Mersad Berber (1 January 1940, Bosanski Petrovac – 7 October 2012, Zagreb) is a Bosnian-Herzegovinian painter and graphic artist and one of the most significant painters and graphic artists in Bosnia and Herzegovina of the second half of the 20th century, both at home and internationally. Along with painting and graphic art, he worked in theatre as a set and costume designer and an author of book illustrations and designs, tapestry, film posters and record sleeve designs, as well as animation films.
Mersad Berber was born in Bosanski Petrovac, while during the World War II, he spent the earlier childhood and youth years in Banja Luka, where he completed primary and secondary schools. As early as a secondary school student he illustrated books and newspapers and magazines. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana 1959-1963, and graduated in the class of Maksim Sedej. He exhibited at the Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Art already as the student, in 1961, and that same year he won the Prešeren Award of the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana for the cycle of etchings Memories of Bosnia. In 1965, he completed the post-graduate studies of graphic art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, in the class of Professor Riko Debenjak, and, that same year, he had his first solo exhibition in the City Gallery of Ljubljana. Between 1968 and 1973, Mersad Berber taught at the School of Applied Arts in Sarajevo; in 1973, he started teaching at the newly founded Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo. During the 1970s, he realised several cycles of works of graphic art in large formats and a combined technique, inspired by the masters of European painting from Renaissance to Art Nouveau (Hommage à Velásquez, 1973-1976, and Hommage à Quattrocento, 1974-1976), and the annals of Mula Mustafe Bašeskija from the 18th century (the Chronicle of Sarajevo cycle, 1975-1979), he announced a post-modern sensibility and anticipating the culture of remembrance in the fine arts of Bosnia. For his work „The Great Funeral in Krajina” from the cycle Chronicle of Sarajevo (1975) Berber was awarded at the 5th Exhibition of Yugoslav Drawing in Zagreb, and an honorary award at the 10th International Biennale of Graphic Art in Tokyo. In that decade, he received two more exceptional recognitions: Grand Prix at the 4th International Biennale of Graphic Art in Florence (1974) and the Lalit Kala Academy Grand Prix at the 5th Indian Triennial of Graphic Art New Delhi.
In 1980s, he started collaborating with theatre: as the set and costume designer for the production of Shakespeare’s „the Merchant of Venice “ at Folger Theater-Shakespeare Center, Washington D.C. (1982-83) and design of the book on Miroslav Krleža (ed. Enes Čengić; in collaboration with text editor K. Mujičić). In 1980, Mersad Berber became a member of the Design Commission of the Olympic Committee for organisation and preparation of visual identity of the Winter Olympic Games, held in 1984 in Sarajevo. In the same period, Berber began working on a new cycle: Journey to Skender Vakuf and during the work on this cycle he lived in the Bosnian mountains alongside grooms, trying to learn as much as he could about the nature of the Bosnian mountain horse. This cycle is characerised by a reduced colour regiets, as they are almost monochromatic studies done in white colour. By the end of 1980s, he worked on another four major cycles: Tempo secondo, Paintings and Drawings from Dubrovnik, The Raft of the Medusa and Comments, which thematically and formally announced the turbulent political events on the eve of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which would be fully thematically elaborated in the cycles Dubrovnik War Diary (1991-1992) and Sarajevo War Diary – Midnight Talks with Il Guercino (1992) which were made as the artist’s direct and immediate response to the suffering inflicted by the war on these two cities, with collages of the scene from daily life of the two cities caught by the winds of war.
As of August 1992, Mersad Berber lived in Zagreb. In 1990s, he worked on the cycles Allegories (1996-1999), Postcards of Sarajevo (1998-2000), Execution of Young Regent Osman, (1999-2000), and began working on a major cycle Archives, marking the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Museum – the leading museum and scientific research institution in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo whose repository was the inexhaustible source of inspiration for numerous works of Mersad Berber. In this period, he prevailingly used the digital print, particularly the giclée technique, with additional painting and drawing interventions on his large formats. By the end of the 1990s, he began working on the cycle The Great Allegory of Srebrenica (1998-2009).
He had over one hundred solo exhibitions in the most prestigious galleries and museums around the world. A posthumous, memorial exhibition „Mersad Berber 1940-2012“ was held in Albemarle Gallery in London in 2014 (curator: E. L. Smith) and in Pera Museum in Istanbul in 2017 (curators: Aida Abadžić Hodžić, E. L. Smith).
He received numerous renowned recognitions at the most significant international exhibitions of paintings and graphic art. He is an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts. Numerous world museums, galleries and private collections, such as the London Tate Gallery, hold his works. He was a member of the Association of Visual Artists of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ULUBiH) and one of the founders of the Graphic Art Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, where taught until 1982.
Mersad Berber lived in Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Zagreb and Dubrovnik.
A TRIUMPHANT CULTURAL PARADOX
Edward Lucie Smith
Mersad Berber was in many respects a paradox. He came from a very fragmented cultural tradition, and from a region that has usually been thought of as being marginal in the main development of European art. Yet his work encompassed a wider variety of major themes than what was to be found in the work of almost all his European contemporaries, those working a similar, or at an even higher level of acclaim. His range of technical skills was also demonstrably better than that of most of his possible rivals – at a time when respect for skills of this kind was being increasingly devalued, since they were often perceived as being in conflict with fashionable ‘conceptual’ ideas.
Following the chaos of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he achieved a degree international celebrity previously unknown to any artist from his part of the world, with exhibitions in London, Hamburg, Istanbul, Chicago, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Madrid, Zurich and New York. Through these he staked a strong claim to being seen as a universally relevant artist, using a fascinatingly rich Post Modern Symbolic language. His last substantial showing before his death was a large retrospective, covering his whole career, held in 2009 at the CaixaForum in Barcelona. His achievement was the more remarkable because he was a Bosniak – a member of Bosnia’s Muslim community, which has a strong ethnic identity, but remains without a state of its own. In this sense, he remained a guest wherever he chose to live.
Berber was born in 1940 in the Bosnian township of Bosanski Petrovac, in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Within a few months of his birth his family had to flee to Banja Luka, to escape the fighting as the Second World War spilled over into the Balkans.
His mother was a gifted weaver. He inherited her artistic talent, and his skills as a draughtsman became apparent from a young age. From early adolescence he was producing virtuoso drawings and paintings on paper. In 1959 he began his formal art education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, graduating with a BA, then an MA. In 1978 he began to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, and set up a spacious studio there.
By this time he had already achieved considerable international recognition, chiefly as a graphic artist, winning a Gold Medal at the First International Exhibition of Graphic Arts in Trieste in 1971, the Grand Prix at the 4th International Biennial of Graphic Arts in Florence in 1974, and an honorary prize at the 10th International Biennale of Engraving in Tokyo in 1976. The emphasis on graphics rather than on painting at his early stage of his career was characteristic of art in the former Yugoslavia, where few people were rich enough to be collectors of major art works, but where there was quite a strong democratic interest in the visual arts. The emphasis on graphics was also linked to a more general emphasis on craft, typical of a society that still had deep roots in a traditional rural working class. In Berber’s youth, many everyday objects continued to be created by hand rather than being manufactured in factories.
This comfortable existence was abruptly torn apart by the civil wars that broke out of Yugoslavia in 1991, just over a decade after the death of Marshal Tito, who had held its diverse regions together for three decades.
Berber’s house and studio were destroyed in the conflict , and he and his family escaped to Croatia on a UN transport plan. He rebuilt his life in Zagreb, where he built a new studio, plus another in Dubrovnik. Memories of the conflict nevertheless continued to haunt him and provided material for his art.
The artistic background he came from was, despite his early success, not entirely favourable. The art scene in Tito’s Yugoslavia, also in that of Tito’s successor, Milošević, was characterized not by anything resembling Soviet Socialist Realism but by a tepid adherence to middle-of-the-road Modernist styles. Where the Bosnian region was concerned there was a certain degree of interest in naïve, supposedly ‘peasant’ artists, who were thought of as offering a degree of local authenticity. During this period very few Yugoslav artists managed to create reputations for themselves outside their own country. Berber’s success in breaking out of this situation, already heralded by his youthful prizes in international Graphic Arts events, was, in the post conflict years, to be altogether exceptional.
He deserved his success, and the celebrity that came with it, because he made heroic efforts to get to grips with his own personal relationship to that history. Though he had a very solid foundation in the use of long established traditional methods of image making, he was not content to let matters rest there. He employed a very wide variety of techniques, from the most traditional to the most contemporary. For example, he made a number of small animated films, and he was fascinated by the possibilities offered by new methods of digital printing, sometimes producing prints of enormous size.
His paintings frequently do not deal with single images but with conjunctions of images, in some cases simply placed side by side, but in others layered one on top of the other. In this way they often seem to mirror some of the complexities of Balkan culture and history. Berber felt a strong allegiance to the values of Italian Renaissance art, which explains why his work always met with a warm welcome in Italy, because of its resemblance to the art of the Italian Pittura Colta movement, which in turn derived many of its ideas from the later work of Giorgio de Chirico.
In the broad sense, Berber can be seen, during the later period of his career, as being a leading member of the Post Modern impulse in the visual arts. In a curious way, both his ethnic background, and also the way in which he broke free of it, ideally positioned him to take on this role. The point about Post Modernism is plurality – a refusal to choose one thing, one artistic attitude rather than another. The Post Modern artist also feels that things that are not only visibly different but also actually opposed to one another, can nevertheless exist simultaneously, as part of the same work. Not only exist but retain their validity. This attitude is directly opposed to the Minimalism that represented the final phase of the 20th century Modern Movement. Minimalism’s Puritanism has nothing to do with Berber’s aesthetic. His art is best described as being polyphonic, often with many things taking place in the same work. This is most obviously signalled to the spectator by Berber’s fondness for paintings that consist of multiple panels put together. There are also, of course, paintings where images from different cultural worlds co-exist.
Yet Berber was careful, also, to make clear his feeling of difference from the European mainstream. His paraphrases of Renaissance portraits and of classical nudes – one or two of these latter are direct quotations from the work of David or Ingres – are often interspersed with figures old-fashioned Balkan dress.
His not infrequent religious references are equally layered and complex and are not confined to his own Muslim background. Some of his most impressive works feature directly Christian images – the figure of Christ, for example, being taken from the cross. Others were inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most important Jewish medieval manuscripts in existence and now the chief treasure of the restored Sarajevo Museum. In this sense Berber showed himself to be a true descendant of the Ottoman Empire, which, in the Balkans, perhaps even more than elsewhere, tolerated a plurality of faiths.
The way Christian and Muslim elements overlapped to create a distinctive culture in his native region was a continuing pre-occupation in his later work. There were other overlapping as well. The masterfully drawn nude male model who appears as the chief figure in some of his crossover Muslim/Christian paintings was in fact a gypsy called Berisha. This adds an additional frisson for anyone with experience of the Balkans where gypsies are still too often social outcasts.
However, Berber never forgot his heritage as a Bosniak. His sense of this grew more intense as he grew older. Towards the close of his life he made a hugely impressive series devoted to brutal massacre at Srebrenica, the worst crime of the Balkan wars, in which 8.000 Bosnian Muslims , mostly men and boys were slaughtered by units from the Army of Republica Srpska, under the command of General Mladić. The images are a lament, not only for those who died, but for the demise of the plural culture that flourished, despite all ethnic and religious antagonisms, for some hundreds of years in the Balkans.
In person, Berber was short, stocky and almost invariably cheerful. His fame in his own region was considerable. When walking trough Sarajevo, where he had set up a subsidiary studio, filled with work that had somehow survived the siege of the city, he would be stopped every few steps by his admirers. He spoke to them with the direct simplicity and modesty that were his trademarks.
Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains Via Mezdi 27, 7500 St. Moritz,