Poet Duško Trifunović once told him: "If you ever leave Bosnia and Herzegovina, leave the past behind, but take your memories with you." Mersad Berber, one of the greatest artists of today, did just that. He studied in Ljubljana and spent what he describes as his "best years" in Sarajevo, before meeting his wife in Croatia where he has been living with his family since 1992.
The recipient of tens of prestigious awards, Berber has been exhibiting his works in the largest cities of the world for years, and has won critical acclaim from even the harshest critics as one of the greatest postclassical artists of the 20th century.
Whilst he is best known as a painter and illustrator, Berber's primary field was graphic arts. He has done film posters, record covers for the well-known Sarajevo band Indexi, as well as set designs for plays staged in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Washington.
According to Berber himself, his endless inspiration comes from the "mystical world of Bosnia, its Ottoman past, and the tragic fate of its people." "I am a graphic illustrator, and was drawn to copper drypoint at the very beginning of my artistic education. I studied it privately, outside the Academy, under the professor and great artist Božidar Jakac," Berber recalls.
A well-known patriot whose works most often tell the story of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Berber left war-struck Sarajevo in 1992 and moved to Croatia. "In Zagreb in 1992, I immediately started working with Rudi Labas on a monumental set design for Georgij Paro's theatre play 'Osman,' so I didn't have time to think. I could treat the trauma caused by the war in Bosnia only by working on a scaffold," says Berber of this difficult time in his life.
When journalists ask him how he feels before a canvas, Berber claims he is most excited by the "birth of a theme or cycle." Critics say that he "has never been cynical or destructive in art, attempting instead to 'preserve' kindness and love toward life, regardless of the difficult issues and evil around us."
The great magician of colour, Berber's first retrospect exhibition opened in March 2009 in Barcelona. The idea was given to him some ten years ago by former Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who proposed his home province Catalonia as the setting for such a display. Although shying away from the term "retrospect," which to him implies "an end," Berber did give art lovers an exhibition of his greatest works so far.
However, as he often mentions in interviews, his "book [of life] is still open, and will stay open while his health permits."
In his foreword to the catalogue of Berber's Spanish retrospect, British art theoretician, critic and curator Edward Lucie-Smith lauds Berber's artistry, claiming it is "greater than that of Balthus and Lucian Freud, the leading painters of the 20th century."
Berber's most significant cycles are the "Sarajevo Chronicles," "The Road to Skender Vakuf," "Srebrenica," "A Homage to Vlaho Bukovac," and the "Ottoman Chronicles," among many others.
Berber has been an associate professor of the Sarajevo Art Academy since 1978, and is also an honorary member of the Russian Art Academy. Today, his works are included in numerous museum collections, as well as public and private collections worldwide. In 1984, London's Tate Gallery bought one of his canvases, adding his name to the prestigious list of creators whose works this gallery houses.
With endless energy and hours of hard work daily, "the great magician of drawing and colour," as the media have dubbed him, continues to create works of fresh vision and new messages.
If you happen to visit Sarajevo, you will see that the Bosniak Institute holds a special place for the works of Mersad Berber, which this great Bosnian artist donated in 2005. The closing comment on Berber will be made by history. But what is evident even now is that his works testify to a great painter, and to the country's mystical Ottoman past, which through the "Berber prism" can be seen from London to Madrid, from New York to Moscow, and from Jakarta to New Delhi.