It is easy to forget that only thirty years ago Dubrovnik suffered a horrific siege. So much money has went into restoring the Old Town to its former grandeur that only the discerning eye can tell the difference between pre-war and post-war architectural restorations. A couple of rightfully popular museums have been developed so visitors to Dubrovnik can learn more about the destruction inflicted upon the walled city by shelling from Yugoslav forces during the autumn of 1991. These include the Museum of the Homeland War atop Mount Srd which looms high above Dubrovnik. It was from this promontory that shells were lobbed indiscriminately onto the Old Town.
The other museum is War Photo Limited which displays a collection of images from the siege. It also showcases awarding winning photos taken in conflict zones around the world. A visitor to either of these museums can mentally prepare themselves before visiting. After all, any museum that has the term “war” in its name is offering a fair warning of what is to come. Both museums provide an invaluable service, showing the face of modern war to thousands of visitors who know very little about the suffering inflicted upon the idyllic setting where they are currently enjoying a vacation.
Without Warning – Acts of Destruction
There is another less well known exhibit dedicated to the Siege of Dubrovnik that is easily accessible every hour of the day, every day of the year. I discovered this one by a sort of sinister serendipity while walking along Ulica od Puca. This narrow street offers a respite from the heavily trafficked Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. During my final day in Dubrovnik I noticed a series of panels with pictures and text attached to the exterior of a building on the street. This was the Ivo Grbic Gallery, named for the artist who lived at the address for decades. The palace in which Grbic lived had been built following the cataclysmic 1667 earthquake, which had infamously reduced Dubrovnik to rubble in a matter of minutes. Grbic was the proverbial renaissance man when it came to artistic pursuits. He specialized in graphic design, but also worked in a variety of mediums that included painting, sculpture, and ceramics.
Grbic’s work focused on Croatian themes and folklore, especially related to his hometown. None of this saved his world from destruction on the morning of December 6th, 1991. That was when three shells struck the Grbic residence in a ten minute period It was all that Grbic and his family could do to get their 99 year old mother to safety. Extinguishing the incendiaries that struck the palace would prove to be nearly impossible. The upshot was that an incredible amount of Grbic’s artistic output was destroyed. It was a grievous blow to his life and legacy. In a darkly ironic twist, this was not the end, but instead signaled a new beginning for Grbic.
Creative Instincts – Rising From The Ruins
In the aftermath of the attack, Grbic pieced together ruins from the palace and what was left of his artwork to create an installation. It offered a profound commentary on both wartime destruction and the enduring power of the creative process in the face of modern war. Grbic also invited other artists to display their work as well. His installation was met with rave reviews. Grbic’s postwar exhibitions were cathartic, offering solace to an artist who was forced by the conflict to spend the next eleven years living outside the walled Old Town which had done so much to fuel the creative impulses that had characterized his career. Grbic continued to cultivate his creative instincts despite the sinister of Yugoslav forces to destroy it. Artistically, Grbic emerged triumphant. His life was like a flower that had grown in a bomb crater. He defied destruction during wartime both physically and artistically. In 2019 he died at the age of 88, but that was not the end of his story.
I would never have known who Ivo Grbic was or his story if not for the open air exhibition mounted to the walls of the restored palace that he once called home. I was one of countless passersby who encountered Grbic for the first and likely only time through the informative panels that tell of the attempt to destroy not only his legacy, but also Croatian identity. The exhibit panels on Ulica od puca were the only place within the Old Town of Dubrovnik where I encountered a story of the wanton destruction within the city walls at the exact place where it occurred. The photos showing the destruction with Grbic standing among the ruins evoked feelings of anger, loss, and sorrow.
The power of Ivo Grbic’s story lies in the fact that though he was an extraordinary artist, this could not save him from the random violence that occurs anytime bullets and bombs start flying. The fact that his 99 year old mother became a target was a detail that seared itself into my memory. He helped save her, he saved himself and saved his best work for the postwar world he had been forced to confront. Dubrovnik would never be quite the same, at least for its inhabitants who had managed to survive the siege. The swiftness of the attack and the needless destruction unleashed in such a short amount of time was a reminder of the capriciousness of life when confronted by forces beyond our control. Reading the story of that fateful morning, I wondered how I would have reacted, both at the time of attack and in its aftermath.
Blind Spots – The Tyranny of Memory
It is important to remember that the long road back to a semblance of normalcy for Grbic and the residents of Dubrovnik was years in the making. There is no way the panels or photos at the open air exhibit can quite convey the mental and physical struggle to overcome loss. The battle against postwar trauma and the tyranny of memory has never ended. Beyond Grbic’s artistic works, there were other losses on that fateful morning thirty years ago. Gone forever was a way of life and in many cases life itself. Grbic was able to resurrect his work from the ruins, but he lost more than he would likely ever regain. While Grbic and Dubrovnik survived the searing experience of modern warfare, scars remain. They are on display at 16 Ulica od Puca lest anyone forgets.
Click here for: War By The Shore – Babin Kuk: The Siege Beyond Dubrovnik (Traveling On The Croatian Coast #62)