Mersad Berber was the most considerable artist to emerge from the chaos the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He achieved a degree of international celebrity previously unknown for any artist who came from this region of Europe, with exhibitions in London (Albemarle Gallery), Hamburg, Istanbul, Chicago, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Madrid, Zurich and New York. 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.

He was born in 1940 in the Bosnian township of Bosanka Petrovac, in the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia. With 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.

Berber’s 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 then 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 Biennale of Graphic Arts in Florence in 1974, and an honorary prize at the 10th International Biennale of Engraving in Tokyo in 1976.

This comfortable existence was abruptly torn apart by the civil wars that broke out in 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 plane. He rebuilt his life in Zagreb, where he created a new studio, plus another in Dubrovnik. Memories of the conflict, however, continued to haunt him, and provided material for his art.

The artistic scene in Tito’s Yugoslavia, also in that of Tito’s successor, Milosevic, had been characterised not by anything resembling Soviet Socialist Realism but by a tepid adherence to middle-of-the-road modernist styles. Very few Yugoslav artists managed to create reputations for themselves outside their own region. Berber’s success in breaking out of this situation was altogether exceptional.

Berber deserved his celebrity because he made heroic efforts to get to grips with the history of the region he lived in, and with his own personal relationship to that history. He employed a very wide variety of artistic techniques, from the most traditional to the most contemporary. For example, he made a couple of small animated films, and was fascinated by the possibilities offered by new techniques 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. He 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 derived from the later work of Giorgio de Chirico.

Yet Berber’s paraphrases of Renaissance portraits and elegant images of classical nudes — one or two of them direct quotations from the work of David or Ingres — were often interspersed with figures in old-fashioned Balkan dress.

His literary and religious references were equally complex. Some of his most impressive works offer directly Christian images, the figure of Christ, for example, being taken down 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.

He also, towards the close of his life, made a hugely impressive series devoted to the 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 Republika Srpska, under the command of General Mladic.

The paintings shown here, as a memorial to his career and work, do not focus on this tragic phase of his art, but on other aspects of it that have brought him worldwide admiration. These include elegant female portraits, based on High Renaissance prototypes, with which he challenged the 16th century masters of the Venetian school; paraphrases of Velazquez, which express his profound admiration for the great Spanish master; and paintings of horses, which recall his love for the peasant life of the Bosnian countryside. There are also some touching and penetrating self-portraits, made shortly before his death. They give a good idea of the breadth of his cultural interests, but the frequent fragmentation of the images also makes it clear that these are the product of an extremely contemporary sensibility.

Edward Lucie-Smith Art Historian, Critic and Author

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