Mersad Berber – from seemingly opposing aesthetics to his own synthesis

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    Foto: Phralipen

    The opening of the Mersad Berber Retrospective Exhibition was held on April 18th at the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery in Zagreb, one of the most important 20th-century Bosnian-Herzegovinian artists who spent the last twenty years of his life in Croatia. Besides painting and graphics, Berber was also engaged in theatre scenography and costume design, design of movie posters and visual solutions. He exhibited in prominent world museums and galleries, was one of the founders and first professors of the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo and honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts. For the purposes of this exhibition most of the paintings and works were delivered from the Mersad Berber Foundation, while part was borrowed from the Sarajevo Bosniak Institute and Tate Modern in London.

    “I started from the assumption that there were prejudices about Mersad Berber, and that there had not been a comprehensive Berber exhibition in Croatia for thirty years, such that would in certain way demonstrate the variety of his works. I was guided by the thought to exhibit his seldom or never seen works as well as those which I considered were major works of his creativity,” says Jasmina Bavoljak, author of the professional design and curator of the exhibition.

    All the tragic war events from the 1990s, especially those dealing with aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina, culminated in Berber’s opus on the topic of Srebrenica. Bavoljak considers the entire Srebrenica cycle to be Berber’s Guernica, which, unlike Picasso’s work, was not designed and performed symbolically but allegorically, and is ultimately the culmination of postmodernist creativity. Berber was always deeply rooted within the Eastern tradition that played an important and active role in the creation of his artistic identity. As an artist belonging to such a tradition, he had to master the Western artistic idiom and find the universal language he would call his own.

    “Berber had never diversified from his references and combinations, he actually considered himself a chronicler and a pictographer of Bosnia for the rest of his life.”

    One of Berber’s main characters at the exhibition is Berisha, a Rroma who appears through various motifs – targets, horses, nudes. As Berber himself cited in an interview, when he was a professor at the newly founded Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, where he taught drawing and large nude, he introduced a new model to his students for teaching purposes – he was a Rroma called Berisha. While his students practiced, Berber was “absorbed” by Berisha the model, who later became one of the main heroes of his Chronicles of Sarajevo cycle.

    Foto: Phralipen

    In the 2009 Barcelona Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, Edward Lucie-Smith states that a fantastically drawn nude who appears on some of Berber’s paintings is of Muslim and Christian fusion, which is actually Berisha. When these images are integrated into a point of view related to the history of the Balkans, they become even more disturbing because it is an area in which the Rroma have always and still are considered to be on the margins of society.

    “He becomes a universal character for Mersad Berber, symbolically taking on all possible meanings. He probably represented for him the incarnation of male beauty as well as unhappy human destinies.”

    The very Berber at one point says for himself that he is stateless stressing the awareness of other people’s defamation and contestation against human being, his people and himself, which he also considered a certain privilege, because from that distance he could sometimes see things much clearer and more mature.

    Jasmina Bavoljak has spent all her life in the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, since 1990 when she was the curator of the exhibition “The Jews on the Territory of Yugoslavia“, which was exhibited in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Novi Sad after Zagreb.

    “When I think about this now, I can say that it was a megalomaniac and an incredibly demanding project on all four floors of the then Museum venue, today the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, designed by the then director Ante Sorić and Slavko Goldstein, and it encompassed Jewish cultural and religious heritage of the whole Yugoslavia with capital works such as the Sarajevo Haggadah (which Mersad Berber refers to in some of his works). The catalogue was designed by Ivan Picelj, supreme artist who taught me all about that media.”

    Another great cultural project that Bavoljak remembers is the exhibition Franciscans of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Crossroads of Cultures and Civilizations, when she had the opportunity to visit and look into all the monasteries that are no longer present today. She remembers the exhibition of Erich Šlomović’s collection, which she curated together with Vlado Bužančić (the author of the Mersad Berber monograph), as well as the Eyes of Truth war project when she travelled thousands of kilometres displaying war photos of destroyed Croatian heritage throughout Europe.

    “From my recent authorial projects closest to my heart are the Intimacies, Reflections of the Time 1945-1955 and the Pompeii exhibition, because I believe that their exhibitions have moved the boundaries of presenting the heritage in the widest sense.”

    When asked whether the representation of artistic practices and the media coverage of culture, is satisfactory Bavoljak, states that it is not, but “if every nation has the government it deserves, then every nation has the culture it deserves, and thus the media. Without the individual struggle of artists, without political (financial) support for these artists, there can be no big cultures and this must be clear to us. “

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