Zurab Tsereteli is in his element. Dressed in a three-piece peacock-blue suit, sitting at the head of a table almost overwhelmed by dozens of Georgian delicacies, the president of the Russian Academy of Arts and patriarch of the country’s art scene is hosting a long and lavish lunch for an eclectic group of guests.
On one side sits a Nobel prize-winning physicist and leading figure in the Russian Communist party; on another is the Djibouti ambassador; elsewhere, a group of visitors from the municipality of Verona.
A toast is raised: “To the empire of Tsereteli!”
To describe Tsereteli’s wealth and power as an empire is no exaggeration. His name may not be well known in the west, but Tsereteli is one of Russia’s, if not the world’s, most commercially successful artists.
When not wining and dining ambassadors and Nobel prize-winners, he hobnobs with the global elite — Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, the UN cultural agency, was his dinner guest the previous day — and the walls of his house are dotted with photos of him and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Besides the opulent pre-revolutionary mansion that is his Moscow home and studio, Tsereteli has homes in Peredelkino, a prestigious Moscow suburb where writers had their dachas in Soviet times, his native Tbilisi, Paris and New York.
His boundless capacity for networking has served him well, helping to promulgate the Tsereteli brand around the world. He has sold his trademark monumentalist sculptures far and wide — from the St George presented by the Soviet Union to the UN to the 100-foot “To the Struggle Against World Terrorism” (or Tear Drop) memorial in New Jersey and “The Birth of a New Man” in a 150-feet egg-shaped dome in Seville. There is even a much smaller-scale statue in the City of London, “Break the Wall of Distrust”, erected in 1990 in Cannon Street.
By the end of this year Tsereteli expects to reach another milestone in his career by erecting his biggest sculpture yet, a 400ft, 600-tonne statue of Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas, in Arecibo on the north coast of Puerto Rico. “That is where America began, so it has to be huge, and the place demands for it to be huge,” he says.
Through the Academy of Arts, Tsereteli manages museums and galleries, as well as a number 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 Vasily. The gallery was started with a grant of 2,000 works from Tsereteli’s private collection.
David Yakobashvili, a Georgian-Russian entrepreneur and art collector who has known Tsereteli since the 1970s, says his skill is to combine the roles of artist and businessman. “Tsereteli is the only well-known artist, and at the same time a successful entrepreneur, in Russia,” he says. “Who else — Andy Warhol, I think — [has] also [succeeded] in this field?”
But Tsereteli’s success and seeming omnipresence on the Russian art scene has made him a lightning rod for criticism as a symbol of the “old guard”. His massive and often kitsch sculptures are instantly recognisable to Russians, even if the reaction is often one of loathing.
There are no accurate estimates of his net worth. When asked about his wealth, Tsereteli says he is a simple labourer. “I wend my way through life through hard work, just like every other Georgian man,” he says.
But he is at no pains to conceal his wealth. He once snapped at a reporter who observed that he bore little resemblance to a starving artist. “I’m outraged at this starving question!” Tsereteli said at the time.
His success, his critics contend, is more about his contacts with government officials with big budgets for city beautification than it is about the transcendent qualities of his artwork.
Indeed, many draw a link between Tsereteli’s success and his friendship with former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, one of the most powerful politicians in the country until he was eventually fired by Russia’s then president, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2010.
Thanks to Luzhkov’s commissions, Tsereteli’s work now adorns some prominent Moscow’s landmarks. One is an underground shopping mall underneath Manege Square, near the Kremlin, with marble and bronze fountains. At Luzhkov’s behest, Tsereteli also directed the rebuilding in the 1990s of the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that during communist times was destroyed and turned into a giant oval outdoor swimming pool.
Most notoriously, Luzhkov agreed to buy a giant, grandiose sculpture of Peter the Great aboard a ship that now looms over the Moscow river and appears to be almost universally despised by Muscovites. Popular legend has it that it was originally intended to depict Christopher Columbus, but was repurposed after three US cities refused to buy it. Tsereteli dismisses these stories as “all lies” — indeed, the Columbus that was rejected is the same now being constructed in Puerto Rico — adding: “There were people who were even saying that Columbus was cast in gold!”
“Many people are jealous of my grandfather’s success,” says Vasily Tsereteli. “Years before he met Luzhkov, he was already well known as the Lenin Prize recipient and a chief designer for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Soviet Foreign Ministry, travelling and decorating embassies around the world.”
Indeed, Tsereteli has demonstrated a striking ability throughout his career to maintain friends in the right places and to adapt his work to the new political winds.
He found favour with the Soviet culture ministry in the 1960s and 1970s, winning commissions to redecorate municipal spaces and embassies abroad with his signature Soviet kitsch. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union he has turned his attention to more nationalistic and religious themes — such as the statues of Peter the Great or the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — as the ideology of the Kremlin has evolved.
Sergey Guskov, a journalist at Colta, a website that focuses on modern Russian culture and art, characterises Tsereteli as a master navigator of Russian power politics. “Tsereteli is known for his ability to stay close to power,” Guskov says. “In material terms he did just as well in Soviet times as under Luzhkov, as now.”
Margarita Pushkina, founder of Cosmoscow contemporary art fair, says Tsereteli stands apart from any the cliques of the Russian art scene. “He is an honoured artist but also favoured by powerful decision makers, which is important for financial success,” she says.
Yet Yakobashvili, the Georgian-Russian entrepreneur, argues it would be unfair to characterise Tsereteli’s success as purely the product of his friendships with those in power.
“I have known him since 1978, when he was already a recognised artist,” he says, but adds: “It has always been important — you could say one of the main factors for the advancement of an artist, whether or not they are friendly with the authorities.
“These days, if the government recognises an artist, he is recognised by everyone. But Tsereteli’s main [skills are] his robust working capacity and talent — there would not be any recognition without these two factors.”
Tsereteli’s work rate is indeed prodigious. The garden of his Moscow mansion is filled with bronzework. Two statues of Vladimir Putin in judo kit look sulkily at one another across the courtyard; Princess Diana sits behind an enormous pile of books; Marina Tsvetaeva, the poet, sits on a bench; and there is a small copy of the Peter the Great monument on the Moscow river. When FT Wealth visited, an enormous wall of illustrated bronze panels occupied the centre of the garden — a commission from the defence ministry here for repairs.
Inside the house dozens of rooms groan with Tsereteli’s oeuvre. It is clear that this is not merely a historical monument to his work. As our four-hour lunch draws to a close, after several dozen courses and numerous bottles of wine, Tsereteli is still raring to go. Making pleasantries as his guests leave, he is clearly impatient to get back to his studio.
Aged 81, he maintains a tough daily routine. “I get up early, lift weights, and have a cold shower and a hot shower. I work, I rush off to the academy to complete all my government business and then take a masterclass,” he says.
Tsereteli has presided over the transformation of the Russian art scene since the break-up of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. As dissident and underground artists were recognised for the first time, Tsereteli took the role of the art arbiter, bringing dissidents and “court painters” together. For example, he appointed Eduard Drobitsky, an underground avant-gardist in Soviet days, as a vice-president at the Academy of Arts. Alongside him, Tsereteli recruited Ilya Glazunov, a nationalistic painter favoured by the Communist party censors, as a member of the Academy.
The Russian economy’s energy-fuelled boom that recently came to an end after 15 prosperous years, created new wealth that is now financing contemporary artists, galleries and museums. One of the most successful projects is the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, founded in 2008 by Dasha Zhukova, wife of Roman Abramovich, the owner of the UK’s Chelsea Football Club. The gallery has since relocated to a new pavilion in the renovated Gorky Park in Moscow.
Once again, Tsereteli has managed to befriend the new generation of artists and sponsors. “I am a contemporary artist,” he says before disappearing once more into his studio.
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