The painting

A work of art gave its owner a ride through history

Writer Dennis Myers with the painting.

Writer Dennis Myers with the painting.


In the mid 1980s, I stopped in at Hermitage Gallery on California Avenue on some business. While waiting, I wandered around looking at pieces of art. I noticed a Polaroid print of a painting—a watercolor—on a table.

I stared at the photo for a few moments. Something about the painting grabbed me. It was Saturday, and only one employee was in the place. I pulled out a business card and wrote something like “If anyone can tell me anything about this painting, please call me” on it, clipped it to the photo, and left it on the table.

The following Monday, I received a call. “It’s by a painter named Burr, and it is a painting of a village in Yugoslavia,” I was told. She had little more information, and the price was well out of the price range of a local television reporter, so I thanked her and forgot it.

A month or so later, I received another call from the gallery. “That painting you asked about is on its way through Reno, if you would like to see it.”

Later that day, I stopped at the gallery. The painting was propped up on the arms of a chair. I sank to my knees in front of it. The village, with a bridge at its center, appeared frozen in time. It had likely been painted recently, as it looked in the 1980s, but it seemed unlikely the village had changed much in decades, or centuries. If the photo had grabbed me, the feelings stirred up inside me by the real thing were even more powerful. I gazed at the painting for several minutes. But the price was still prohibitive, and I thanked them. Walking out of that store without that painting was very, very difficult, and I suspect the employees had seen it happen before.

I did my best to forget it. Time passed.

In 1987, I was appointed chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. Along with the job went a substantial increase in pay. One of the first things I did was call the gallery and ask them to find out if the piece was still available. I told the person I reached that I would commit to buying it then and there if the price was the same.

A couple of days later she called back. “The painting never sold. In fact, it has been put into storage. The price is still the same, plus shipping charges.”

Not long afterward, 30 years ago this year, the painting was on my wall. To this day I cannot say why it took hold of me so. Art is like that, sometimes.

Bridge to the past

In succeeding years, I began to wonder about the artist, whether he had named the painting, and what village was portrayed. The internet was not yet the resource it is today, but I did learn there were a lot of artists out there named Burr. I was halfway hoping it would turn out to be Bill Burr, my onetime art teacher, but it wasn’t likely—the signature on the painting read JBurr. I found out there were a lot of artists named J. Burr, too.

Nor, without the artist, did I learn anything about the subject of the painting or its title. I called the gallery at one point, but did not receive a call back.

On Sept. 8, 1993, I was reading my morning New York Times. Then and now, there is a space on the lower left of the editorial page for essays. On this morning, there was an essay by Mary Cantwell, an author and Times editorial writer. The essay was only 728 words long, took up only a few inches and discussed a trip Cantwell took to Yugoslavia 23 years earlier.

In the center of the essay, about two inches square, was a photograph she had taken on that trip. There was the bridge and town in my painting. The town was Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Once I knew about Mostar, I was able to research both it and the bridge. In addition, once I knew the names, I began seeing more and more references to them.

The bridge was called Stari Most, or Old Bridge. Designed and built by student architect Mimar Hayruddin at the order of Suleiman I, sultan of the Ottoman empire, construction of the bridge began in 1557 and was completed nine years later. In earlier times, before Stari Most was built, towns on the two sides of the river were called Cimski grad and Nebojša. Bridges over the Neretva River and their bridge-keepers—the mostari—gave a name to the united town—Mostar, or Bridge-keeper. The Hayruddin bridge became famous as an architectural masterpiece.

Stari Most, as it now exists.


More than that, Mostar was a place where people of different faiths had considerable success in living together amicably. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre report reads, “Architecture here presented a symbol of tolerance: a shared life of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Mosques, churches and synagogues existed side-by-side indicating that in this region, the Roman Catholic Croats with their Western European culture, the Eastern Orthodox Serbs with their elements of Byzantine culture, and the Sephardic Jews continued to live together with the Bosniaks-Muslims for more than four centuries. A specific regional architecture was thus created and left behind a series of unique architectural achievements, mostly modest by physical dimensions, but of considerable importance for the cultural history of its people. The creative process produced a constant flow of various cultural influences that, like streams merging into a single river, became more than a mere sum of the individual contributing elements.”

Cantwell described the climate in Mostar, as she had found it in 1970, more simply: “I was fascinated by the jumble of Muslim minarets, Greek Orthodox domes and Roman Catholic spires. Everyone else, or so it seemed to me, took that jumble for granted.”

U.S. News and World Report: “And for hundreds of years, the people crossing [Stari Most] weren’t angry Muslims, Croats or Serbs. They were lovers, poets, tourists or intrepid swimmers who tested their nerve by diving into the water 70 feet below.”

The bridge was a major tourist attraction.

Direct hit

In the 1980s, severe economic troubles in Yugoslavia caused a crisis of confidence in the central government. Politicians were ready with efforts to whip up nationalist feelings and ethnic resentments. Political instability led to cultural divisions and a proliferation of political parties.

Photographs of Stari Most appeared as the front cover art on several books about the Bosnian war while it was still going on.

Although both Mostar and its bridge had come to symbolize the ability of competing ethnicities to live together in the town, over time the poisons of ethnic tensions seeped into the town. Many made the mistake of listening to their leaders. Soon there were stories of Croatians in west Mostar and Bosnians on the east bank planning a partition of the city.

By 1993, of course, Yugoslavia had come apart as Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo had declared their independence or otherwise gone their ways. And by the time I learned of the setting for my painting, push had already come to shove in Mostar, where the city was divided into religions and ethnicities, and some talked of the town’s end being near. Just a few days after I read Cantwell’s essay, I read a chilling sentence in Time: “But unless peace comes soon, U.N. aid can only postpone the death of one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most beautiful cities.”

Four days after Cantwell’s essay was published, the Associated Press reported, “Like many Bosnian cities, prewar Mostar saw Muslims, Serbs and Croats living together in relative harmony. When war erupted, Muslims and Croats teamed up to oust Serb rebels who opposed Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia. Now the Croats are trying to kick out the Muslims. Many now trapped in eastern Mostar were rousted from their homes on the western side by Croat nationalists, who envision the city as the capital of a Croat state. … Streets that run parallel to the Neretva River are relatively safe from Croat snipers. Those rising at right angles to the channel are directly in the line of fire. West of the river, the city is virtually clear of Muslims. For the more than 60,000 people under siege in the eastern quarter, shelling and sniper fire provide a jolting backdrop to relentless hunger and privation.”

A restoration of the bridge that took 20 years had recently been completed. When war broke out in 1992, the symbolism of Mostar and the bridge confronted the Serbs, who began shelling the bridge in April. A year later something happened that prompted the Croat military to take over the job.

Broadcast producer Michael Linder: “Mostar saw some of the heaviest fighting in all of Bosnia. In 1992, it was Croats and Muslims versus the Bosnian Serb Army. Then, in 1993, for reasons not fully explained, the Croats and Muslims turned on each other and began a new round of violence that must have shocked even the Serbs. Very ugly scenes played themselves out here. The Muslims were again outgunned—this time by their former allies. … The Serbs, still on the high ground, were no doubt laughing while the former allies blasted each other into oblivion.”

The fighting was so fierce and drawn-out that Wikipedia today has an entry titled “Siege of Mostar” dealing with 1992 and 1993-94.

Still, the city’s history of cooperation was a challenge to the forces who wanted both the city and Bosnia and Herzegovina eliminated. Stari Most in particular, as a symbol of amity, was targeted by first Serb and then Croat artillery. What had caused Cantwell to dig out her old photo of the bridge was seeing a Washington Post photo that showed the bridge in 1993. In the Post photo, it was badly damaged, covered with a fragile roof and automobile tires to try to protect it from vibrations and the shelling.

Daily bombardment took its toll not just on the bridge but on the surrounding town. It began to look like Dresden. But Mostar and Stari Most still existed.

Then, on Nov. 9, 1993, the artillery scored a direct hit. The bridge fell into the river in pieces. Footage taken at the time shows billows of dust obscuring the scene.

When I heard about it a few days later, I went home and sat down and gazed at my painting for a very long time. Against the sound of a river—I then lived on the bank of the Truckee—I wondered how the Mostar that had existed when it was painted had come to this. Some said the gunners wanted to destroy the bridge as a symbol, others that they were trying to wipe out Turkish influence. I suspected they were seeking reasons where reason did not exist.

Symbolism is reversed

The tragedy continued to unfold until the Dayton peace settlement of 1995. It has been praised as an effective instance of conflict resolution followed by a period of reconstruction. Perhaps, but on the ground in Mostar, feelings that had run so deep could not be repaired so easily. In the first postwar election, AP reported, “Hundreds of Bosnians expelled from their homes in Muslim-Croat fighting crossed to the other side of the divided city of Mostar to vote in Bosnia's first postwar election. The municipal election in this medieval valley town, which straddles a river separating Muslim east from Croat west, is a crucial test for the Dayton peace accord. … Across from the polling station where Muslims were voting in Croat-held west Mostar, a Croat cafe owner blasted anthems of the Ustasha, the Croatian Nazi puppet regime that controlled much of Bosnia during World War II. A group of 135 Serb refugees returning Saturday night for the election ran a gauntlet of hostile Muslims as they got off their buses in the Muslim east. Police arrested three Muslims in the scuffle. … The European Union, which has administered Mostar since 1994, registered voters in the precincts they inhabited in 1991 so as not to concede any victory to the policies of ‘ethnic cleansing' that fueled much of the war. On Sunday, hundreds of Croat refugees in west Mostar boarded buses headed east, as their Muslim counterparts headed west. For some, the neighborhoods they returned to were virtually unrecognizable.”

The bridge that had been a symbol of harmony had become a symbol of something very different. CNN: “Its destruction by Croat forces caused international outrage. The broken arch became a symbol of the division of Mostar between its Croat inhabitants in the west and Muslims in the east. The two communities are still deeply divided, despite intense international diplomatic efforts to reunite them. … The reconstruction of the bridge is expected to cost more than $7 million. Turkey has donated $1 million, and other countries and international organizations are expected to contribute to the effort. Rebuilding the rest of historic Mostar is estimated at $35 million.”

The town that had symbolized harmony no longer did. The London Guardian described Mostar as “a city long an emblem for the bigotry and apartheid blighting Bosnia,” a breach with the town’s pre-war reputation.

In 1997, four years after I learned the identity of the town in my painting—an identity that had since undergone sharp changes—NATO’s Stabilization Force began raising pieces of the bridge from the Neretva River. The World Bank and UNESCO joined the effort on July 30, 1998.

Los Angeles Times: Mostar’s “survivors hope that resurrecting the bridge will prove that anything is possible—even the vision of Muslims and Croats living together again without fear. The project is a risky, $14-million enterprise that could just as well revive old hatreds, raise false hopes and leave Mostar with monumental proof that there is no way back. … Experts are just beginning to determine how much of the Stari Most can be saved and how many years it’s going to take. Many of Mostar’s people are in a hurry. They want proof that the multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina of old can be reclaimed. Now. While they watch and try to will the builders to succeed, others are waiting and praying that the Stari Most—and the Bosnia it stood for—are gone forever. … After the Bosnian war ended in December 1995, Mostar was reunited—on paper.”

The bridge reconstruction took longer, cost more, and was more complicated than originally expected.

The large chunks of the bridge in the river may have altered its flow, undercutting the foundations of the two sides. Archives in Istanbul and Sarajevo were tapped. Research into construction techniques of 400 years ago and the nature of the original mortar was undertaken. But all problems were dealt with, and the bridge was rebuilt.

On the day it opened—July 23, 2004—the London Guardian said Paddy Ashdown, the British leader who served as the Dayton Peace Implementation Council’s high representative to Bosnia, “has imposed unity” on Mostar. Unity that must be imposed is hardly unity, and the progress has been very slow. On the same day, the BBC reported that the bridge’s “reopening is being seen as symbolic of the healing of divisions between Muslims and Croats”—but gave no evidence for that hopeful view. It seemed more like upbeat spin.

“The destruction of this great bridge a decade ago brought home to millions around the world the full force of the evil that was happening here,” Ashdown said. “I hope and believe that its reopening today will be an equally powerful moment.” But from the perspective of 2017, Mostar is still troubled.


News from Mostar this year has not been good.

March 19/NBC News: “Bosnian War, 25 Years Later: Mostar Bridge Illustrates Lingering Divide … But despite bridging the geographical divide, reconciliation remains a major challenge for the citizens of Mostar and for Bosnia-Herzegovina. … Nationalist politicians continue to aggressively exploit ethnic and religious sentiments.”

June 9/Balkan Insight: “Fascist slogans were chanted at a concert by Croatian nationalist singer Marko Perkovic ’Thompson’ in the Bosnian town of Mostar in support of Bosnian Croat ex-officials on trial for war crimes.”

June 15/Balkan Insight: “The monumental Partisans’ Cemetery in the Bosnian town of Mostar, where Yugoslav anti-fascist WWII fighters were buried, has been abandoned to decay, a victim of changing attitudes to history in the 1990s.”

I found one site that reported, “Located in southern Bosnia, Mostar has emerged from the traumatic shadow of the Balkan war, and is now being fully appreciated for its stunning natural beauty and unique cultural attractions.” But it was a tourism promotion site.

It is easier to break things than to put them back together.

In 1993, when Cantwell saw the photo of the badly damaged Stari Most in the Washington Post, she wrote, “I would never have guessed it was my bridge—my bridge because love confers possession, if only in my mind. And I had loved Mostar.”

My painting gave me the same sense of affection, and of sadness, and I hope the time will come when the Mostar that existed in the painting comes to be again. In the meantime, I have found that when history and art meet, it can teach—if there are those willing to learn.