Visiting the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum in Moscow: an (in)famous reputation deserved?

So there was Mama somewhere at the back end of the 90s standing in St Petersburg watching the unveiling of a new monument and feeling a nagging existential discomfort. This ate away at her for a while until she realised that the reason she was discombobulated was that the statue was not by Zurab Tsereteli.

There was no better sign that she was no longer in Moscow. For at that time Georgian born artist Tsereteli was being almost exclusively commissioned by the then Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to sort Russia’s capital out with all sorts of little (and not so little) embellishments.

From the reconstructed Christ the Saviour cathedral, through an exceptionally tall memorial to the second world war in Victory Park and clowns outside the Nikulin circus to the Manege shopping mall next to the Kremlin and a whole host of other projects big and small, Zurab Tsereteli was involved as an architect, sculptor or artist and his style was unmistakable.

That said, Zurab Tsereteli has had a very successful career selling sculptures in all sorts of places since his beginnings as a designer of one of the immortal bus stops in the Soviet Bus Stop book, which now has a second volume out! That’s Christmas sorted then.

He’s had projects all over Russia and the former Soviet Union and also in Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Greece and the UK. This one is in… wait for it… France. Only bigger.

The Three Musketeers Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

His ten-story teardrop sculpture to 9/11 (actually called ‘to the struggle against world terrorism’) is installed in Bayonne, New Jersey (Mama forgot to take a photo of the mock up of that one. Google it).

He is phenomenally wealthy and was once married to a princess. This isn’t her; Mama just likes it. The sculpture is of a famous Georgian dancer in reality, and now installed in Georgia. Only bigger.

Georgian Dancer Nino Ramishvili Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

His crowning glory, though, was undoubtedly the giant statue of Peter the Great, now installed on the Moscow River. It’s the 8th biggest statue in the world and something of an acquired taste. Legend has it that it was actually supposed to be a statue of Christopher Columbus and destined for the US. The US refused to take it on, and so Tsereteli removed the head, stuck one of Peter I on, and sold it to Moscow.

Which is bollocks, probably (says Mama). Tsereteli did indeed have difficulty pitching a giant statue of Christopher Columbus to the US but, never one to give up on a sale, he’s been shopping it around ever since and it recently found a home in Puerto Rico. A snip at 16 million dollars. The one here is a preparatory model. The one in Puerto Rico is much much bigger. Bigger, in fact, than the Statue of Liberty. As is Peter.

Columbis and Peter the Great at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

You can see the similarity, of course. But it’s not the same statue.

Here is a photo of Luzhkov (on the left) looking satisfied with a job well done.

Yuri Luzhkov photo Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Zurab Tsereteli’s stranglehold on sculpture in Moscow may have been loosened with the downfall of Luzhkov in 2010, but he has not entirely lost his artistic clout, although what saved Peter the Great from being dismantled and summarily shipped off to the reluctant St Petersburg was the new mayor’s discovery of just how much this would cost, apparently.

Now in his 80s, Tsereteli is still the president of the Russian Academy of Arts. He is linked to one of the Russian themepark projects currently proceeding apace (wheeeeee!). His private collection formed the basis of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And although the MMOMA is now state-run, one of the buildings that forms this art collective is the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum dedicated to his works.

Mama’s google fu seems to suggest it is also his former home, and definitely a mansion house once belonging to the Gorbunovs, before it was requisitioned by the Soviets.

That’s where Mama took us recently.

Well, look, the outside of the building is enough to entice anyone inside, surely?

Entrance to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Although when we got in the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum we were shown straight back out again into the courtyard, where there are a lot of sculptures.

As well as a lot of mock ups of some of Tsereteli’s bigger statues elsewhere, Mama was surprised to discover that she was not as au fait with the Tsereteli oeuvre as she thought she was – she hadn’t realised that the mosaic animal sculptures at the Moscow Zoo are his.

Mosaic fish Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Mama was also very taken with this one. Obviously this is because both me and my Judoka Big Brother participate in judo, although I don’t know what the tiger has to do with anything.

Putin Judo Statue Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But the thing about Tsereteli is that just as you are writing him off, he produces things like these statues of Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, which Mama do think have a certain something.

Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

And this. It’s part of a Holocaust memorial. In the original there is a queue of such figures, who stretch back and back and back and gradually become less distinct as individual people and slowly disappear into the ground. Mama considers it quite well done, and to support this view is the fact that people thought it was so upsetting that it was moved from its initial position at the very front of Victory Park to somewhere a bit less inclined to make them feel uncelebratory.

Holocaust memorial Victory Park Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But there are these cool metal flowers too.

Colourful metal flowers Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

And this, which needs no words.

Sculpture on the side of a house Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

It was about now that I started to feel decidedly overwhelmed with weird shapes, animals and people, because if there is one thing that the courtyard isn’t, it’s carefully curated, and so I demanded to go somewhere a bit less busy.

Inside was nice and warm, and mostly focused on better organised collections of paintings. Tsereteli likes his paintings as his sculptures, if not in actual size then in the bold primary colours, thick thick layers of oil paint and unsubtle shapes he favours. Apparently, Tsereteli hung out with people like Picasso, Chagall and Dali in his youth, and Mama thinks he still does.

Sometimes this works better than at other times. Mama likes these.

Painting at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Painting Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But for the areas you enjoy, the gallery is certainly generous with its comfortable seating, accompanied by a coffee table filled with a selection of books telling you more about Zurab Tsereteli’s life and works.

Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow chairs and coffee table

One thing Mama does not understand is why every single person, and Tsereteli does do people a lot, looks miserable. This seems something at odds with his choice of colour palette.

And the title of this series, ‘for my grandsons’, is frankly odd.

Clown paintings at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Although Tsereteli must have a bit of a thing for clowns. He has a large number of works inspired by Charlie Chaplin. And a photo of him with Charlie Chapin’s granddaughter.

Charlie Chaplin at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

There are photos of him with all sorts of other people too.

Clinton photo Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Not disturbing at all was the welcome of the staff, who clocked Mama fairly quickly and switched to competent English. They also let us choose a complimentary greetings card on our way out, presumably for being children with discerning taste in museum galleries.

Mama also recommends a visit to the toilet (you’ll see why) and the cafe in the grounds of the Georgian Orthodox church next door to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum. Georgian food is one of Moscow’s little pleasures.

And if you haven’t had enough of Tsereteli, he has an art gallery in Moscow too. There’s a sculpture of an apple there (giant, natch). I expect we’ll find our way there sooner rather than later.

More information

Zurab Tsereteli’s website.

The Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about being an artist’s model.

Address: 15 Bolshaya Gruzinskaya, Moscow, 123557

Opening: 11am to 7pm Monday to Sunday, Tuesday 1pm – 9pm, closed third Monday every month.

Admission: Adults, 250 roubles; kids of seven and over 100 roubles; kids under 7, free.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Barrikadnaya (purple line)  and Krasnopresnanskaya (brown line). Look for the entrance to the Moscow Zoo (you can’t miss it). Instead of going in, follow the wall to the left round to the back of the zoo and you definitely can’t miss the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum.

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Visiting the Zurab Tsereteli Studio in Moscow to find out if an infamous reputation is deserved

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Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art or Not.

It is Mama’s firm belief that modern art is the medium to go for if you want childish appreciation of visual virtuosity. Classical paintings are very flat. Contemporary… whatjmacallits tend to be a lot more pace roundable, climb upable, crawl alongable, duck underable and even, occasionally, touchable.

The current exhibition at the Garage art gallery in Moscow, the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, has items on display which allow you to do all of these things, and put on headphones to listen to the soundtrack that accompanies them as well.

The Way of an Object Makhacheva Garage Triennial

Of course, so far we have only been to one exhibition where you were invited to handle everything, and the Garage Triennial wasn’t it.

Figuring out which items you are supposed to manipulate and which to contemplate from a safe distance by carefully observing the appropriate behaviour of more clued up others is both a profoundly moving representation of an essential aspect of the human condition and also a very good opportunity for children to practice this vital social skill.

Faces Garage Triennial of Russian Cintemporary Art

To limit the potential damage this might cause, the very practical Garage gallery had stationed a large number of young docents at every possible corner on the lookout for people doing it wrong, so generally the art was safe from everyone except Mama, who absent-mindedly walked into the dangling skier model. We simply can’t take her anywhere.

Female Male Red Khasanov Garage Triennial

Adding to the child-friendliness, in the Garage Triennial, when the art is flat, it tends to be on TV. Can we recognise the difference qualitative difference between Spongebob Squarepants and a woman being sloooooowly covered with large smooth stones on a beach? Mama has no idea, but she does know that my Predictable Big Brother will be entranced as long as there are moving images.

Mama wouldn’t say that the Garage Triennial is simply uncomplicated fun for the more youthful element of society though. So she experienced trepidation every time I put on the headphones, and even insisted on sampling the soundtracks first if she could get there ahead of me. But since I retained my sunny delight in trying on every single one of them for the whole of the exhibition, Mama concludes that it was fairly innocuous after all. And the set that also included virtual reality goggles was simply FABULOUS. Floor to ceiling dancing babushkas. ‘Nuff said.

The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art is organised into a number of themed sections. Its overall aim is, for the first time ever, to showcase the current state of the modern art scene for the whole of the Russian Federation, and to this end curators spread out all over the very very big country in order to discover what is going on out there. Way way out there in some cases.

They seem to have decided that artists are working on being famous (‘Master Figure’), describing themselves (‘Personal Mythologies’), describing their location (‘Fidelity to Place’), describing what’s wrong with that (‘Art in Action’), describing art (‘Common Language’) and scribbling on walls (‘Street Morphology’).

Prussian Winter Matveev Garage Triennial

And actually Mama, who can sometimes find herself in a modern art gallery staring a large, random, piece of burnt wood and wondering if it would make sense the other way up, felt that either the Russian artists had been unusually successful in getting a point across or that the groupings were particularly well thought out. In pondering the connections between pieces or between the piece and the topic, she made a lot more sense of what was going on than that time when she was interviewed by a psychic guru in the catacombs of the Tate Modern.

Reticence Novikov Garage Triennial

Went a bit over our heads, mind you. My Predictable Big Brother stared particularly blankly at the large golden model of a priest and inquired with some disapproval as to why he was making a mildly rude gesture. Being moved to read the caption and finding out it is a self-portrait didn’t seem to help much.

Basically, both of us much preferred the shiny metal spiny sculptures, the giant pile of rubbish that changes into something much more attractive when the lights go down, the sand tray where you could use tweezers to move a few buttons, twigs, grains of sand, plastic baubles and fabric flowers around, and the giant multi leveled wendyhouse, with the extremely steep twisty stairs.

Metropolis Seleznyov Garage Triennial.

Most of all I liked the dolphin buried in a concrete brick. Look, I just like dolphins, alright? No need to overthink things.

Dolphin Tail Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

I liked it so much, in fact, I drew it in the visitors book, full of sketches by other gallery goers too, after double checking to make sure it wasn’t just another piece of art.

Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

Mama thinks that very much in evidence was the Russian surrealist sense of humour, impressive commitment to fixing anything as long as there is a bent paperclip or a large hammer to hand, and habit of flinging themselves wholeheartedly into their latest project.

But the Russian reputation for startling directness is also not unjustified and this was definitely on display at the Garage Triennial too.

Take this one, which Mama found one of the most powerful examples, given that it marries the very delicately pretty feminine art of watercolour painting with the ugly subject of domestic violence.

Bruise Potemkina Garage Triennial

Or this one, in which items from the personal and political history of the country have been embedded in amber, itself an iconic item from this part of the world. Can’t get more crushing that the implication that the symbols you held so dear are now fosilised remnants of a disconnected past.

Nasubullova Garage Triennial

Or this one. These are house numbers. Note the missing ones, intended to represent the losses suffered to wars and instability in the artist’s hometown.

Numbers Gaisumov Garage

Which is Grozny in Chechnya.

Let’s just take a moment to add a new layer of painful interpretation to that, shall we?

But the problem with message-driven art is that at some point that you do start to wonder if perhaps standing in a swish custom-built chrome-plated art gallery, thinking about the coffee you can have in the large, tastefully-appointed cafe downstairs, next to the extensive souvenir cum glossy art books shop is all a bit… too… comfortable.

Is there, in fact, a point to looking at this kind of thing if all you are going to do afterwards is play on the table football, and then wander downstairs to the elegant toilets, where there are sprays so you can detoxify the seats before parking your rump, as well as a mirrored area with a built in clever-clever hashtag for teenagers to primp in front of before their edgy Instagram session upstairs? And all this while listening to the deliberately amplified sound of flushing loos?

A question already addressed in the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, by the Monstration happening.

This is an event which takes place annually, and which at first glance seems to show a large street demonstration in action.

Monstration Loskutov Garage Triennial

But if you look a little closer (and you can read Russian), you will see that the placards are covered with pseudo slogans.

Because this is a pseudo protest.

Yes, the artist organizer may occassionally get arrested for planning it, and the onlookers heckling the participants may also be taking it seriously, but no, these people have turned out en mass and with considerable enthusiasm, having taken the time to paint up their own signs with absurd sayings to participate in an entirely content-free demonstration.

Mama simply cannot decide whether this is the most genius bit of biting sociological satire she has ever seen, the angriest political commentary or an egregious example of shocking frivolity given that it is 2017, the year after 2016. It’s been bothering her considerably.

Which, I suppose is the point of art, contemporary or otherwise. To get under your skin, to stay with you, to make you examine the world in a different way.

So go, if you can. It’s interesting, fun and worthwhile. And your kids will love it.

More information

The exhibition’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about bluffing your way round an art gallery.

Address: 9/32 Krymsky Val, 119049, Moscow

Opening: The Garage Triennial of Contemporary Russian Art is on until 14th May 2017. 11 am to 10pm daily.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults. Children under 11 are free. Children over 11 cost 100 roubles.

Public transport: The Garage gallery is in Gorky Park. The two nearest metro stations are Oktyabrskaya (orange line) and Park Kultury (red line).

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The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

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the Pigeon Pair and Me

New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val, Moscow

Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.

Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.

Sticks at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is Art we thoroughly approve of.

Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val
Look! No people!

The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.

The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).

Slide rule and woman at the Tretyakov Gallery
There is nothing more fabulous than a slide rule.

Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.

Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.

So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.

And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.

Malevich at the Tretyakov Gallery
The original Black Square.

The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.

Says Mama.

Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.

Constructivism at the Tretyakov Gallery
I could do that.

Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.

Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.

The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.

Heros of the Soviet Union at the Tretyakov Gallery
Hero footballers of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Realism at the Tretyakov Gallery
Soviet Realism is real.
Unapproved Soviet art at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is not Soviet Realism. This is a kitchen!

The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.

Expat Soviet artists at the Tretyakov Gallery
I can see bottoms, Mama!

To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.

They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.

The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had  to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.

But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.

And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.

We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.

Prigov at the Tretyakov Gallery
This artist scared the living daylights out of us.

We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.

Kandinsky at the Tretyakov Gallery
Kandinsky’s dinosaur painting.

And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.

More Information

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructions with a ruler and a compass.

Address: 10 Krymsky Val, Moscow 117049

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.

NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.