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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
But there are these cool metal flowers too.
And this, which needs no words.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are photos of him with all sorts of other people too.
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.
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.
And you you are ever in Tbilisi in Georgia and what a guide of things to do, here is one.
The Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s website (in English).
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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