Text Vladimir Kozlov
Photos courtesy The Russian Academy of Arts
Painter, sculptor, and architect Zurab Tsereteli is a high-profile figure on the contemporary Russian art scene. He also occupies the top position in the domestic art hierarchy, holding the office of president of the Russian Academy of Arts.
His work has often elicited strong reactions from critics and audiences, with some admiring and others dismissing Tsereteli works that have been installed in Moscow and other Russian and foreign cities over the last 15 years.
Tsereteli was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1934. As a child, he spent a lot of time at his uncle’s house, which was often visited by renowned artists of the time such as David Kakabadze, Sergo Kobuladze, and Ucha Dzhaparidze. “I started to paint very early,” Tsereteli recalled. “My uncle, Georgy Nizharadze, was a very interesting and gifted artist. He spent a lot of time teaching me. In those times, many interesting people came to visit him, artists who returned from living abroad. In the 1940s and 1950s they were banned from living in Russia, so they were exiled to the Caucasus. Georgia accepted them, and they taught at the Tbilisi Art Academy.”
After graduating from the academy’s department of painting, he worked at the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Georgian Academy of Sciences. A trip to Paris in 1964 marked a turning point in the artist’s career.
“I was happy to be able to meet Picasso and Chagall during my first trip abroad,” Tsereteli said. “I even had a chance to work in Chagall’s studio. In France, I understood that an artist can make everything — sculpture, porcelain, stained glass, mosaics. I saw Chagall making stained glass, and I saw Picasso doing not just regular painting but also shaping castings, painting on porcelain and ceramics. I came back ready to work and began to learn mosaics and stained glass.”
For years, Tsereteli produced works that strayed from the socialist realism favored by Soviet authorities. His diverse artistic interests early in his career included the ancient art of enameling, refined in his native Georgia.
Among the most important projects of the artist’s Soviet period were mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures at the Black Sea resorts of Pitsunda and Sochi. He also participated in decorating the huge Ismailovo Hotel complex in Moscow, completed just before the 1980 Summer Olympic Games.
But Tsereteli’s most productive period began in the 1990s. During that unique decade he was involved in several significant architectural and sculptural projects in the Russian capital, including Christ the Savior Cathedral, the Manezh Square complex, and the War Memorial on Poklonnaya Hill, which was opened in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Some believe that these high-profile commissions came as a result of the artist’s being in favor among the Russian political elite and of his friendship with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in particular.
Perhaps Tsereteli’s best-known and most controversial project was the Peter the Great statue erected in 1997 on the bank of the Moscow River. At 96 meters in height, it is the sixth-tallest statue in the world. The appearance of the sculpture prompted threats to blow it up, while others simply wondered why a sculpture of St. Petersburg’s founder had been placed in Moscow (later, a similar statue was installed in St.Petersburg as well). Meanwhile, many admit that regardless of their artistic value, Tsereteli’s sculptures have become part of the Russian capital’s architectural landscape and symbolize a certain period in the city’s history.
Another notable monument by Tsereteli in Moscow is “Friendship Forever” on Tishinskaya Square, installed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the political joining of Georgia and Russia.
There are Tsereteli sculptures and monuments in other cities of the world, as well. A sculpture entitled “Good Defeats Evil” sits on the grounds of the United Nations in New York. It combines traditional bronzework with more contemporary material: American and Soviet missiles. A depiction of St. George astride a rearing horse represents “good.” In his right hand he holds an enormous spear, with which he is slaying a writhing dragon, the representation of “evil.” The dragon is lifting its head in one last attempt at attack, but it is clear that the dragon is drawing its last breath, its body, fashioned from an American Pershing II missile and a Soviet SS20 missile, torn apart by St. George’s spear.
Another sculpture by Tsereteli in the United States, “Tear of Grief” (officially titled “To the Struggle against World Terrorism”), features a 40-foot teardrop suspended in the fissure of a 106-foot bronze rectangular tower. The monument includes the names of all the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks as well as of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. It is installed at the tip of the decommissioned Military Ocean Terminal, now called The Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor, in Bayonne, New Jersey. Nearby Jersey City first accepted and then declined the donated monument, which was installed at its present location on September 11, 2006. The artist, Bill Clinton, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, and a widow of a 9/11 victim all spoke at the dedication ceremony.
Some of the artist’s other international projects have been rejected. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, Tsereteli sought to find an American home for his “Birth of the New World,” but to no avail. The town of Catano, Puerto Rico, showed interest in taking it but was unable to garner enough public support and funding. The pieces of the statue have never been assembled and are rumored to have been used for the statue of Peter the Great in Moscow.
One of Tsereteli’s important projects is the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in 1999 and located in an 18thcentury mansion on Petrovka Street. The founder and first director of the MMCA, which is dedicated to 20th-century avantgarde art, the artist donated pieces from his private collection. “For a long time, I had dreamed about creating a museum of this kind, so that works of high art would stay in Russia,” Tsereteli explained. “The choice of exhibited works is based on the desire to show all the various art forms from classic Russian avantgarde — Malevich, Kandinsky, and Chagall — to “Thaw” and nonconformist art of the 1950s and 1960s to the most recent experiments in domestic and foreign art.”
One of Tsereteli’s latest works, a sculpture ensemble dedicated to the wives of the Decembrists, was recently unveiled in Moscow.