A teacher, writer, and, later in life, museum director, Berk synthesized local themes with a moderately modernist style. His works from the early 1930s are Cubist, but in the 1940s and ’50s he turned to a Cézannesque plastic construction, monumentalizing stereotypical local figures such as potters, rug weavers, hookah smokers, and women ironing. Later his work became flatter, with planes of color divided by a sinuous, thick, often black or gray contour line and featuring odalisques, sultans, bathers, and viziers. Dating from Berk’s late period, Nettles is one of a number of his paintings that feature either schematic plants (such as sunflowers) or birds. The arabesque line seen here became even more dominant in Berk’s work of the 1970s.
Graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts, Istanbul, the year after the Turkish Republic was founded, Berk went to Paris in 1924 to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts—an academic experience that he later dismissed as a waste of time. Returning to Turkey, he co-founded the Association of Independent Painters and Sculptors (Müstakil Ressamlar ve Heykeltiraslar Birligi), modeled after the French Société des Artistes Indépendants. He showed paintings in the society’s exhibitions and published his writings in both popular newspapers and specialized magazines. Back in Paris in 1932, Berk studied with Fernand Léger and André Lhote, who instilled in him a love for plastic construction and “deformation” of the visual field. In 1933, he helped to establish Group D—a circle of young, avant-garde artists who rejected the friendly naturalism and docile Impressionism of the older generation.
Berk was the consummate artist-bureaucrat of the early Turkish Republic. As an artist and theorist, Berk grappled in particular with the question of how to formulate the principles of modern Turkish painting. On that topic, he was deeply informed by the post-Cubist theoretical framework he gleaned from the writings and teaching of his mentor, André Lhote.