Massive art, dubious fame

Some say Moscow's Zurab Tsereteli has more connections than talent


MOSCOW -- Almost everything about Zurab Tsereteli is big.

The studio where he paints each morning has more than 40 skylights and a ceiling as high as a cathedral's. His office contains room enough for two green leather couches and a conference table that seats 15. That is to say nothing of his art.

Like the neon casino lights and flashy billboards that began lighting up the city after the fall of communism, the 71-year-old Georgian-born Tsereteli, more than any other artist, has transformed the public spaces of post-Soviet Moscow.

His mammoth sculptures stand in some of the city's most prominent locations: A 311-foot-high statue of Peter the Great, depicted standing aboard a naval ship, his right arm raised like New York's Lady Liberty, adorns a bend in the Moskva River within site of the Kremlin. A 465-foot-high obelisk shaped like a soldier's bayonet and topped by a statue of a winged Nike rises from the center of a park commemorating the Soviet Union's World War II victory.

Nearly everyone in the Russian capital knows Tsereteli's name. His benefactors include the city's mayor, and for eight years Tsereteli has served as president of the prestigious Russian Academy of Arts, which has overseen the training of some of the country's most celebrated artists.

Yet Tsereteli has what might charitably be called a respect problem.

His works are regularly ridiculed by the public - and a few of the braver art critics - as monstrosities. He has been called grandiose, gaudy and a "genius of kitsch."

"Tsereteli's artistic initiatives horrify me," says Alexei Klimenko, vice president of Russia's Art Critics Academy, who considers Tsereteli more a businessman than an artist, churning out works the way a baker makes loaves of bread.

"First, they have to be big," Klimenko says of Tsereteli's pieces. "Second, they have to shine."

When his statue of Peter was erected in 1997 at a height that reportedly surprised even the mayor, a group of detractors placed seven bombs at its base and threatened to blow it to smithereens. In August, when it was rumored that Tsereteli planned to construct a statue of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, more than 10,000 people joined an Internet campaign to try to stop him.

"We're really, really fed up with your bronze monsters," read their petition.

During the Soviet era, making art, like literature, was viewed as yet another state-controlled enterprise. It was less about freedom of expression than shaping the mentality of the masses. Galleries displayed works that had been sanctioned by Communist Party officials, and artists who tackled forbidden themes were banned.

Today, from the small sidewalk galleries founded by underground artists to the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the world's largest collections of works from Russia and other former Soviet republics, Moscow is more comfortably enamored with art. The public knows the difference between the realism of the painter Ilya Repin and the abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky, and a dozen art museums are in the city center.

Tsereteli founded three of them. He serves as director of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, to which he donated his private collection of 20th-century works, and the Zurab Tsereteli Art Gallery.

It is hard not to see the latter as a monument to himself, filled with his - and, at present, only his - paintings, mosaics and sculptures.

On the ground floor is a hulking sculpture of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, depicted barefoot in a judo outfit, titled Sound Mind in a Sound Body. The Kremlin suggested he not place the statue on public display.

Baltimore was proposed as the site for another of his creations: a 31-story, 600-ton statue of Christopher Columbus. But along with New York; Miami Beach, Fla.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Columbus, Ohio, the city declined the honor. The statue eventually found a resting place in Puerto Rico.

Once a month, Tsereteli holds a master class here. At a recent one, 40 or so children sat behind easels or propped canvasses on their knees, painting the same vase of sunflowers as Tsereteli. They didn't seem to mind that he spent part of the time socializing with a Russian TV crew, or talking on his cell phone.

"I live for art," Tsereteli said during an interview last month, sitting behind a massive desk stacked with papers and sketchbooks. "I give all my energy to art - completely."

His compound, where he paints daily, fills a block in central Moscow. Larger-than-life statues of the Apostle Paul and round-nosed clowns, one of his favorite subjects, line the front sidewalk.

In back is a sculpture garden that features playful creations: birds, fish and a rhinoceros.

Tsereteli, the son of an engineer, was schooled at the Academy of Arts in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. As a student he fancied Rembrandt, Tiepolo and the Impressionist masters Manet and Monet. Now, he acts as though admitting such early influences might somehow tarnish his credentials.

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