For the last few weeks, an intriguing project has been taking shape in a room at the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Slowly, boxes and boxes of portraits, some in rather poor repair, have been brought up from storage to be attended to by a conservator. The damage to these old paintings ranges simply from age, and the effects of being stored in an unsuitable climate, to actual war damage–bullet holes, and shrapnel damage.
These are figures from history- a history now fading fast in the memory of old people, and simply not taught to a younger generation. There is one remarkable thing about these portraits- their uniformity of size. These were pieces made to a template, the specifications of which were set by the Federal government. In any normal room of paintings in a museum, there will be a variety of shapes and sizes in the displays; from monumental landscape to miniature still life. But these portraits are all exactly the same size and shape. This uniformity is indicative of a very particular time period. The vast majority of these pieces were done between 1948 and 1952, the high point of the so called “Informbiro” years; the fearful time of the split between Tito and Stalin, of internal political bloodletting and fears of invasion from abroad.
The individuals in this exhibition are all “National Heroes” of the former Yugoslavia. Some of these are familiar names commemorated elsewhere in traditional war memorials in the city. The status of “National Hero” was conferred on those who had made a major contribution to the partizan struggle during the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, from April 1941 to May 1945; a struggle in which Bosnia-Hercegovina suffered particularly. Unusually, these national heroes are all from the territory of BiH; in Yugoslavia, national identity was often suppressed or not discussed, and such public collections normally featured artists and subjects from all across the old federation. Overwhelmingly, as has already been pointed out in the work of Adela Jušić, these figures were male, and almost exclusively, they had been killed.
The term “National Hero” was usually conferred on those who had been killed in action, and these portraits were one way of commemorating the fallen and enshrining their stories in the new historical narrative of Socialist Yugoslavia. In such a tense political time, it was imperative that the government of the day built up a new national narrative of Socialist Yugoslavia, and promoted it in the face of alternative historical orthodoxies from the Warsaw Pact, and from embittered exiles in Western Europe.
The exhibition is also interesting as some of the biggest names in BiH art in this period are represented here- notably Izmet Mujezinović, Vojo Dimitrijević, Ivo Šeremet, Ljubo Lah. For those more interested in the *subject* rather than the author of these works, this is a very rich show. Two images in particular are resonant for Sarajevo; the portrait of Walter Perić, the leader of the wartime Sarajevo resistance, by Šeremet; and, the portrait of Adem Buć, the scholarly Geometrist from Mostar, whom the present day suburb of Buća Potok is named after. “Valter” lives on, too, in a city centre street name and in a song by Dubioza Kolektiv.
But the real strength of this display lies in the unmasking of the conservator’s art. Untreated, some of these paintings can appear rather block like; cleansing reveals the brushmarks. Before the attention of the conservator, they appear rather dull; after his work, the tone and lighting of the painting lightens considerably. The effects of atmospheric damage- nicotine, damp, and of bad original treatment- horrible varnishing, for example, can all be reversed. Bullet and shrapnel damage imply reconstruction rather than mere conservation and are more painstaking tasks.
This is a long term project for the museum, which is seeking sponsorship to help with its programme of conservation of these artefacts. A few have already stepped forward to pledge their support. This exhibition also implies an important point- that to recognise the sacrifice and struggle of these National Heroes, of a historical state, does not imply a sharing of their ideology.The preservation and conservation of history for future generations is the core task of any historical museum and, in fulfilling that task whilst providing an interesting and informative show with subjects that decisively shaped Bosnia-Hercegovina’s past, a huge contribution is being made not only to the museum’s future, but also to the future cultural memory of our country.
Words: Jon Blackwood
Photographs: Jim Marshall