Russia artist Zurab Tsereteli’s canvas is an extension of his exuberant life

With more than six decades of work behind him, his figure today looms large over the country's creative firmament

Zurab Tsereteli conducts weekly classes for young children in Moscow Zurab Tsereteli conducts weekly classes for young children in Moscow

On a salubrious summer evening, art connoisseurs from all over the world (some of who have flown in on their private jets) are clinking champagne flutes at the Hyder Aliyev Centre in the Azerbaijani capital city of Baku. Toasts are being raised to legendary Georgian-Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli whose exhibition Possible Dimensions is on at the complex. The event captures the expansive oeuvre of the artist’s works through 30 sculptures, enamels, and paintings shipped in from Moscow, Tbilisi, and London.  

Some of the guests’ effervescence is also directed at the venue — the multiple award-winning 57,500-sqm centre designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. With its avant-garde architecture and free-flowing curves, the watershed building marks a refreshing counterpoint to the rigidity of the Soviet architecture that peppers Baku. 

Interestingly, the complex also bears a striking parallel to Tsereteli himself. Recognised for dismantling staid artistic conventions during the Soviet period, the octogenarian anchored his craft in neo-expressionism, a genre that eschews the traditional template of composition and design. With his pioneering style, Tsereteli rebelled against the repressive cultural climate of the USSR in the 1960s. 

Like other artists of this genre — Fernando Botero, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Georg Baselitz — Tsereteli’s paintings forged a new design aesthetic. Featuring folksy figures, archaeological and ethnographic motifs and splashes of colours (especially reds and blues), they were shot through with powerful political symbolism. 

The octogenarian at his Moscow studio. The octogenarian at his Moscow studio.

Most of the artworks at Baku displayed these quintessentially Tseretelian features. The influence of Impressionists and post-Impressionist exponents, mainly Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Van Gogh, and Paul Cezanne was in evidence too. Tsereteli has often claimed these titanic figures as his “true artistic heroes.”  

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Dressed in a royal blue suit, red tie and pocket kerchief, with large black-stoned rings embellishing his chubby fingers, Tsereteli moved around the exhibition hall greeting guests and VIPs. Political personalities, including Azerbaijani President’s daughter Leila Aliyev, congratulated him for winning the Dostlug, the Presidential medal of honour for fostering good relations between Russia and Azerbaijan. 

Flashbulbs pop. Selfie-seekers jostle. And Tsereteli obliges them all without fuss, smiling into the camera here, pumping flesh there, his eyes twinkling mischievously. “Let’s get a selfie clicked,” he tells this writer with  childlike glee.  This infectious zestfulness best defines Tsereteli. The trait has served him well in life too. Born in 1934 in Tbilisi, Georgia, into an impoverished family, the artist struggled to study till he finally won a scholarship to get into the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts in 1958. He took the plunge to move to Moscow after.  “When my grandfather first came to Moscow, he didn’t  even own a proper pair of shoes. He wore one black and one blue. But that never deterred him from striving to be the best! He worked hard and won many awards including the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian award in Russia,” says proud grandson Vasili Tsereteli who is the director of Moscow Museum of Modern Art and acts as our translator as “grandad can only speak Russian and Georgian”. 

Vasili Tsereteli, grandson and director, Moscow Museum of Modern Art Vasili Tsereteli, grandson and director, Moscow Museum of Modern Art

In Moscow, the maestro worked tirelessly to eke out a living, working and experimenting with bronze, stone, glass, wood, and mosaics. In the late 1960s, Tsereteli shot to fame by winning government orders for rebuilding the city. Soon, he was helming many projects all over the Soviet Union, creating a multitude of stained-glass windows, mosaics, and murals.

Aside from celebrating female beauty, music has been a leitmotif through hundreds of Tsereteli’s colour-drenched canvasses. “In childhood, I dreamt of being a singer. Georgian men are known for their commanding voices, so I was naturally drawn to singing and dancing. Music still gives me great joy; it acts as a glue to bond with family and friends,” he smiles. 

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Violinists, troubadours and flautists populate his canvasses. Such is Tsereteli’s enamour for music that when he conducts his weekly free Master Class with children in Moscow, he switches on the radio to paint to the tune of Georgian melodies with the little ones! 

Tsereteli at his dacha in the leafy suburbs of Moscow. Tsereteli at his dacha in the leafy suburbs of Moscow.

Initially, just a painter, Tsereteli says his horizons broadened after moving to Paris in the 1960s. “I craved to be in Europe where artistic freedom was blossoming,” he says recalling how the time he spent in the French capital ignited his young impressionable mind. And how his famous encounter with Chagall and Picasso, the time spent visiting them in their studio, and the conversations around art “shaped me and my works”. The influence of Picasso is evident in Tsereteli’s Inessa (1968) as well, which he painted shortly after visiting the master craftsman’s workshop in Paris. “Paris inspired me to reinvent myself as a painter and look at life with new eyes. The experience of meeting influential masters changed my understanding of what it means to create,” he says. “I was inspired by how freely and seamlessly these artists shifted between painting and drawing to ceramics and sculpture.”

Tsereteli also adopted the abstract expressionism of famous Russian artists of the second decade of the 20th century — Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich’s — infusing it with his rich palette of reds and blues.

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Inspired by the great European masters, he also expanded his repertoire from just paintings to sculpture, mosaics, enamelling, and architecture. Even at this age, Tsereteli lives life with the joie de vivre of a teenager, hobnobbing with heads of states, movers and shakers of society as well as other artists. 

The painter currently divides his time between studios in his native Tbilisi, Moscow, Paris and New York.  His parties at his Moscow home or his dacha in the leafy suburbs of the city are legendary. Featuring lavish banquets of Georgian and Russian delicacies, gypsy dancers, homegrown wines (he has an eponymous label Zurab Tsereteli wines, the grapes of which are grown in his native Georgia), the soirees are  the talk of the town for days. 

“Larger-than-life, forever imaginative, never afraid,” is how Stephan Stoyanov, famous American-Bulgarian art dealer and Tsereteli’s close family friend describes the octogenarian.  “He has more energy than a young man, works enthusiastically, maintains a big circle of friends, and is forever helping people. He generates great positive energy around him.” 

Sculptures and paintings by Zurab Tsereteli displayed at his dacha in Moscow Sculptures and paintings by Zurab Tsereteli displayed at his dacha in Moscow

Eager to learn, explore, and push the envelope, the 85-year-old Tsereteli wears his success lightly. Strict about maintaining a daily routine, he eats carefully and paints every day. “Discipline is important. I get up early, exercise. I work, I rush off to the academy to complete all my work and then take a masterclass,” he elaborates.  

This year has been specially packed. The artist’s first major solo retrospective, Larger Than Life at the Saatchi Gallery, London, earlier this year, was a sellout.  Presenting works across an entire floor of the gallery, the exhibition highlighted Tsereteli’s prolific career, including works influenced from past meetings and relationships with Chagall, Picasso and Rauschenberg. Solo exhibitions followed in Paris and Baku , and another one took place in Liechtenstein in June.

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Has he ever thought of retirement? I ask Tsereteli, my head giddy with his list of accomplishments. He takes a while before riposting: “I think it’s too early for me to retire. I feel more creative energy bubbling within me every year. At this stage of my life, more than anything, I value my artistic independence and enjoy fulfilling my visions.  Art is life for me. It inspires me. Picasso once said, "I don't look for. I find." Similarly, I find inspiration in life, music, art, my family, travels and, of course, nature.” 

Who can fault such a noble motto to live life by? 

A RUSSIAN LEGEND  

With over six decades of work behind him, Tsereteli’s figure looms large over Russia’s creative firmament.  His imprimatur on Moscow is particularly impressive. Almost everywhere one goes — parks, the Moskva River, government buildings, tourist attractions — the octogenarian’s titanic sculptures seem hewn into the cityscape. 

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 near the Kremlin. Another 465-foot-high obelisk shaped like a soldier's bayonet and topped by a statue of a winged Nike (rising like a Phoenix from the centre of a park) commemorates the Soviet Union's World War II victory.  

Tsereteli is the President of the Russian Academy of Arts and a goodwill ambassador  for UNESCO Tsereteli is the President of the Russian Academy of Arts and a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO

Tsereteli is also the President of the Russian Academy of Arts and a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO.  Through the Academy, he manages museums and galleries, as well as a slew of art schools and research institutes. He has also privately founded three museums in Moscow and Tbilisi, including the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, now state-owned and run by his grandson Vasili. The gallery was started with a grant of 2,000 works from his private collection.

A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

Today, the Tsereteli empire straddles the world. Titanic buildings designed by him as well as several government-commissioned monumental sculptures embellish London, Moscow, New York, Paris, Rome, Rio and Tokyo. With a private museum in Georgia, a gallery in Russia and studios in Paris, New York, Tbilisi and Moscow, Tsereteli can be termed a true citizen of the world. 

In the 1970s, the artist carried out important public projects in Tbilisi, Ulyanovsk, Yalta and other cities, synergising various media, including mosaics, stained glass, copper and bronze sculptures. A keen innovator, the artist developed a unique method of crafting monumental enamels, upending this traditionally compact technique as a monumental art form. He incorporated this technique in several Soviet embassies/consulates across Brazil, Portugal and Japan.  

In 1978-1979, Tsereteli was invited to the United States to teach painting as a visiting professor at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. 

During his stay there, he constructed two remarkable public sculptures that he donated to the College on behalf of the people of the USSR: Prometheus installed in front of the Allen Administration Building, and Joy and Happiness to All the Children of the World, next to the Drake Memorial Library. In 2006, the artist unveiled his 30-meter-tall sculptural monument To the Struggle Against World Terrorism in Bayonne, New Jersey. He dedicated it to the American people on behalf of Russia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

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