Bosnia Background

Bosnia-Herzegovina, its history and heritage

By Maximilian Hartmuth

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a smallish, mostly mountainous country in the Balkan Peninsula that is closer to the rest of Europe than many think. In 2013 it will share a long border with the European Union; its capital, Sarajevo, is located at only about 500km distance from major European cities like Venice, Vienna, Rome, or Thessaloniki. However, the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its heritage belongs to the continent’s least known. This is, in fact, quite undeserved considering the surprising wealth and variety of artistic production on this territory in the past (and present). A fierce war in 1992-5 has handicapped the country’s transition into a liberal democracy. The so-called Dayton Agreement, signed by the warring parties under international mediation, put an end to the war; it failed, however, to create sustainable structures for the new country not only to survive but to prosper. ‘Dayton’ also divided the country into two ‘entities’ reflecting the former front-lines, thus dividing cities, plains, and even apartments. The country’s administration was divided as well, with only a few institutions operating at the national level – a ministry of culture not being one of them. This explains, in part, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural ‘absence.’

How is one to represent the cultural history of a country distinguished by a considerable degree of diversity? Most often this history is told as that of three different cultural traditions identified with the country’s predominant religious denominations: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholicism. While such a framework is, admittedly, oftentimes useful, now and again it is simply too reductive – nor is it the only possible axis of investigation. Looking back through centuries of artistic production in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one might also suggest ‘region’ or ‘class’ as similarly valid (and occasionally more imperative) categories of analysis and presentation. Moreover, it is often forgotten that religious art was not the only art produced during the past. Patrons’ motives to sponsor art, similarly, very often had little to do with piety and must be sought instead in the realm of their socio-political ambitions. ‘Borders’ as we are accustomed to them today sometimes had rather different meanings in the past. While it is historians’ job to study their historical subjects’ conception of the world in which they lived, oftentimes it was (and is) more opportune for them to simply ‘read back’ the present situation into the past in order to legitimize power structures or ambitions in the present.

But what does the material tell us? While we are in the possession of artifacts from millennia of human occupation of the lands that eventually became the modern country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it would not be unfair to say that the history of artistic production in this area is, to say the least, very patchy prior to the fourteenth century. It was then that many people around Europe heard of Bosnia for the first time, for it was in this period that the exploitation of this mountainous region’s rich mines began. The newly found wealth resulted not only in an integration of Bosnia into an international economy but also in networks of cultural exchange. At first, newly-rich Bosnia borrowed from all corners, but that doesn’t mean that in some areas fairly autonomous developments didn’t take place.

Although the conquest by the Ottomans of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the Krajina in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has often been portrayed as a devastating event, it is really in the ensuing period that a peak was reached in terms of the land’s material civilizational development that did not only affect a tiny elite. These developments are best reflected in the spectacular rise of Sarajevo as a regional cultural metropolis in the sixteenth century. Mostar and Banja Luka also owe their existence as urban centers to the Ottomans, while the same cannot be said about Foča. All these cities saw significant achievements in fields of Islamic art such as architecture and calligraphy, but art was also all but dormant among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Christian communities. A series of Orthodox monasteries were built and decorated in the northern part of the country, where the mountains give way to hills and plains. The Franciscan monasteries along the lower valley of the Bosna also continued their relations with artistic centers in Austria and Venice. However, the series of wars involving Bosnia and Herzegovina between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries was all but conducive to the arts. While patronage and production continued in the later Ottoman centuries, they did so on a somewhat lower pace.

The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878 by Austria-Hungary then resulted in a kind of ‘visual revolution.’ The whole country was mapped, drawn, painted, and photographed in a time at which the face of its settlements rapidly changed. Many old arts and crafts continued, but they now came to coexist with new ones, most notably a western-type architecture and modern (esp. realist) painting. The resulting contacts and synergies contributed to a picture that was even more varied than before. The transition to a western type of art was completed and continued during the two Yugoslavias (1918-91), sometimes under very different ideological circumstances. Changing political contexts have made some of this period’s heritage quite unpopular, invisible. While, for instance, the memorials erected on the sites of anti-fascist partisans’ struggles all over Bosnia-Herzegovina have recently drawn considerable attention in Western Europe for their ambitious designs, back home they face disinterest and neglect. It may to appear to some as if Bosnia-Herzegovina were still in a slumber, with inadequate institutions failing to utilize the country’s cultural resources to the greatest benefit of its citizens. A debate about the role and scope of these institutions is long overdue, the dramatic ‘shutdown’ of 2011/2 hopefully to serve as a point of departure for such.



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