by Vladimir BelogolovskyJun 30, 2023
Two gargantuan bronze hands raised in a prayer greet me at the entry to the eponymous Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art on 10, Rustaveli Avenue in the heart of Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi.
The unique 19th century museum is dedicated to legendary Russian artist, sculptor and painter Zurab Konstatinovich Tsereteli. Born in Tbilisi in Georgia, in 1934, Tsereteli currently resides in Moscow and most of his works are found in Russia and Georgia. In Georgia, he is most famous as the sculptor of the spectacular St. George Statue in Tbilisi, which he gifted to the Georgian people in honour of the nation’s independence. The Chronicles of Georgia monument, located on Keeni Hill, also by him, lies on Tbilisi’s outskirts. It comprises 16 stone columns, each 35 meters high, created from over 100-feet stone pillars engraved with Biblical figures, kings and queens and significant events from Georgian history.
However, the West was introduced to Tsereteli’s creations through the Tear of Grief sculpture, presented as an official gift to the United States from the Russian government to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks. The memorial now stands on the peninsula at Bayonne Harbor in New Jersey.
Today, Tsereteli's global empire straddles many continents. There's a private museum in Georgia, a gallery in Russia and studios in Paris, New York, Tbilisi, and of course, Moscow. His epic bronze and copper showpieces pepper places like New York, Italy and Spain. In 2016, a 268-feet statue of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was unveiled in Puerto Rico. Tsereteli crafted it from 2,500 pieces of bronze and steel manufactured in Russia and some 2,000 sqft of copper sheets.
MOMA Tbilisi celebrates Tsereteli as an artist and a man. Housed in a historic building that once belonged to the Tiflis Cadet Corps, it was where the corps served to train sons of noble families as future officers in the Imperial Russian army. "In 2005, my grandfather started the building’s restoration to launch his museum," informs Vasili Tsereteli, 45, the museum’s director and an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, also Zurab’s grandson. “We started receiving the museum’s first visitors in 2012. In addition to the museum exhibits, MoMA now has a children’s corner depicting my grandfather’s love for children, a gift shop and a conference hall, special events and art openings.”
As we nip our way up the three-storey structure, quirky bronze sculptures by the artist lining the way into the bright and airy museum are unmissable. The first floor hosts a supersize interactive sculpture called The Apple through which visitors can walk. This is a replica of Tsereteli’s well-known display in the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow which I had admired on my last visit to the Russian capital city four years ago.
The captivating, nine-meter high engineering monument is embellished with 145 bronze reliefs. "It traces the history of human passions from the fall," the guide explains as I amble into the installation's cavernous innards. It brims with enamelled walls awash with murals of men and women standing in Kamasutra-like poses, apparently Tsereteli's ode to Indian culture as depicted in ancient scriptures. The Apple's perimeter is embellished with monumental reliefs based on Biblical imagery of spiritual rebirth.
I next gravitate towards Argonauts, an engaging 3D composition made of enamel and serigraphy (silk screen printing), a labour of love that was created over several years. Dozens of sculptures, paintings and enamel works provide a visual treat. Engaging as the artworks are, I can’t help but marvel at Tsereteli’s impressive oeuvre which encompasses oils, sculpture, murals, mosaics, installations and more. Many of these works reveal an influence of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists exponents, mainly Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Besides his sculptures, Tsereteli’s vast body of figurative paintings are distinguished by a dramatic use of colour and engaging play of form.
MoMA holds three floors of exhibits which amount to nearly 300 highly creative works by Tsereteli. The artist’s fascination for Charlie Chaplin is apparent as it finds a special place in many of his works in this collection as well. “That’s because as a child, the artist watched Chaplin’s movies with his grandmother, laughing and enjoying the tramp’s amusing antics. This inspired him to create a series of works that combine his cinema scenes with his artistic imagination,” informs Vasili.
A devoted Charlie Chaplin fan, Tsereteli likes to depict the tramp across a variety of mediums, his favourite being oil and sculpture. Motley images of Chaplin, him with a street shoe cleaner, or with his chum Kinto, exuberant and cheerful, line MOMA’s walls. It’s obvious that the Charlie Chaplin compositions are not literal portraits of the actor but a variation on a sad clown. Despite this gravitas, however, Tsereteli’s Chaplin portrayed as “the small tramp” conveys the idea of love as life’s central emotion.
Interestingly, in some works, Chaplin resembles the local Georgians providing an immediacy to the showcased portraits. This is perhaps because the artist has positioned his creations in the atmosphere of old Tbilisi where the image acquires a native flavour as if Chaplin was born and raised in the Caucasian city.
However, it is the museum's third floor, where I get a real glimpse of the man behind the artist. A trove of eclectic compositions including a series of oil paintings, graphics, black-and-white serial serigraphs, enamel works and album plates, circa 1999-2001, underscore his versatility. The section also features photos from Tsereteli’s personal album—him hobnobbing with Hollywood greats, iconic artists and global political personalities, a striking portrait of a man who has led a rich and colourful life.