Best known as a printmaker, Berger worked in a variety of modes ranging from black-and-white images with fervent needle marks to earth-toned works with calmer, childlike markings. She experimented with printing on wax paper, sandpaper, and muslin, and she never pulled the same print twice, making changes on the etching plate each time she ran it through the press. Her prints in the Grey collection reflect both her naive tendencies and her acute perception. Composition depicts a monochromatic dream world, while the richly colored Flying Cranes (G1975.233) captures an instantly recognizable feature of modern Istanbul.
Berger began her artistic career late in life, encouraged by her older sister, the internationally renowned abstract painter Fahrelnissa Zeid. Born into the Ottoman aristocracy, both were raised according to the highest intellectual and cultural standards. Berger initially wanted to be a writer, but also took painting classes in her youth, and in the early 1930s she accompanied Zeid to Berlin and Paris, where they visited art museums.
After the death of her husband, Hungarian violinist Karl Berger, she turned her attention to art. Moving to London in 1947 to join her sister, Berger studied engraving for three years. Upon her return to Istanbul in 1951, her first exhibition, at Galeri Maya, established her as an engraver—but her triumph in a privately organized painting competition in 1954 made her reputation. Her entry, Sunrise, was selected by a jury of leading European art historians and critics (including Herbert Read and Lionello Venturi). With Berger’s expressionistic use of bright colors verging on abstraction, and her personal interpretation of the assigned subject, “productivity and labor,” her work stood out from pieces by her academically trained, predominantly male competitors. A fury ensued, including a volley of protests in the newspapers. For the rest of her career, Berger restricted her output to engravings, participating in local as well as international exhibitions for the next two decades.