a remarkable building this is: even irrespective of the valuable art within. Emblazoned in Pop Art shades of cyber yellow, purple, grey-blue and carnelian red, with brash deck-chair-striped semi-hexagonal protuberances, it certainly contrasts starkly with the town’s over-riding hues of unabashed stuck-in-the-Communist-era concrete grey (occasionally interspersed with those still-ghastlier vomit-like pastille colours sometimes used to psychologically brighten tower blocks post-1989. Meanwhile, up through parkland on the other side, the museum is flanked by the majestic pravoslávny (Eastern Orthodox) church of the Holy Spirit, rearing up like a multi-tier wedding cake in brilliant white, and with the writing above the entrance written in Rusyn – the Cyrillic language of the people which have their cultural identity stamped all over this part of the country, and whose heritage has as much in common with Ukrainian as Czechoslovakian (Warhol’s parents, indeed, were of Rusyn descent).

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A bright red Skoda, the main automotive output of Communist Czechoslovakia, crushed by a huge weight, welcomes visitors at the entrance (read into that whatever defiance of the regime you will). On reception, a bored-looking girl hands me cool postcards decorated in the museum’s symbol, a psychedelic likeness of Warhol wearing a hat shaped like the church outside the doors, and ushers off the only other attendant, a much older lady, to open up all sections of the museum in readiness. There is something comical in all this – a visitor showing up to look round an attraction and startling the staff out of their catatonic stupor by so doing, then having an elderly babka (grandmother) scuttling ahead of me turning on the Velvet Underground soundtrack up on full volume to get the tour started, flicking the lights of each successive wing of the exhibits to illuminate the larger-than-life likenesses of Andy, then slinking back round to the doorway by which I had entered to observe me guardedly.

To begin with I ascend a wide staircase headed up by a statue of the man with camera hung in ever-readiness to snap shots around his neck (now the tables have turned full circle and he is the one who is ‘snapped-after’, I think) to where there is a touching montage on the Warhol family’s early (and very tough) life. This section is mostly presented in sepia, and it clashes most poignantly with what comes next – two vibrant, open rooms filled with Warhol’s originals alongside other Pop Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michael Basquiat, plus sketches by Andy Warhol’s mother (artistic genius ran in the family quite clearly, as she was a talented embroiderer). Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn – all the iconic works are there in some form. In total there are over 20 originals by Warhol here, including two of those soup cans, and perhaps most poignantly given the location of the exhibition, the the artist’s portrayals of Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle. There are several pictures from his endangered species series too. The extent of what Warhol achieved, coming from such humble origins, is powerfully portrayed: Warhol’s journey from monochrome to dazzling colour, from the obscure east of Czechoslovakia to stardom in the States. One could take the analogy further: the story of the museum’s founding was a controversial one; it, too, struggled to ever see the light of day, and it took some strong supporters, including the playwright-president of the new post-Communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, to make it happen at all.

The entrance to the museum ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It would be easy for a museum like this to allow tumbleweed to start blowing. Hardly anyone comes here – which given the world-class art on display is a truly incredible statistic in itself. But not only is the museum laid out with a modern vision, with love and with attention to detail, it also works on embellishing its collection. The most recent additions were Warhol’s Hans Christian Andersen set of pictures, as well as the artist’s depiction of US Senator Ted Kennedy, and an eye-catching series of portraits by the enigmatic female street artist, Bambi (her Amy Winehouse picture particularly impresses) which more or less continue in the same vein of celebrity sketching where Warhol left off.

And when a barely-decent amount of time has passed, the babka is switching the lights off again behind me (no other visitors expected today, it seems), plunging these wonderful exhibits back into darkness again for who knows how long?

MAP LINK: (Showing every part of Medzilaborce, indeed, that you could ever wish to know about)

OPENING: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 5p Saturdays and Sundays (May to September) 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 4pm Saturdays and Sundays (October to April) – there’s a fairly decent museum website but it’s almost all in Slovak

ADMISSION: 3,50 Euros (adults), 1.70 Euros (children).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, it’s 90km southeast to Slovakia’s easternmost village, Nova Sedlica, and the start of a fascinating hike into the Poloniny National Park

From the outside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the outside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

In stark contrast to a lot of Slovak cities, Poprad has rejuvenated the area around its main station. Heading into town from here, out of the station which in itself is something of a multi-floored Modernist marvel, you’ll walk down the verdant double-boulevard of Alžbetina or across the park four blocks south to the main drag of Štefanikova, and from there most likely a block further into the city centre. But there are some interesting diversions even before you’ve gone that far. On the other side of the imaginatively named Park pri železničej Stanici (railway station park!) an old power station has been converted into one of Slovakia’s best provincial art galleries: the Elektráreň.

Standing screened by trees, the building, lovingly restored in cream and red brick and huge green windows, focuses on thought-provoking modern Slovak art. It would be a breath of fresh air in the culture scene of a far larger city than this, but here in the capital of the High Tatras, where outdoor lovers would flock regardless, the presence of this branch of the Tatranská Galéria (Tatras Gallery, there is another branch south of Štefanikova) is particularly impressive, and talismanic of new, culturally resurgent Poprad.

Even so, it’s an elderly Slovak babka (grandmother), as in so many artistic institutions in the country, that welcomes you in to the Elektráreň and transports the experience into the realms of the surreal right from the off as she gives you an incredulous stare as probably one of her first visitors of the day (yes, it is likely you will have this gallery absolutely to yourself during your visit).

The downstairs space is reserved for changing exhibitions, and ones of a high international pedigree too (running right now is an exhibition of Edgar Degas works, and preceding this has been a whole host of other big names in Eastern European art, including already in 2016 a retrospective of one of Slovakia’s greatest ever 20th century artists, Albín Brunovský). It’s an impressive, multi-faceted space and the soaring ceilings of the old power station lends dramatic spaciousness and acoustics.

The upper levels are graced with a permanent collection of the Slovak wood carvings and sculptures particular to this part of Slovakia and, perhaps most fascinatingly, some surrealist works by contemporary Slovak artists. Most striking is the photography of Ľubomír Purdeš – his otvorena horá shows one of the High Tatras peaks with a huge circular chunk cut away, then suspended ethereally above, like a separate planet.

The best thing about the Elektráreň – over, say. bigger contemporary art galleries and museums in Slovakia such as Bratislava’s Danubiana – is certainly its prismatic focus on Slovak art and artists. These always get priority here, and the fabulous space is a true championing of the far-reaching nature of art in the country, in all its forms, in the 21st century.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavova 12 (the building is right on the corner, and there is also an entrance on Halatova.

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

OPENING: Monday 10am to 8pm, Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Sundays 1pm to 5pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 1.2km east of the Elektráreň, and a pleasant walk along the Poprad River, is the immensely fun mega water park of AquaCity

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The Old Town: the Corridor of Books

Think a myriad bound copies of Cassanova, stretching into a void which also contains, upon closer examination, an infinite number of most of the other classics, likewise piling up and plummeting down before you on shelves that shear away as far as the eye can see.

Now think Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and the third of Indy’s three tests to get to the chamber with the Holy Grail(s) in which he has to have faith in the existence of the path in order for the path to be there at all.

OK. Now imagine that same path, seemingly suspended in mid-air, across the middle of the book-lined void.

I have not lost my mind. I’m talking about Bratislava city centre’s most ingenious tourist attraction.

It would seem to be wrong – akin to revealing the final dramatic twists of a novel to a reader who has only scanned the back-cover blurb – to say too much more about this sight on the second floor of the Bratislava City Gallery (Galéria Mesta Bratislavy) before you arrive there to see it yourself. So I won’t.

But the gallery has far more to see besides this fantasy library. No sooner do you step out  than you are ushered into a surreal recreation of a French bordello, a red-lit antechamber  with velvet drapes and various early 20th century beauties leaping out at you (figuratively, gentlemen) from the walls. You can descend to see evidence of Celtic mining and coin minting in Bratislava (from a time long before the idea of Slovakia, or of any of the other Central European nations around it, ever existed). You can ascend to see some fascinating examples of Central European art/sculpture over the last three centuries, including a romp through the history of Slovak art (19th to 21st centuries inclusive):)

These kind of art museums can go very wrong. They often seem stuffy, or just lacklustre, and a plethora of such examples spill across Europe’s big cities, masquerading as important diversions for visitors. The Bratislava City Gallery does not do that. Its Palffy Palace address which contains everything mentioned in these paragraphs is tucked away so inconspicuously on Pánska, one of the Old Town’s main dining streets with its cobbles festooned by restaurant tables in summer, that you would easily walk by the place. Unassuming it is. But once you are through the doors, you’ll find it a treasure trove of surprises. Good surprises.

Its exhibits are hardly world class. But as anyone who has trundled through Uffizi’s and Louvre’s will know, world class does not always equal sensational where art is concerned. Art is best appreciated alone, or when you do not feel jaded from the jostling of thousands of others. Bratislava City Gallery? You’ll appreciate it alone, more or less. Few come here.

And if you did walk by, oblivious, you would never know what it was to step out across a void of books.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Pánska 19 (Palffy Palace branch). The Mirbach Palace branch of the museum is on Františkánske námestie and will form a different post, some time in the future once we have visited – and if it has anything as attention-worthy – which it quite possibly will not.

ADMISSION: 4 Euros per person for the full gallery experience, you can ask to just see the corridor of books and they’ll probably let you in for 2 Euros.

OPENING: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays like almost everything seems to be in Bratislava and indeed Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 22km southeast is Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum

Ayako Rokkaku’s Bizarre Animations

IMG_0237A grey Sunday in Bratislava… quite possibly the greyest day of the winter yet, and what better time to inject some colour into your life? Having use of a car for the day (given that getting there by public transport there is a challenge to say the least) we took the trip out to Danubiana (Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum) to see Ayako Rokkaku’s exhibition “Where the Smell Comes From” which impressed me for totally different reasons to those I imagined.

Rokkaku paints not with brushes but directly, and without much preliminary planning, onto the canvas using nothing but her hands as the tools. Her works, clearly inspired by Japanese animation, are gaudy, ostensibly child-like depictions of young girls with baleful eyes and billowing skirts wandering, often lost, in fantasy-scapes full of the colour and disorder of a fairy tale.

In “Where the Smell Comes From”, we are experiencing the world through the eyes of a child. The paintings mostly have these girl protagonists, wearing expressions of sadness, or perhaps stroppiness or frustrated-ness, moving through worlds that shimmer with butterflies, childishly oversized flowers or toys. Rather (for example) than showing how a dragonfly looks to us, the observers looking in on the picture, we see the dragonfly through the eyes of the girl it flies around: larger-than-life, hanging in the brightly-coloured air seemingly forever, as children often see things: in an incredibly different (and invariably more interesting) way. In the downstairs video installation, another girl drifts through a vast, featureless world of sea and sky and, upon colliding with a huge structure, proceeds to aimlessly slide down it, climb it again and then, after dancing on the top with a similarly brightly-dressed character, launches a pencil into the sky. Once again the main subjects of the painting are reacting in a somewhat irrational (or unfathomably child-like) way to their environment, and this is typical of all the works of art here.

The alternative explanation, of course, is not these girl protagonists are reacting irrationally, but that their environment is a kind of disotopia – as childish as it may at first glance seem, the backgrounds of these pictures are complex, often frightening gardens of vibrant chaos, where rationality is totally removed. This last explanation is very plausible, given Rakkuku admits to taking inspiration, or rather motivation, from the 2011 Tsunami.

IMG_0242It’s these backgrounds of Rokkaku’s that I found myself captivated by far more than her technique. For in many of the pictures, the backgrounds take control and it is no longer the somewhat petulant girls dominating anymore. If they do appear, they are utterly lost into these chaotic scenes of giant mushrooms, monstrous ducks (and what are those things inside them?!), houses floating in the sky, trees made of fire and witches familiars – scenes in which Rokkaku enlisted the help of various groups of school children to create. On one occasion, in the Tsunami-hit Japanese city of Ofunato, she worked with 200 children on an 8-metre canvas. And these scenes are childishly innocent, on one level, but on another, far darker. Some pictures feature helicopters exploding in flame and planes dropping bombs (OK, admittedly heart-shaped ones) on lop-sided towns.

Of course, what with every painting being called “untitled” (a deliberate move away from trying to dictate what we are seeing) those helicopters could be birds and those ducks alien spacecraft. There is no right or wrong answer. But dark or comic, it is the children that painted these pictures that are the real stars of the show. Each picture seems themed around their initial drawings. And, quite clearly, what this exhibition is more than anything is an insight into the immense and at times prophetic talents young children possess: more so than any art I have previously seen. The major thing it lacks is giving any credit to the children that created these masterpieces: is there an age under which giving official credit for work ceases to apply? But “Where the Smell Comes From” will certainly do one thing. It will make you think, and have you hotly debating each vibrant, intriguing image you see. Perhaps it takes children to make you really think about art.

Where?

“Where the Smell Comes” from runs until December 9th at the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Čunovo. If you lack your own vehicle, bus 91 runs from the bus station under Most SNP until Čunovo – then, you will have to walk the final 2.5km.

Thanks! in part to Prešporák for this post – the builders scuppered my Internet connection this morning so this post is written from there!