January 23rd, 2011

It’s a truism of postwar art criticism that many of Andy Warhol‘s most well-known paintings not only represent iconic subjects, but have also themselves become iconic images of their era. Marilyn Monroe, the celebrity, and Marilyn Monroe, the detached, deadpan screen-printed image of a celebrity, are two different — but related — emblematic images of the twentieth century.

Warhol's Marilyn Monroe

Warhol’s ironic distance between subject and representation, with its implicit refusal to be pinned down, was taken during his lifetime as a satirical commentary on the vacuity of postwar society. In a sense, this is true, but Warhol was always an equal-opportunities satirist. Most obviously, his subjects included revolutionaries and dictators alongside film stars and singers.

Warhol's Lenin and Mao

Indeed, Warhol’s repurposing of images of communism was so successful that the ironies it has produced seem almost absurd — there is a chain of Irish cafés named Mao, which have nothing to do with China or Maoism, but rather are quite explicitly riding on the coattails of the Warhol industry in an attempt to portray an image of a sophisticated, refined and ‘postmodern’ eatery.

Likewise, editions from Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle series from the late 1970s are available to buy as a ‘blue-chip art’ investment opportunity for those looking for an art-market safe bet.

From Warhol's Hammer and Sickle series

Warhol himself might have appreciated the irony, then, that the place which has perhaps the best legitimate claim to ‘own’ Andy Warhol — the small countryside village of Miková, Slovakia — is not exactly refined or sophisticated, yet it bears the scars of the soviet experience so coolly addressed by the artist in some of his best-known work. Warhol’s parents emigrated from Miková to America in the 1920s, and ever since he became successful in the early 1960s, the area has had an ambiguous relationship with Warhol and his legacy.

The nearby town of Medzilaborce is home to the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art , an incongruous cultural outpost in a poor, mostly rural area. The museum proudly claims the second-biggest collection of Warhol works worldwide, and despite operating on a shoestring budget, it has survived for nearly twenty years since it opened in 1991. However, there has been no small amount of local hostility to an institution dedicated to an exotic gay American. The situation was explored by Polish-German director Stanislaw Mucha in his 2001 documentary Absolut Warhola, which presents, in all its surreal glory, the local attitudes to the man and his work. The entire documentary is available on YouTube in eight parts. Here’s the trailer:

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