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The Brigham Galleries

Mersad Berber

Mersad Berber

Mersad Berber

Probably the first thing that strikes a newcomer to Mersad Berber's work is his astonishing skill as a draughtsman. Berber draws with a fluency and confidence that has almost entirely disappeared from art in Western Europe and the United States. His forms have a fullness and solidity few artists can manage now.

The next thing that might strike such a newcomer is the artist's control of texture. His surfaces are various, but they are always alive. Perhaps one reason for this feeling for texture is that his mother was a well-known weaver, and he was therefore brought up with the boundaries of an established craft tradition.

The third thing that might impress a novice - after he or she had absorbed the impact of Berber's technical skills - is the typical fragmentation of much of his imagery. His paintings have sometimes been described as polyphonic, with one image or scene apparently sliding into another. He has a habit of producing works that are, in effect, polytychs, with a number of different scenes on the same canvas… He also often leaves a scene unfinished in some way, or else makes it look as if it has already suffered the attacks of time. Some paintings look like the wounded works that lurk in museum storerooms, awaiting a restorer's attention. These characteristics are, of course, fairly typical of art in the Post Modern epoch. So too is the impulse towards classicism - many of Berber's paintings and drawings, though not all, feature classical figures or depict episodes from Greek and Roman legend. In this sense he is typical of an increasingly prominent tendency in contemporary art, where the return to certain features of 19th century academic painting has become an emblem of revolt against an avant-garde which has itself become established and academic.

Edward Lucie Smith
Art Historian




Figure in White
Memory of the Arts Academy, St. Petersburg Allegory I
Allegory II
Allegory III

Mersad Berber was born in Bosanski Petrovac, a small town in western Bosnia, on January 1, 1940. Already in his early youth, his drawings were published in most widely read publications in his country. Devoted to artistic expressions of most different kinds, he enrolled in the study of architecture but the very next year he took a painting course at the Ljubljana Academy of Fine Arts. His professors included Bozidar Jakac, France Mihelic, Gabrijel Stupica and Maksim Sedej in whose class the then 23-year old Berber received a degree. The same year the young man started a postgraduate course in graphic arts in Rika Debenjak’s class and his choice of that technique was to significantly mark his entire opus.

In 1965, the first more important lines of his biography were written down: the Master of Arts title, the Veselin Maslesa award, the first one-man exhibition in the Ljubljana City Gallery, the award at the international exhibition in Slovenj Gradec. After completing his military service, the artist returned to his native Bosnia in 1967, this time to Sarajevo. Somehow at the same time, he met his wife-to-be, Adaleta Muzurovic from Zagreb, who was going to give birth to their two sons, Ensar and Azer, in the seven years to come. Berber taught at the Sarajevo School of Arts and Crafts for five years and at the same time managed to win prestigious awards and stage one-man exhibitions in Cairo, Montreal, Vancouver and all across Italy, Germany and former Yugoslavia.

Berber soon rose to star status. This was no coincidence since his first steps made him shine powerfully with his craftsman’s skills and a strikingly autonomous style. The choice of “difficult”, impregnated tones, “filigree” style of drawings, quoting of Renaissance and Baroque masters and an accentuated narration made him stand out from the usual production of that period.

After turning thirty-three, the artist became a senior lecturer at the Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts, and half a decade later its professor. That year, in 1978, he received the Fifth Indian Triennale award in New Delhi, Lalit Kala Academy Grand Prix, and then, in Monte Carlo, the ICOM prize. The international interest in Berber’s art have never abated. In 1981, the Tate Gallery bought the graphics from the cycle Hommage a Velasquez. Berber soon tackled a new medium which would follow him for a long time; he was a stage and costume designer for The Merchant of Venice on the boards of Folger Theatre in Washington’s Shakespeare Centre. The boundaries of the artist’s interests once again expanded. In 1985, after five years of meticulous work, he completed the animated film with a historic theme, Tempo Secondo, which was to win many prizes.

In 1988, he presented the four great cycles in the Arts Pavillion; Tempo Secondo, Dubrovnik Paintings and Drawings, Medusa’s Raft and Commentaries. The nineties began with his work on depicting Gundulic’s Osman. The war was looming and it was to leave a deep trace on Berber’s work. The artist and his family moved to Zagreb. In those years he “discovered” white, cathartic non-color, but also became more and more inclined towards the mythical motive of the antique world; the pathos of human existence seemed to be most vividly presented through that literary form.

Several years later, Berber exhibited in Indonesia to which he became emotionally and creatively tied. The rhapsodic Indonesian Cycle brought back colour to Berber’s painting. Temporarily though, because the time of the Great Allegories had come, with stifled tones and accentuated monumentality, appropriate for the “Master of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, as he was dubbed by the Japanese critics when he exhibited his works in the Tokyo gallery Yurokuchi Asahi. The same year, he was crowned with the Grand Prix in Krakow.

Next was the Sarajevo Postcard Cycle on which the artist was working up to the year 2000. This ode to the agonized city is in some places “womanly” mysterious and unpretentious while in other places it acquires heroic dimensions and the force of a Bildungsnovel, in which the tragic of the protagonists can be felt completely.

The fifty significant prizes and almost a hundred one-man exhibitions still do not make Berber an anthological phenomenon. His no less than monumental importance stems from the fact that he dared to be the Artist in the times of an art crisis and who, while invoking the past, convincingly spoke of the present.

Mersad Berber has lived and worked in Zagreb since 1992.

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