Marian Wenzel 18 December 1932 - 6 January 2002
by Helen Walasek
Dr Marian Wenzel FSA, art historian, artist and charity director died on 6 January 2002. Born in Pittsburgh, USA, she arrived in Britain in 1959 to study philosophy under A. J. Ayer. She quickly decided her real interests lay elsewhere and left to study art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art under Anthony Blunt’s directorship. It was at the Courtauld that her great love for Bosnia-Herzegovina first took root. Her interest in the country had been stimulated earlier, however, by the books and artefacts brought back by a relative who had helped to build railways in Bosnia after World War I. A visit to Bosnia led her to decide to write her doctoral thesis on the monumental Bosnian medieval tombstones, the stecci; Anthony Blunt remembered long afterwards approving Marian’s budget for her field work which included an amount for purchasing donkeys, the best form of transport for following the routes of medieval tracks along which the greatest concentrations of the tombstones lay. Her research, beginning in 1960, recording and sorting the decorative motifs found on the stecci, proved to be groundbreaking work.
Her research on the stecci led to her long association with the Zemaljski Muzej, the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where her great mentor was its then director, Alojz Benac. Her doctoral thesis, Medieval Tombstones in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was published in Sarajevo by Veselin Masleša in their series ‘Kulturno Nasljepe BiH’ in 1965 under the title Ukrasni motivi na steccima. The Yugoslav fascination with the ‘Bogomil’ stecci was such that Marian became a well-known figure across the country, all the more because of her youthfulness and American nationality. The association of Marian with the stecci transcended the break-up of Yugoslavia. I sometimes heard her called by the affectionate nickname ‘Marija Steckova’ and a Croatian cabinet minister once asked me confidentially if she was ‘the’ Marian Wenzel. Even the rather alarming HVO-supporting owner of a pension in West Mostar knew of her work and clasped her warmly to his bosom when he discovered who was lodging with him.
Her work deciphering inscriptions on the tombstones demolished the myth that they were raised by adherents of the allegedly Bogomil Bosnian Church and she demonstrated conclusively that the stecci were one aspect of a fashion followed by Catholic, Orthodox and Bosnian Church followers alike. Tracing the evolution of the decorative motifs on the tombstones took longer, but led her into the study of Bosnian medieval metalwork – one of the glories of Bosnian culture and the root, Marian felt, of the motifs on the stecci. Her most recently published work, Bosnian Style on Tombstones and Metalwork (Sarajevo 1999) brought together four of her papers on the subject.
After the Courtauld, Marian continued her research at the Warburg Institute, where the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and the persistence of symbols and traditions from the ancient world proved a sympathetic environment for her own approach to art history. Over her long career Marian focused her attention not only on the art of Bosnia-Herzegovina but on a varied range of subjects including Islamic glass, jewellery, metalwork and textiles. She produced many publications, among them a classic work on house decoration in Nubia, researched when she participated in the international rescue archaeology carried out before the building of the Aswan Dam, and a catalogue of the Islamic rings in the Khalili Collection. In latter years she carried out research for dealers and auction houses.
At the Warburg Marian found another mentor - Ernst Gombrich. It was to Gombrich, (who called her a remarkable woman and who had one of her paintings in his study) that she turned when her close friend Azra Begic, senior curator at the Umjetnicka Galerija in Sarajevo, called her during the shelling of Dubrovnik by the JNA. ‘You must do something’ said Azra, ‘We can’t communicate with the outside world, so you must speak for us. Who else has the understanding of our heritage but you?’ This was something out of Marian’s realm, but Gombrich suggested faxing a press release to all the national newspapers. When the war spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, she saw her work as even more urgent, and the attacks on Bosnia’s cultural heritage and the increasing difficulties in communicating with Sarajevo led her to form the charity Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue in September 1992 with the Bosnian architect, Miriam Ovadia Volic.
Marian had long seen herself as a defender of Bosnia and its distinctive cultural heritage and with her belief in the existence of a Bosnian style she made it her mission to reveal this heritage to Bosnians themselves, as well as those outside the country. This often led her into controversy and confrontation with the academic community, particularly her views on the Bosnian Church and Bogomilism.
In 1981 an exhibition was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Masterpieces of Serbian Goldsmith’s Work which confused then alarmed art historians. There were too many different styles incorporated in what was described as the ‘Morava School’, a provincial Serbian school of metalwork. Marian rushed to examine the silver objects displayed and she was later to demonstrate that many of the vessels shown were, in fact, of Bosnian production. The pieces in the exhibition were a revelation to her, as she believed she had now identified what she felt were the sources of the decorative motifs on the stecci. With typical fearlessness she changed the title of the lecture she was about to give on stecci at the Serbian Academy of Sciences in Belgrade to Bosnian Style and spoke instead of her new discoveries. There was outrage from some and pity from others that Marian could be deluded as to believe there was such a thing as a Bosnian style. The lecture was refused publication in Belgrade and was later published in Zagreb.
Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue, known more usually as BHHR, was the only organization outside Bosnia dedicated entirely to the protection of Bosnia’s cultural heritage. Marian soon learned to lobby and quickly achieved a number of firsts – she compiled the first published (by the Council of Europe) list of damaged and destroyed monuments in Bosnia and made the first mission by a cultural organization into Sarajevo in June 1993, accompanied by Roger Shrimplin from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Marian was at her best during the war and in its immediate aftermath, harrying the media and officialdom to pay attention to what was happening to Bosnia’s cultural heritage. She acted as an interface between the Zemaljski Muzej and other museums and UNPROFOR and its successors, and other international organizations such as UNESCO, resolving the frequent clashes of culture and intentions that occurred. Working tirelessly, with virtually no income apart from the dwindling research commissions that came her way, Marian dedicated herself to Bosnia. After the war, funding came for BHHR, allowing it to open an office in Sarajevo as well as in London, and providing some much-welcomed financial security for Marian.
Just one instance of the long term effect of Marian’s activities during the war was demonstrated to me recently when I read the newsletter of the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation announcing that the Director and staff of the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library in Sarajevo were to receive an award from the foundation for their work preserving their priceless collection of Islamic manuscripts during the war; further in the newsletter was a report on the project instigated by the foundation to microfilm and image the collection on CD-ROM as well as to assist in publishing seven volumes of the Library’s catalogue.
In April 1995 I was on a mission to Sarajevo with Marian for BHHR when it was suggested that we visit the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library. We were pleased to see that the collection had so far survived the war, but saw that it was stored in inadequate conditions. Its Director, Mustafa Jahic, and the Chief Librarian wanted help for the collections and were also very keen to have the most recently completed volume of their catalogue published - it had been ready for printing just as war broke out. They had heard of the Al-Furqan Foundation and its work and asked us to make contact with the Foundation in London on their behalf, giving us two volumes of the library’s catalogue to take with us.
Our visit coincided with the renewed heavy shelling of Sarajevo, the airport was closed, we missed the last flight out of the city and were unable to leave. One attempt to leave by road driven by the Phillipe Coiffet, Deputy Chief of Staff of UNPROFOR, failed when even he was turned back at the Bosnian Serb checkpoint on the edge of Sarajevo. Eventually, we were driven out of Sarajevo by Odran Hayes, an engineer working for the British Overseas Development Agency Emergency Engineering team, who worked on both sides of the confrontation line.
We were advised to travel light, but Marian insisted on carrying the heavy catalogues of the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library hidden in her bag, as she felt how important it was for future of the library to bring the volumes out of Bosnia. On our return to London we made contact with the Al-Furqan Foundation, delivered the catalogues, and assisted the Foundation in setting up the initial contacts with the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library.
Marian’s paintings, which drew on her deep knowledge of history, art and myth, were admired by a devoted following, but never achieved the recognition they deserved. Again, Bosnia was intimately entwined with her creative production. Her first one-woman show was held in Sarajevo at the Artists’ Centre at in 1966. During the war she brought her exhibition Dragons for Bosnia into Sarajevo on a UN flight in the spring of 1995 where it was shown at the Umjetnicka Galerija as part of the Sarajevo Winter Festival. Bosnia also featured in her last solo exhibition. Drawing on the impressions she had recorded in her famous field notebooks while travelling around Bosnia during and after the war, Bosnia – War and Resurrection was first shown at Leighton House Gallery, London, in 1997. It was later exhibited at the Historical Museum, Sarajevo, in 1998 before moving on to Bihac, Mostar and Banja Luka.
Bosnia has lost not only a great friend in Marian Wenzel, but an irreplaceable treasure in the depth and range of knowledge she held of its art history and cultural heritage, in particular that of the medieval period. I can think of no-one outside Bosnia who is continuing her work in the field; while in Bosnia, art history, let alone Bosnian art history, is not taught (and has never been taught) as a university subject at all. Perhaps a suitable memorial to Marian Wenzel’s scholarship and devotion to Bosnia would be to endow a research fellowship at the Warburg Institute dedicated to the study of the art history of Bosnia-Herzegovina to encourage scholars outside Bosnia to apply their energies to the subject, and to develop as well a department of art history at Sarajevo University where Bosnian students can be taught for the first time in up-to-date inter-disciplinary approaches to the subject.
Helen Walasek worked for BHHR from 1994 to 1998 and was its Deputy Director from 1996 to 1998.