Monumental Ego Sculptor: He's got this 1,200-ton gift ready for the taking. So why is it, no city is willing to take it off his hands?

June 24, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Zurab Tsereteli, court sculptor of the New Russia, and if he can manage it, the rest of the world too, is not amused.

"I am an artist," he declares, scowling under a floppy black suede beret as he sketches an increasingly angry-looking cubist face across his neatly typed daily schedule. He's building up to a major rant.

"Zurab is world famous," he informs a visitor as hovering aides nod in vigorous agreement. Then he offers solid credentials. "I know De Niro. Giuliani. Reagan. Trump. Clinton. Mohammed Ali," he says, aides smiling and nodding some more.

But there's a problem. He doesn't think Baltimore knows the real Zurab. He doesn't think Baltimore appreciates the wonderful offer he is making: a 306-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus to rival Charm City's tallest buildings.

So why, goes the logic of this volcanic artist whose statue has been turned down by three other American cities, do people keep repeating "negative facts" about him?

"Yes, why?" echoes the chorus of nodding aides.

Why can't this important man, who has designed every single major new monument in Moscow since the fall of communism, get an American city to just cooperate, take his gigantic, 1,200-ton gift and shut up?

"The maestro," as aides and friends sometimes refer to Tsereteli, thinks he knows the answer. The press.

"You printed lies about me -- apologize and tell your readers you lied," he demands, madly doodling with his expensive tortoise-shell fountain pen.

The "lies" are the opinions of his critics. They were quoted in an article in The Sun last month disclosing the existence of a committee of Baltimore politicians, businessmen and Italian-American leaders working to bring Tsereteli's Columbus to the Inner Harbor.

The article mentioned the controversy in Moscow over Peter the Great -- a Tsereteli monument much like his Columbus in grandiose style and size being constructed on the banks of the Moscow River. Some people in Moscow don't think much of Peter the Great's artistic merits. There was even a brief campaign to tear down the $20 million project. But it was unsuccessful -- so Tsereteli doesn't think The Sun should have mentioned it.

"Hitler started like this, destroying artists," he growls.

"I had 48 [shipping] containers ready for shipment [to Baltimore] from St. Petersburg exactly when the article appeared. And it stopped because they tell me the [Baltimore committee] got frightened, and 20 percent of Baltimore public opinion is against me."

Does it all mean that Tsereteli's Columbus -- originally offered to America in 1992 as a Russian gift on the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America -- will not come to Baltimore after all?

"If I want, I'll have it erected there. If not, I won't," he pouts.

Other fish to fry

But Baltimore is just a trifle on the sweeping canvas of Tsereteli's life.

It's not totally clear whether the artist has ever been to the city. He cannot remember the names of the businessmen attempting to raise the $20 million and public backing necessary to erect Columbus in Baltimore. But the peripatetic artist has got so much on his mind.

Tsereteli is a bundle of energy in a 5-foot-4 frame, juggling a schedule that looks more like that of a CEO or politician than an artist.

Russia's nascent democracy and capitalism have served him well.

When communism and its huge monuments to Marx, Lenin and the worker tumbled, up went Tsereteli monuments to fill the void, and up went the artist's net worth.

He drives a large Mercedes -- swerving and careening and missing the occasional red light while he digs in his briefcase and bends to answer his constantly trilling cell phone.

He has a New York apartment. He owns a country cottage near that of friend and powerful patron, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

He lives, works and maintains a busy but imaginative sculpture garden on the pre-revolutionary complex of buildings that once housed the West German embassy. He rents it from the prestigious Academy of Arts, an organization he heads.

He owns a gigantic St. Petersburg foundry capable of building the multimillion-dollar, multiton monuments he has erected all over the former Soviet Union, at the United Nations, in Spain, England and France.

He certainly doesn't resemble a starving artist -- an observation that annoys him tremendously.

"I'm outraged by this starving question," he says, looking at his assistants as if it is their fault. They shake their heads in dismay.

"This is some sort of trick. Show me a starving artist. ... A good artist does not starve."

Indeed, in his 62 years, Tsereteli has never starved. He is an eccentric survivor.

While government workers go months without wages in these lean post-Soviet times, he's somehow managing to squeeze public coffers for the millions necessary to erect his monuments.

In old photos of stiff, gray-suited Soviet arts officialdom, Tsereteli is the smiling rake with a plaid sport coat.

In the catalogs of Soviet art, he's the odd official artist never forced to do a single Lenin or a Marx.

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