Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Visit to the National Gallery of BiH

My friend Shirley and I went in search of the National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovinia (BiH). We had the address, and Shirley knew where the street was, we even had a major landmark – the National Gallery was described as being across from the Orthodox Cathedral. But as I’ve already learned, that’s no guarantee that you can find it.

Since we were in front of the Orthodox Cathedral, we stopped in there first. The exterior is still surrounded by scaffolding, but has been mostly restored and it is splendid. The plaster exterior is painted in shades of cream and yellow-gold and topped with a distinctive dome. The interior soars 3 or 4 stories above the tiled floor, with a huge central dome supported by 6 massive pillars. The intricately tiled floor is mostly intact, but the painting on the ceiling and pillars is still largely untouched and looks like it will require many years of restoration. Oddly, the interior was at least 10 degrees colder than the outside temperature.

Now the National Gallery ought to be right across the street. We walked up and down and couldn’t find the building number, or anything that looked like it could be the National Gallery. Shirley is conversant in Bosnian, so she approached two men in a parking lot across from the cathedral and asked where the National Gallery was. One had no idea, but the other man pointed to a passageway off the street. We went down the passageway and, yes, there we found a small plaque on a doorway that read “National Gallery”. You could not see it at all until you were standing directly in front of it.

We pushed open the door and down a short, dark hallway to find a second door that said “Press Center” (in Bosnian, Press Centar). Were we actually in the right place? We pushed open this door and found a small entry area that looked to me to be more like a storage room or the stage entrance of a theatre – there were boxes of things piled about and a cluster of mops and brooms. Soon, a man appeared – perhaps the buildings concierge? – and Shirley told him we were there to visit the National Gallery. He pointed to a staircase and told us to go up. We were up the first flight before lights were turned on so we could see the photographs that hung in the stairway. The National Gallery turned out to be on the third floor of the building. Soon after we made it into the gallery, a stout woman came huffing up the stairs and turned on the lights in the gallery. We were the only visitors. I had the feeling we may have been the only visitors in days – if not weeks.

Except for two religious icon paintings, all the works were from the early 20th century. Sarajevo had been known as the cultural center of the former Yugoslavia. I have to believe that there had been much more art in Sarajevo, but that it was lost in the war.

In most wars, there has been some warning; a time of build-up in hostilities. A time when preparations can be made and treasures can be hidden or protected. But it seems that the residents of Sarajevo just didn’t believe that there would be war and no preparations were made. They have lost so much.