Sunday, 20 September 2009
Mersad Berber comes from a region that has always been a cultural crossroads – a place where creeds and civilizations meet, and often clash. A Bosnian Muslim, born in 1940, he has had ample personal experience of the tragic destiny of the place he comes from. At the height of the Bosnian civil war of the 1990s, he was forced to transfer his residence and studio from Sarajevo to Zagreb. The events of that time have left an indelible mark on his art.
His art has a complexity that is rooted in his geographical and ethnic background, but that also demonstrates a range of interests, skills and characteristics that would be unusual anywhere. Born in 1940, he began as a graphic artist, rather than as a painter, winning numerous international awards in this sphere. The emphasis on graphics, rather than painting, 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 a quite strong democratic interest in the visual arts, linked, very often, to an interest in literature. Writers, especially poets, have always been seen in the Balkans as the custodians of the soul – or souls, since various languages are spoken -of this much-disputed region.
The emphasis on graphics was also linked to a more general emphasis on craft, that is to say, on skill is making various types of useful and decorative objects, 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 interest in craft-skills also permeated the approach to more ambitious and sophisticated artistic projects. Berber’s mother, for example, was a celebrated weaver. This may account for his interest in texture, which is one of the things that drew him towards painting rather than graphic design. It also, perhaps, in a more general sense, forms a background to his skill as a draughtsman. Very few contemporary artists draw with such refinement, or use such a range of techniques. In this sense he leaves even leading 20th century draughtsmen, such as Balthus and Lucian Freud, some distance behind him.
In a curious way, both Berber’s ethnic background, and also the way in which he has broken free of it, have ideally positioned him to become a leading Post Modern artist. 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 apparently opposed to one another, can exist simultaneously. They can not only exist, but retain their validity. This attitude is directly opposed to the Minimalism that represented the last phase of the 20th century Modern Movement. Minimalist Puritanism has nothing to do with Berber’s aesthetic. His art is best described as being polyphonic, with many things taking place in the same work. This is most obviously signaled to the spectator by his fondness for paintings than consist of multiple panels put together. There are also paintings where images from different cultural worlds overlap.
The overlapping is carried to an extreme in a number of very large digital prints (giclées) that are recent productions. Digital images, the most recent addition to the photographers’ and printmakers’ repertoire, using a technique that has been available only since the beginning of the 1990s, have often been written off as illegitimate poor relations – commercial objects that only pretend to be art. Berber has seized on this new method of image-making for the way it which it extends the possibilities offered by collage, which was not so long ago an only doubtfully legitimate innovation. Perhaps it was Berber’s situation as an artist who began as to some extent an ‘outsider’ that enabled him to see creative possibilities that others missed.
The digital images that he produces overlap what is borrowed – found photographs and printed material – with what is drawn and what is apparently painted. The huge scale of the finished prints, and the fact that they are nevertheless works on paper, makes them comparable to tapestry cartoons. The actual scale, for example, is close to that of the famous series of tapestry cartoons by Raphael now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps the wheel will come full circle and someone will think of turning them into actual tapestries, as a tribute to the skills of Berber’s mother.
The big digital prints offer references to Old Master and 19th century painting that are usually coded. These references are much more obvious in other works included in this exhibition, which has a semi-retrospective character. The works are grouped thematically. For example, there is a group of paintings that paraphrase the art of Velazquez, but paraphrase it in such a way that it is obvious that they are being re-interpreted by a sensibility that comes from a very different background. An obvious signal of this difference is the use of gold embellishment, intricately patterned with designs that derive from the classical Islamic tradition. What Berber may be trying to suggest here is, I suspect, that the enclosed atmosphere of the court of Philip IV had a resemblance to that of a Turkish imperial harem.
Another master who obsesses Berber is the great French romantic painter Théodore Gércault. The final section of the show is dominated by a full-sized paraphrase of Géricault’s masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa. This horrific depiction of the aftermath of an early 19th century shipwreck, where the crew members of the wrecked ship were abandoned by their cowardly officers, was seen in the France of the restored Bourbons as a radical political gesture, a denunciation of the corruption of those who, as the cynical Talleyrand said had “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.” Berber, I think, reads the picture in a more general sense, as an image of humankind’s ability to betray its own moral codes. As such, the picture has now become associated in his mind with the horrors of the Bosnian civil war. The survivors on the raft turned to cannibalism after four days adrift without food or water. Civil war is, essentially, when the inhabitants of a state begin to eat one another. Salvador Dali chose the title Autumn Cannibalism for his own painting about the Spanish Civil War, and this composition, too, seems to owe a great deal to Géricault’s Raft.
Berber seems to have been drawn to Géricault’s art for a second, quite different reason – his interest in painting horses. The horses Berber depicts are, on the whole, not the same in type, as those chosen by Géricault, who painted – though not always – racehorses and thoroughbreds. Berber, in contrast to this, is fascinated by the strong, patient horses that are used to do farm work in Bosnia. What he has in common with Géricault in his approach to the subject is that he frequently sees horses as vehicles for tragic or horrific emotion. It is not so many steps from some of Berber’s horse paintings to the lithographs and drawings that Géricault made of Napoleons ill-fated Russian campaign.
Many of the key references in this show are not, however, to other artworks but to myths and works of literature. One literary reference that may not be immediately clear to the majority of spectators is to a 17th century epic poem by the Croatian writer Ivan Gundulic (1589-1638). Called simply Osman, this focuses chiefly on the struggles between the Christians and the Turks, but contains a section that describes the murder of the young reforming Sultan, Osman II, by members of his own army. The poem’s account of the murder, on which Berber bases his paintings on this theme, is somewhat different from better- established historical versions of the Sultan’s death. The generally accepted account has Osman being killed by rebellious Janissaries “by compression of the testicles”, before being strangled for good measure. Berber understandably omits this detail but shows one of the murderers wearing a horse’s head as a mask, which gives a frisson of Gothic horror to the scene. Clearly what matters to him here is the importance of the poem to the development of a distinctive Serbo-Croatian culture. He ignores its Christian bias.
In fact, the mixture of Christian and Muslim elements to create a distinctive Balkan civilization is one of his key concerns. Some of his most striking paintings and large-scale drawings juxtapose Christian and Muslim images – for example, Muslim clerics with depictions of the Crucified Christ. The masterfully drawn nude model who appears in some of these crossover Muslim/Christian paintings was a gypsy called Berisha. This adds an additional frisson for anyone with experience of the Balkans, where gypsies are still too often social outcasts.
Berber is also obsessed by the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and introduces references to it in many contexts. This leads to a consideration, not only of the myth itself, as an example of his pre-occupation with another distinctly non-Muslim theme, but about what both it, and the paintings illustrating it, have to say about the limits of human aspiration. The artist’s interest in this myth is closely linked to his frequent visual quotations from classical sculpture.
Many of the themes I have cited re-appear in a series of works that have a sharply contemporary reference. This series, still being developed, is intended to form a kind of cenotaph for the 8000 Muslim men and boys who died in the Srebenica massacre of 1995 – the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II, and a key episode in the Bosnian civil war. 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.
Mersad Berber is in many respects a paradox. He comes from a very fragmented cultural tradition, and from a region that has usually been thought of as being marginal to the main developments in European art. Yet his work encompasses a wider variety of major themes than can be found in the work of any contemporary painter now at work, with the possible exception of Anselm Kiefer. His level of skill is also demonstrably higher than that of nearly all his possible rivals. He has none of the cynicism that is now so typical of many of the major names in contemporary art. He is not therefore ‘marginal’ in any accepted sense of that term. While he is certainly widely known through exhibitions outside his own region, this exhibition offers a fuller statement about his work than has ever been available previously. It stakes a strong claim to a new position as a universally relevant artist, using a fascinatingly rich Post Modern symbolic language.
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