Mersad Berber: Pera Museum Launches An Opulent Allegory of Bosnia

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face. – Jorge Luis Borges, Epilogue 

Mersad Berber (1940 – 2012) is one of the greatest and the most significant representatives of Bosnian – Herzegovinian and Yugoslav art in the second half of the 20th century; an artist of a prodigal body of works who turned the local art scene – expressively and with a unique gift – into an integral part of the contemporary European and world art.

Mersad Berber’s very memorable appearance on the art scene occurred at the beginning of the 1960s

Mersad Berber’s very memorable appearance on the art scene occurred at the beginning of the 1960s, when, though still a third-year student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, he was awarded the Prešeren Award, and when he gained his first opportunity to exhibit his works together with the world’s leading contemporary graphic artists at the then prestigious International Biennale of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana in 1961. His earliest cycles of drawings and prints titled Memories of Bosnia were inspired by the rich layers of his country’s cultural tradition, demonstrating, in terms of technique, influences of the renowned Ljubljana School of Graphic Art, and, thematically, his interest in his own cultural traditions rendered in a modern visual expression (Sultan’s Mosque with Lamps, The Embroiderer, The Old Carriage, 1961, The Old Town, 1962). Berber’s hand in these early etchings is lyrical and tender, like the work of miniatures, folk embroidery or that of precise arabesques engraved in metal: his hommage to old crafts and to the value of handiwork that he inherited in his family home and in daily encounters with the last remaining silversmiths, bookbinders and calligraphers of Sarajevo’s Baščaršija. The theme of his graduation work Fantastic Elements in European Graphic Arts was a portent of the transversal artistic mind of Mersad Berber, open and capable of crossing between cultures, traditions, and religions, which challenges separatist modes of thought, and which would be expressed in particular in his work after his arrival in Sarajevo in 1967.
It is these Sarajevo years that marked the beginning of an opulent, polyphonic symphony of Berber’s opus and creative energy: in fifteen years Berber realised several cycles of prints in large formats and 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), announcing a post-modern sensibility and anticipating the culture of remembrance in the fine arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was marked by characteristic thematic and compositional innovations.

Berber belongs to an exceptionally dynamic period of contemporary cultural history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during which – in the 1970s and 1980s and at the time of his arrival in Bosnia – extraordinary results were achieved in the domain of fine arts, literature, music, as well as in film and dramatic arts. Berber led a young generation of graphic artists that opened the local scene to global trends; at the same time, he was one of the few among them whose talent and mastery enabled him to frequently exhibit in the most prestigious museums and galleries. The Sarajevo period of Mersad Berber’s work was marked by his selfless engagement at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo (founded in 1972), which he founded, together with his colleagues, and ever since remained one of its favourite professors. Those were the years of his first important international awards, such as the Grand Prix at the 4th International Biennale of Graphic Art in Florence (1974); an honorary award at the 10th International Biennale of Graphic Art in Tokyo (1976); the Lalit Kala Academy Grand Prix at the 5th Indian Triennial of Graphic Art New Delhi and ICOM Grand Prix in Monte Carlo (1978).

The 1970s were a period when, on the world scene, art directly offered a paradigmatic model of complex structure of understanding the historic, political and cultural sediments. In contrast to the blank slate of Modernism and to the modernisation blindly focused on the future that was the direction taken by the avant-garde movement at the beginning of the 20th century, the fine arts of the 1980s and 1990s were driven by affirmation of memory and genealogies, as well as by an awareness of continuity. Instead of the exclusive and closed language of artistic forms, constrained by the modernist dogma that the new should triumph over the old, there was a search for an expression of thought and understanding that allows the artist to dwell simultaneously in multiplicity, a mindset particularly present in areas that were marginal to the dominant centres of modernity. This gives Berber an opportunity to understand his own work in the context of historical and spatial determination and recognition of the ever-present contents of historic existence in the forms and motives of traditional expression.
“Great names of fine art are like ancient caryatides”, Berber often used to say. “My goal is to keep discovering those still living and fruitful impulses from the past since mine is the tradition that belongs to the great traditions of European culture where ancient times, Byzantium, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Modernism meet and intertwine, while the Islamic component gives it a special tone, through a synthesis of East and West. If some define my art as Neo-classicism, it is because I want to revive the dreams that have been preserving the dignity of easel painting throughout history.”

With his unique ability to find a link between different cultures and traditions, and with the magnificent power of his transversal mind, capable of striding through the depths of historical experience, Berber made contemporary for us Iapodic urns, the golden glow of Byzantine painting, the harmonious Renaissance order, the elegiac pathos and dramaturgy of the Baroque, the mastery of calligraphy of the Ottoman period, the mysteries of the elegiac nature of the Sephardic Jews, who, when they were expelled from Spain, found refuge in Bosnia in the 16th century, the elegant restraint of Classicism, the refinement and decadence of fin-de-siècle, as well as the great masters of Modernism, which he continued in his later cycles  in the 1990s, where references to the grand themes and masters of European art very often entered into interplay with motifs from old Bosnian photographs and postcards (the cycles Old Ottoman Sketches; Theodor Géricault’s Post-mortem Mask, 1994-1995; Allegories of Bosnia 1996-1999; Postcards of Sarajevo 1998-2000; Execution of  Young Regent Osman, 1999-2000, The Time of Daedalus and Icarus, 1998-2001). By “visiting history”, Berber keeps alive the awareness of all previous experiences – he returns to the past, but he dismantles its hierarchies, as an artist living in a mass society, marked by the production and reproduction of images. Since there was a break with the past in which the avant-garde found its justification, the attitude of Post-modernist artists toward the past became more tolerant, more relaxed and more liberated. To put it in the words of Borges: artists create their predecessors because, just as an artist can influence works to be created in the future, he can equally powerfully influence our way of reading the works that were created in the past.  In his great cycle Archives, on which he began working in the early 1990s, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Museum – the leading museum and scientific research institution in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Berber created formats, large several metres long, using the exceptional technical advantages of giclée technique with over-painting, reminding us of and underlining the significance of the huge repository of this institution, which served as an inexhaustible source for his numerous cycles and the focal point for archiving the sediments of his own cultural historiography.
In this process, citing was not solely an act of repetition, but rather a series of intricate procédés and operations through which a whole is re-assembled from fragmented units in an imaginary museum, to become an original production. In these complex procédés, Berber demonstrated a deep knowledge of the history of European art, great erudition, and a strong reliance on literary and philosophical sources, which have greatly defined the very character of his cycles. Given the breadth of his interests it is no surprise then that he collaborated with theatre, film, music, product design, and on a great number of prize-winning bibliophile editions of books.
In the cycles The Chronicle of Sarajevo and Tempo Secondo, Berber sheds the lyricism and the golden colour palette of his earlier paintings, emphasizing the documentary basis and expressive organisation of his prints, combining the complex procédés of graphic art and merging the collages of several prints into one.   The cycle The Chronicle of Sarajevo  (1975-1979), inspired by the “Annals” of Mula Mustafa Ševki Bašeskija (1746-1804), a scribe, chronicler and man of learning (muallim) from a small shop beneath the Sarajevo clock-tower, expressively elaborates human suffering and tragedies, disclosing his warm self full of empathy, addressed to the people living on the margins of society whom we can never find in standard historiography. Reviving the scents, colours and sounds of Sarajevo Čaršija in the 18th century, Berber opens up before us, as a demiurge, “the historic mise-en-scene” of Ottoman Sarajevo with its kaleidoscope of most diverse physiognomies and destinies of unknown porters of Sarajevo, Roma, calligraphers, poets, merchants and craftsmen. For Berber, they were the real witnesses of their time, in whose tales and destinies he strove to grasp the secret of Bosnia, the country he loved so much. Berber tried to find a human face in this vortex of what was often a brutal history, to reach out to the Other and to show the multi-layered and turbulent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These complex cycles were a trigger for artistic innovation and exploration. Given their size and the complex technical processes of preparation and processing the large formats of his prints, made on specially prepared Natron sheets of paper manufactured by the Maglaj Natron Factory, represented a challenge for the art scene at that time.  In an effort to penetrate into the very core of the Čaršija mentality and to bring to life the colours of old Sarajevo, to penetrate as deeply as possible into the unfathomable domains of human destiny, in his cycle The Chronicle of Sarajevo, Berber amplified the verism of his hand: he emphasized the documentary basis and expressive organisation of elements of prints, against a dark and empty background. On his large formats, Berber combines complex graphic procédés (offset print; high, polychrome print…), later adding the process of collaging several sheets into one. As a base, Berber uses kemolit plates, which provide a delicate raster for photo-reproduction and a velvety trace as in mezzotint. Once the colour is laid and the base from the kemolit plate is dry, linocuts are applied: all the motifs are cut freehand in large format using hard, engraved linoleum and then applied on the offset base. A step further in the deconstruction of the history of his homeland was achieved with a new procédé: using scissors to break down the surface of the sheets, which are then abstracted and applied on new compositions, or rather on new connotative contents in the combination of a collage print. This often involved a dual encoding in the realisation of the composition: relying partly on documents/factography (annals, letters, photographs, postcards, applications of original elements, quotes from the works of great masters of earlier epochs, archaeological and ethnological sources), and partly immersed in the world of phantasy, fiction, allegory and symbols.

The central metaphor of most of Berber’s cycles is the motif of the horse – as one of the pivotal animals in the symbolic bestiary of different peoples and cultures. Yet, it was not, in Berber’s words, a grand horse, but the working packhorse of the mountains of Bosnia, so deeply linked to all paths of life: hard labour and weddings, funerals and wars. The horse in whose expressive power, pain and imperfect beauty one may read the biography of his people.

The expressive beauty of the motif of the horse became particularly evident in the cycle Journey to Skender Vakuf created in the 1980s, on which he worked intensively for a full six years, living alongside grooms, trying to learn as much as he could about the nature of the native Bosnian mountain horse. The great snow deposits of Mt. Vlašić that yielded the metaphysical whiteness of this cycle, in the silence and reduction of almost monochrome compositions, seem to seek to attest, as Berber noted later, to the reduction of human life, in the central experience of human transience in this world. Even then, he felt that this cycle was a hommage to his native Krajina and his family home, while in the whiteness of snowfall he recognised the solemn whiteness and simple monumentality of nishans (gravestones) in the courtyard of the Bey’s Mosque in Sarajevo by which he used to pass every day. Did those white nishans foretell the future vast fields of white nishans marking the thousands of Srebrenica victims on the gentle green meadows of Potočari?

In the late 1980s Berber was working on another four great cycles: Tempo secondo,  Painting and Drawings from Dubrovnik (in which he refers to the great European masters of Baroque, but also to Vlaho Bukovac and the Božidarević brothers, painters from Cavtat and Dubrovnik), The Raft of the Medusa and Comments, which thematically and formally announce 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, which held a special place in his life and opus.

All the tragic events of the 1990s war, particularly the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina, culminated in Berber’s opus on the theme of Srebrenica. For Berber, the tragedy of Srebrenica was “a great, ancient, hymnal and sacred theme”. He spent years preparing for it, collecting newspaper photos, documents, forensic reports, video recordings, books, and visits to Srebrenica and Potočari… Berber constructed the layers and collages of rich texture of his compositions on the large formats of his Great Allegory of Srebrenica, on which he worked, with absolute dedication, for over ten years (1998–2009), and which are brought together like a palimpsest. In the Great Allegory of Srebrenica he made collages from photographs of the faces and remains of clothing of victims found in mass graves, newspaper clippings, identification numbers, fragments of photographs from family albums, fragments from the lapidarium of the National Museum in Sarajevo, traces of soil or dry twigs of fragrant medicinal herbs and strawberries, parts of old manuscripts, and quotes and motifs from earlier compositions…
Unable to accept and grasp the scale of the crimes and of the dark, destructive depths of human nature, Berber developed his Srebrenica cycle as a great allegory, the tale of Daedalus, the mythical artist and inventor from ancient times, who, fleeing from Crete, carried away by the whim of the inconstant winds, falls to earth, together with his son Icarus, on the wheatfields of Pilice, some forty kilometres to the North-East of Srebrenica, in the Autumn of 1996, and finds there the tragic souls of Srebrenica in front of the graves dug in Pilice and Potočari, in the makeshift morgue in Kalesija, in the mass grave Zaklopača… In this “picturesque storytelling” he extracts from the living context the forms which he turns into magic images, where images come together as in a dream: faces of the mothers from Srebrenica, fragments of old photographs, an old Roma man called Beriša from his earlier cycle, horses’ heads with their eyes wide open, animal and human skulls, parts of clothing and worn out shoes from forensic archives, sketches of the miners from Srebrenica, refugees on the Death Road toward Tuzla, faces of anthropologists and forensics,  the ancient Roman map of Argentarium – the silver mine, the old maps of the Balkans, the towers of Srebrenica set ablaze, the war postcards of snow-covered and deserted Srebrenica, Princess Ariadne, and Phidias’ sculptures…
Searching for the gestures of pathos that use universal language to express the power of human suffering and pain, Berber delved deeply into the treasury of European painting, mostly Baroque, and in this imaginary museum he found similar spiritual resonances. A large composition (320 x 480 cm), his hommage to Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” – a large painting on canvas on which Géricault painted the drama of suffering and super-human pain of several survivors of the shipwreck of Napoleon’s glorious, yet abandoned regatta, has remained imprisoned by the winds of war in his Sarajevo studio. The memory of Géricault’s singular skin tones on the decomposing human body appeared in this cycle dedicated to Bosnian shahids and victims of genocide in the Srebrenica region.  Although it is hard to stare this theme in the face, Berber felt both duty and responsibility to do it, because, as Montaigne warned us, “To despise what we can not comprehend is a dangerous courage fraught with unpleasant consequences”.
In the first pages of Berber’s Srebrenica monograph there is a reproduction of his palette, with its dried, caked paints, like the faces dug from the deep and dark pits of Srebrenica, as an extinguished muse on the killing field of war. The hero of Berber’s cycle, the dedicated anthropologist Dr. William Haglund wrote: “I just want to make a little adjustment in a great imperfect world. I want to do something important. Just one thing that is really significant before I die.” The way in which Berber approached with dignity and piety, the pain of Srebrenica is an act of writing a true meaning into the adventure of his own life and into the responsibility of the work of an artist.
History is, in Burckhardt’s words, “a recording of what an era deems worthy of recording about another era”. Our era will write its history through Berber’s painting as well: from the golden colour palette and aristocratic splendour of Berber’s early cycles and his dialogues with Piero della Francesca, Guercino, Velasquez, Gericault, David, Ingres, Ivan Kramskoi, Klimt, as well as with Yugoslav painters Bukovac and Jurkić; from the deep, opaque whites of his journeys through the fairytale landscapes of Bosnia to the dark, macabre burrows of Srebrenica, Berber was always the chronicler of Bosnia who indefatigably painted the fragments of the One and Only Picture, which reflects all the multi-layered cultural history of the country, and all the complexities of its historical experience.

Mersad Berber An Allegory of Bosnia 16 February – 07 May 2017 Pera Museum Istanbul

Words:  Prof. Dr. Aida ABADŽIĆ HODŽIĆ Photo: Edward Lucie-Smith


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