A Master Ahead of His Time

Alexander Rozhin

Magazine issue: 
#2 2014 (43)


It is not only professional artists, art lovers and connoisseurs who know this remarkable man's achievements in art and truly selfless public work, but millions of people in every corner of our planet.

In his work, Zurab Tsereteli confronts and communicates the philosophical problem of understanding and artistically expressing reality, its past and present. The artist, who was honoured with the title of UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador, deserves to be called a "citizen of the world". His symbolic sculptural composition "St. George" represents the triumph of good over evil - St. George strikes down nuclear missiles, the deadly weapons that threaten the existence of mankind. This monument was erected on the grounds of the United Nations building in New York. Other works include "Tear of Grief", a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in Bayonne, New Jersey; the monuments to Columbus in Seville, Spain, to Nikolai Gogol in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, and to Honore de Balzac in Paris; the statue of Pablo Neruda in Santiago, Chile; and Peter the Great in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Princess Olga of Kiev in Pskov, and Prince Vladimir in Ryazan, in Russia. Tsereteli's majestic ensembles of architecture and sculpture "History of Georgia" and "St. Nino" grace Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. To commemorate the great victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War, the Poklonnaya Gora memorial complex was built in Moscow.

Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali were among the great masters of 20th-century art who noticed and valued Zurab Tsereteli's talent, his broad worldview and his original creative philosophy. It was an omen.

By nature, Tsereteli was exceptionally gifted, perceptive and shrewd. In large measure thanks to his parents and their circle, he found his way as an artist early in life. His mother's brother, Georgi Nizharadze, was an artist, and many prominent Georgian artists, such as David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Apollon Kutateladze, and Ucha Japaridze were frequent guests at his home. They were the ones who foretold the young Zurab's future as an artist. When the renowned masters saw the gifted boy's early works, they sensed his rare, imaginative perception of the world. Thanks to such early encounters, these artists and their thoughtful attitude towards him, Zurab started his art education at the Academy where his instructors included an extraordinary group of artists. Along with Japaridze and Kutateladze, the well-known names of remarkable Russian artists should be mentioned, such as Eugene Lanceray, Iosif Charlemagne and Vasily Shukhaev.

Thus, Zurab Tsereteli's ultimate dream came true - he became an artist. His father Konstantin Tsereteli, an engineer, who had hopes of seeing his son join his own profession, was later proud of Zurab's achievements. He collected newspaper and magazine clippings with reviews and articles about his son. Zurab's parents, despite their limited means, did everything in their power to support him, even though their life was as hard as the life of most families during the post-war years. Furthermore, Tamara Tsereteli's father was a victim of political repression, arrested and executed in 1937, when his grandson was only three years old (Konstantin and Tamara Tsereteli named their son Zurab in his honour.) In spite of all the hardship and irreparable loss, the young Zurab's heart was not hardened, and he and those close and dear to him remained characteristically optimistic about the future.

Having graduated from the Academy, Zurab Tsereteli embarked on his path as an "independent artist". Soon he fell in love with Inessa Andronikashvili, a lovely young girl who became his wife, his devoted companion and best friend. The happy couple had a daughter, Yelena, her father's future assistant and ally. At the time, Tsereteli made a living with occasional commissions for book illustrations, magazine and newspaper cartoons, and assorted design jobs. Again, Ucha Japaridze was there to help his protege - he found Zurab a job doing architectural design at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. It was there that Tsereteli fell in love with history, learned to appreciate its importance and the value of learning "the whispered fables... of times long gone".

This work, however, did not involve any creativity and restricted his artistic individuality. Lev Kolodny wrote about this time in the artist's life: "For the second time his uncle Georgi Nizharadze played a pivotal role in his nephew's life when he brought him to the manufacturing unit at the Arts Foundation of the republic [of Georgia]. The newcomer became a skilled craftsman in the manufacturing workshop... There he learned to transform drawings into bronze, rock, glass, and wood..." This is an important piece of Tsereteli's "portrait", as it attests to the fact that he rose through all the levels of professional mastery, from traditional fine art instruction to practical handling of artistic media, from a talented student to a conscious artist, from craft to true art. He excelled at making molds and casting, at chiseling and carving - in a word, he acquired priceless experience of crafting beautiful objects, sharpened his eye and trained his hand.

Zurab Tsereteli is a versatile professional - a painter, draftsman, sculptor, enameller, stained-glass maker, architect, and designer; as an artist, he combines consummate craftsmanship with untamed creativity, multiplied by inspiration and talent. Brilliant artist and craftsman that he is Tsereteli seems always to be keeping in mind the well-known words of Anatole France: "Two monsters threaten art: an artist who is not a craftsman, and a craftsman who is not an artist."

Tsereteli is an extraordinary, intellectual person; not only does he possess an enormous creative range, he also has an amazing innate sense of colour, of decorative expressiveness, of plasticity and form, light and space. He knows how to use the magic of synthesis and has his own understanding of how the parts and the whole blend together. He thinks in truly comprehensive terms - hence the epic scope of his works, whatever their size or format may be.

Tsereteli stays true to the great traditions of the past, to the legacy of both his teachers and "old masters"; at the same time, he remains original, capable of admiration and delight. He makes new discoveries, develops new techniques and technologies, and transforms the age-old practices of his great predecessors. Always generating new ideas, he is one of "the chosen", by their time and the Almighty, an artist who will be always recognized, even by those who have seen just one of his works.

We identify and experience the impressive depth of the master's images and fantastical ideas when we look at his monumental ensembles, paintings and drawings, architectural and designer projects, his sculptural compositions, enamels and stained glass. He is virtually never the same - always innovating and perfecting his arsenal of technical means, media and methods. It becomes obvious when we gaze at such works as Tsereteli's architectural and sculptural complex "History of Georgia" (situated not far from Tbilisi), astonishing in its sacred spirituality; the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) memorial at Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow; or the entrance hall and two naves of the Moscow metro station "Park Pobedy" (Victory Park) and the two coloured enamel decorative wall panels, which symbolize the military feats of our forefathers during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and that of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who defended peace and saved the world from fascism in World War II.

Tsereteli's above-mentioned works differ from one another in their architectonic, plastic and stylistic approach, just as his contextual, artistic and dramaturgical goals were different, too.

Tsereteli's artistic expression varies, but remains whole, true to its conceptual core and, in his own way, realistic, and quite controversial, which is still another proof of how extraordinary it is - it sometimes leaves viewers shocked or annoyed, but never indifferent. We are referring here to a small number of works, first and foremost the ones that embody the ideas of synthesis, innovation, art that is ahead of its time, and the quest for new forms of expression and artistic means of summing up current events and phenomena of our civilization.

Zurab Tsereteli has the ability to foresee, something that comes from his innate intuition, his commitment to the Church's teachings as a true Christian, both by birth and by religious persuasion. It follows logically that for Tsereteli, religious history, themes and stories from the Old and New Testaments remain limitless sources of understanding the sacred meaning of human life, its spiritual and moral constants. In his own everyday life, the artist is guided by the tacit ethical norms of the Orthodox Christian faith and the ideals of the Gospels. He is credited with many good deeds, with selflessly helping friends and colleagues and others in need of support. Thus, having barely met Josef Brodsky just before the poet left, or rather was exiled from, the Soviet Union, Tsereteli came to love and remember Brodsky for his great, free and honest talent; for many years after that he quietly helped the poet's mother, who remained in Leningrad, and later created a sculpture to immortalize the exiled winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.

This work became one of a series of sculptures dedicated to great public figures, "the conscience" of Russia, among them Boris Pasternak, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina and Vladimir Vysotsky.

In mentioning these works, it is important to emphasize the nature and level of artistic generalization, the innovative approach to showing plastic figures in space, evoking both an architectural portal and a frame, like a ramp around the model's silhouette. These are large-scale compositions, and the figures in them are shown at various angles, which creates the impression of inner movement, depending on the viewer's point of view. They are three-dimensional figures with meticulously executed sculptured surfaces - a combination of smooth and textured elements that create a certain light effect. These sculptures are life-like and romantically and dramatically exalted at the same time. The artist shows his models both as individuals with their characteristic psychological traits as well as archetypes of creative personalities. These bronze representations of our national cultural figures are unique artistic images; at the same time, they encompass those spiritual and moral qualities that Tsereteli has in common with his civic position and actions, as well as his moral and ethical principles and views.

To return to Zurab Tsereteli's generosity, empathy, readiness to help those who are suffering, we could remember many regular episodes from his private life - those who need expert assistance, lack funds for surgery or expensive medication often come to him, and he never refuses to help. It is not just that he is a generous man who has the means - he also has many friends who are always ready to help him with a request to help others. There are many examples, such as Leo Bakeria, an extraordinary cardiac surgeon, renowned oncologists, medical doctors of various specialties, both diagnosticians and physicians, who saved many lives, including those of Tsereteli's colleagues.

The story of his philanthropy would not be complete without the mention of the help he offers to young artists. Thus, as the lead instructor at his personal workshop and a professor at Moscow's Surikov Art Institute, Tsereteli has never collected his salary - the money he earns goes to help underprivileged talented art students. Another example is the free weekly workshops that the maestro holds at his gallery on Prechistenka street in Moscow that are open to all children and anyone else who wants to come. These facts of the artist's life are a testament to his empathy, his desire to support and help both those who are close to him and those whom he does not even know.

Tsereteli's passionate, generous nature manifests itself in all aspects of his life, but certainly first and foremost in his art; in my view, it is especially evident in his paintings. Painting is his passion and his element. It is the one place where he belongs only to himself. In his paintings, his expansive energy finds an outlet that is equal to his temperament. The vibrant paints fill the empty canvases propped up by his easel with the colours of life and time before they can dry on the artist's large palette. It no longer matters to him if he is painting a landscape, a still-life, a portrait or a genre composition - he paints the world, real and imaginary, and every finished work, no matter what genre it belongs to, becomes a "self-portrait" of the artist's emotional state, his feelings and reflections. The light changes, the master removes the canvas he has been painting, and puts a new one on the easel. Everything changes: the colour scheme, the tone, the nuances, the rhythm of his brush strokes, the texture of the painting, and its mood - new thoughts and dreams take over. Tsereteli's remarkable ability to experiment left both the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer truly amazed.

Tsereteli's successes include experiments in combining various painting surfaces, two-dimensional planes and sculptural forms, as well as discovering new expressive decorative possibilities in raised enamel. He believes in both treasuring and developing traditions, and always strongly reacts, empathizes with and defends the achievements and principles of traditional Russian art instruction. At the same time, Tsereteli is a proponent of evolution in art, of using multimedia technologies and innovations. Indeed, he initiated the establishment of the first Russian museum of modern art and its cutting-edge developments.

Niko Pirosmani, Paul Cezanne, Amedeo Modigliani, and certainly Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall - these are the great masters of world art whom Zurab Tsereteli loves and respects the most. His paintings often evoke their palette and intonations as a reminder of the heights that the profession of the visual arts and inspiration can achieve. The vast and intriguing world of Tsereteli's images is a solemn, uninterrupted and romantic hymn to life and everything in it - a rich and multi-layered range of emotions and colours. Polyphony of colour in Zurab Tsereteli's paintings represents the unbroken, invisible link to his native roots, to Georgian culture and its melodious songs. National motifs and echoes of distant memories of his childhood and youth are often present in the master's art. It is important to highlight the fact that, along with the irresistible longing for new, dramatic experiences, the joys of human companionships and new discoveries, it is always Biblical themes, exciting historical events, images of his ancestors' land, their lives and customs, and most importantly, his like-minded friends and fellow artists that provide the main characters and scenes for Tsereteli's art.

The scale of an artist's success is determined by such factors as social motivation, professionalism, and the totality of his or her artistic and other achievements. A simple formal list of prizes, awards and honorary titles bestowed on Zurab Tsereteli gives an idea of the magnitude of his career: Hero of Socialist Labour, Full Cavalier of the Order "For Merit to the Fatherland", the USSR State Prize, People's Artist, Academician, President of the Russian Academy of Arts, Full Honorary Member of numerous foreign academies of fine arts, including those of France and Spain, professor at Russian and foreign universities, recipient of the Order of the Legion of Honour for his contribution to art, and other prestigious awards. It would not be an exaggeration to mention Zurab Tsereteli's personal contacts and private meetings with distinguished artists and scientists, as well as the leaders of many countries. Tsereteli's social circle, just like the sphere of his spiritual and creative interests, is immense; we believe that, along with his talent, this constitutes one of the main elements of the artist's indisputable prestige, the reputation of a Master who is truly ahead of his time.





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