Meet Zurab Tsereteli - Moscow’s notorious Billionaire
09 October, 2014
Opinions on a notorious Georgian sculptor who made a career in Russia are usually divided – he is either strongly disliked and considered a symbol of Russian imperialism or strongly admired and his sculptures are supported. Despite the controversy he causes, one thing remains unchanged – the influence of his creations follows the history of Georgian art like a sick puppy, refusing to let go.

Many critics consider his work monotonous, boring and tasteless. Almost all of his sculptures were
subject to a stream of strong criticism, regardless of whether it was a sculpture of Saint George in Tbilisi or a 98-meter-tall monument to Peter the Great in the middle of Moscow.
Unlike other artists, Zurab Tsereteli simply cannot stay out of the spotlight, not only due to his controversial art, but also the property he possesses – a few years ago he ended up on the list of top ten Russian billionaires, with 2 billion dollars. However, Zurab himself denied this and sued the media outlet that published this information. To this day, it’s not known what property the Putin-acknowledged sculptor possesses, especially considering that he staunchly avoids discussing this topic. All he says is that the only thing he owns is his art.
However, the fact that the 80-year-old sculptor has a taste for flashiness and fanfare is undeniable: he lives in a luxurious house, drives expensive cars and dresses sharply. His wrists are always adorned with gold watches and chains, and his fingers bear large gold rings. Tsereteli apparently has no qualms with gifting enormous gold-plated bronze sculptures to authorities of various cities.
Despite his age, Tsereteli’s capacity for work is unbelievable. “It can be easily explained,” – said the sculptor in one of his interviews. “I love my work very much, and when I start, I simply can’t stop”
Zurab Tsereteli was born in 1934 in a family of former aristocrats and engineering architects living in Tbilisi. The family was a big influence on his choice of profession, due to constant gatherings of creative intelligentsia and well-known artists (Davit Kakabadze, Apolon Kutateladze, Ucha Japaridze and others) that took place at their house. His uncle, Giorgi Nizharadze, was also an artist, and he was the biggest influence on Zurab’s future choices.
After graduating he went to France to continue his studies. It is said that he met Picasso and Mark Chagall there. “Going abroad for the first time was an important tipping point for me. In France, I realized that an artist can do anything – sculpture, ceramics, stained glass and mosaics.” – Tsereteli later said.
He earned his first money by drawing caricatures for Soviet magazine Crocodile.
“I had no money after graduating from the academy, so I did the only thing I could – I painted and sketched. Once, a helicopter was sent for me. A young man emerged from it and said: “You must come with us, they are expecting you.” We flew to a countryside cottage that belonged to the state. Some high-ranking politician approached me and said: “All these buildings look the same. Come up with the way to make them beautiful. “This is how my career began. I got many more offers afterwards,” remembers Tsereteli.
The artist left Georgia together with his family in 1989 and moved to Moscow. It is said that this decision was made due to his alleged conflict with the then country’s leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He quickly found support from Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov and became the city’s “number one sculptor.”
Today his enormous sculptures and monuments stand in many countries around the world, such as the USA, France, Spain and Israel. They include a monument to his friend and ex-mayor Luzhkov, named “Yuri Luzhkov as a sportsman” and a sculpture of Vladimir Putin, which “decorated” the lawn of Zurab’s home for years. Zurab himself, however, insists that this is not a sculpture of Putin and that it’s named “Healthy spirit in a healthy body.”
“Long ago, in St. Petersburg, I attended a youth sports competition and saw Putin at one of the tribunes. I liked his pose and immediately sketched it to catch the mood,” declared the sculptor.
Erecting Zurab Tsereteli’s monuments causes an outrage in almost every country that he deigns to “grace” them with. It happened in America, Georgia and even Russia, where the erection of an enormous monument to Peter the Great resulted in a massive controversy. Luzhkov, who was Moscow’s mayor back then, received a slew of complaints regarding his choice of a monument; critics said that a massive statue would not fit in the local architecture. Art experts claimed that “Peter the Great” bore a stark semblance to a monument to Christopher Columbus that Tsereteli attempted to erect in the USA in 1992, but Americans politely refused to take it.
The same happened in Tbilisi with a monument of St. George. A massive gold-plated bronze statue on a tall plinth reaches 35 meters in total height and remains a cause of controversy to this day. The majority of Georgians consider it one of Tsereteli’s most unsightly works, a testament to his poor taste and a perfect example of kitsch.
The sculptor himself is quite calm when it comes to taking criticism, however: “Such reactions are perfectly normal. Art is always either lauded or criticized, and modern man cannot properly appraise it. Take the Eiffel Tower, for example – its creator was scolded back and forth, yet now one cannot imagine Paris without it. Time will sort everything out.”

Author: Mari Javakhishvili