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Sculptor is the artist Russians love to hate

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Chicago Tribune


MOSCOW - Within hours of word spreading that Moscow might commemorate Nobel Prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky with a Zurab Tsereteli creation, a Web site sprang up that begged the Georgian sculptor to think twice.

"We are REALLY, REALLY fed up with your bronze monsters," authors of the plea wrote earlier this month. "Please, save our city from them. You are the only person who can."

The barb appeared unusually harsh, given Tsereteli's lofty perch atop Russia's art world. His sculptures are displayed in New York, London, Rome, Seville, Spain, and Tokyo. He has won over Hollywood icons and American presidents with his buoyant charm; in the 1990s he brought President Bill Clinton to tears with a portrait of the president's late mother that he sketched as a gift.

Nevertheless, Tsereteli should be accustomed to catcalls. For years, he has been the artist Russians love to hate.

His most controversial creation, a 150-foot tall bronze monument in downtown Moscow dedicated to Peter the Great, is so reviled that detractors once wired the statue with explosives and threatened to blow it up. The 18th Century czar is dressed in Roman body armor and at the helm of a sailing ship disproportionately small enough to be a dinghy.

Tsereteli's 306-foot tall statue of Christopher Columbus was turned away by five U.S. cities before Puerto Rico accepted. His massive, teardrop-shaped commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - a monument Russian art critic Grigory Revzin likens to a "huge greeting card" - is slated for Bayonne, N.J.

Tsereteli, a 71-year-old, 5-foot, 4-inch dynamo who juggles his studio work with stewardship over the Russian Academy of the Arts, two museums and his gallery, brands his critics as either Communists or jealous backbiters. Indeed, no other Russia-based artist enjoys the stature and visibility that Tsereteli does, though his place in the art world owes much to the steadfast patronage of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Tsereteli's work appears seemingly everywhere in Moscow, near the Kremlin, on the Moscow River and in parks and plazas dotting the city. His sculptures are in at least 18 countries.

His critics say he takes an un-nuanced, conveyor-belt approach to art. "Of course, he's talented," says Alexei Klimenko, chief of Russia's Cultural Values Preservation Commission and vice president of the country's Art Critic Academy. "But he treats art like a business, churning out his works as if he were baking cakes."

Like his sculptures, Tsereteli's ego appears much too large and steely to be bruised by detractors. During an interview at his gallery in downtown Moscow, Tsereteli never stopped sketching as he fended off questions about his critics.

"Can you imagine someone asking Goya or Michelangelo or Donatello, `Why are you working so hard, creating so many pieces of art?'" Tsereteli huffed, momentarily looking up from his sketchbook. "That would be a shame."

Tsereteli grew up in Soviet Georgia in the home of his uncle, a well-known Georgian painter. As a young artist, Tsereteli steadily rose up the ranks, creating mosaics in Tbilisi and later designing embassies for the Soviet Foreign Affairs Ministry.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Tsereteli's visibility in Moscow soared thanks to his close relationship with Luzhkov, a mayor whose penchant for splashy, grandiose endeavors rivals Tsereteli's. In 1995, Tsereteli was hired to oversee interior and exterior decoration during the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Moscow landmark destroyed by Josef Stalin in 1931.

Tsereteli also designed Manezh Square and its underground mall near the Kremlin and was commissioned to create several of the city's largest, newest monuments, including Peter the Great on the Moscow River and a 465-foot tall obelisk-shaped World War II memorial in Victory Park. Tsereteli and city officials have talked enthusiastically about another grand plan: the Park of Wonders, a sprawling Disneyland-like complex with a theme park, hotels, restaurants and office buildings.

It's outside Moscow that Tsereteli's plans have often run aground. The Columbus statue remains warehoused in Puerto Rico, 14 years after its creation. Last year, an intense anti-Tsereteli campaign derailed attempts to locate the sculptor's "Tear of Grief" Sept. 11 monument in Jersey City. The monument features a bronze-framed titanium tear drop that will release its own foot-long droplets. The names of those who died in the terrorist attack will be etched in the sculpture's granite base.

Russian artist and art critic Sergei Zagrayevsky said it's little wonder that some cities have balked at Tsereteli's plans. "We cannot deny that his works are vivid and eye-catching," Zagrayevsky said. "But the ultimate goal of a builder of monuments is to create a sense of order within a city's cultural environment. And as a monument builder, Tsereteli creates chaos. His works disorganize."

Muscovites strolling past the Peter the Great monument on the Moscow River echoed Zagrayevsky's assessment. "It's very big and incongruous among these cozy little streets along the river," said Victoria Lysikova, 28. It's ugly and abnormal - disproportionate."

"I feel disappointment when I see it," said Andrei Belyshev, 39. "He should make Peter smaller, or make the ship an appropriate size. My friends from out of town visit me, laugh and ask, `How can you Muscovites allow this?'"

Tsereteli said he takes comments about his monument to Peter in stride. He believes Russians, brainwashed by Lenin busts and other Soviet imagery for decades, still struggle with the concept of memorializing a czar. "Moscow was the capital of a Communist regime and urged anti-czar sentiment," Tsereteli said. When his Peter the Great monument was unveiled in 1997, "the Communists were very much against it, saying, `Why should there be a czar here?'"

Tsereteli has his ardent supporters within the Russian art community. Maria Chegodayeva, a Russian art critic for five decades, has worked for Tsereteli's Russian Academy of the Arts for the past two years. She calls Tsereteli a "bright and talented artist. I like his paintings the most."

However, Chegodayeva said that when she critiques Tsereteli's work, he always has the same request.

"When I plan to write about his works, he always asks me to write only about the pieces I like," Chegodayeva said. "He knows there are many that I don't like."

Tsereteli's latest skirmish with his critics appears to have subsided. Tsereteli insists he never intended to unveil a Brodsky statue in Moscow, though a Russian news agency reporter said she was present at a Tsereteli news conference in St. Petersburg on Aug. 3 when the artist mentioned that he and Luzhkov had discussed the idea.

Kirill Gotovtsev, the Muscovite who produced the Web site that urged Tsereteli to reconsider, said he met with the artist, who told him he had no plans to erect a Brodsky statue.

"I consider my task performed," Gotovtsev said. "The Brodsky issue is solved, and I let him know what people think about him."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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