Zurab Tsereteli: The master from Moscow

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Zurab Tsereteli: The master from Moscow

Published: Fri 8 Mar 2019, 2:50 PM

If art is a reflection of its creator, then it's fair to say that Zurab Tsereteli's work (six decades and counting) is as colourful and life-affirming as the man himself. Widely hailed as Russia's most famous living artist, Tsereteli turned 85 recently, but his single-minded passion for art - coupled with a bon vivant lifestyle that we thought went out of fashion with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol - has not diminished one bit. Those who follow the legendary artist around as he goes about his whirlwind Moscow life say they often find it hard to match up to his energy. "He is painting all the time. That's how we have always seen him," insists grandson Vasili Tsereteli. The younger Tsereteli works as the Moscow Museum of Modern Art's director and though he has seen plenty of great art in his life, he retains a soft spot for his grandfather's zesty paintings. Born in Tbilisi in 1934, Zurab Tsereteli's folksy art is instantly recognisable both in his native Georgia and home Russia. Marked by a bold use of colour, his intense and textured paintings of peasants and musicians have placed him at the forefront of Russian expressionism. Himself a fan of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, he reveres nature in his work, especially the humble 'flower' that has become a recurring motif. Also a sculptor of large-scale historical sculptures in bronze, stone and enamel, Tsereteli's work appears in consonance with his outlook on life. "I celebrate life - and that's what my paintings do," he declares.

Far from slowing down, Tsereteli maintains a strict work ethic even today, comparing himself to a troubadour for whom the show must always go on. Prolific and versatile, he paints every day and spends hours drawing and sketching. No wonder then he has managed to accumulate a sprawling volume of work in his long career. Last year, a select array of those works, new and old alike, were ricocheting through Europe and South America. His major retrospective held earlier this year at London's prestigious Saatchi Gallery was a sell-out. His English debut, the retrospective titled Larger Than Life offered Londoners a rare chance to see many of his iconic canvases as it honoured key moments from his career. 2019 promises to be just as exciting and wanderlusty for the artist, as new shows are being stacked up in Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein. At 85, Tsereteli is too busy producing what Edward Said called "late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour".
In a conversation with WKND from Moscow, the master talks about his influences, meeting Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in Paris and what makes him tick.
Your work is known for being visually striking and lyrical. We should really start by discussing how you see the function of colour in your art.
For me, colour is nature. The very first time I saw colour was the colouring pencils. They gave them out in kindergarten and asked us to pay attention to the colours so that we would not lose them. When I started drawing as an adolescent, I was long under the influence of the Impressionists, because they produced such a masterful colour harmony. The Impressionists were concerned with light and shadow and their enquiry was taken ahead by post-Impressionists, like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, who are my heroes. Look at their imaginative use of colour and composition. Their paintings still so look fresh. Their art isn't merely decorative. It says so much about life and philosophy and about their struggles, not just as artists but as human beings. Can you imagine Van Gogh without colours? Colours are a painter's tools. I always say, an artist's palette is like a huge symphonic orchestra composed of all musical instruments - violins, drums and guitars. Just as an orchestra builds the harmony of sound from many instruments, an artist creates a symphony with his colours. To me, this is what a painting is all about.
What would you say has been the main theme of your work?
Intensity, especially the intensity of colour. In Moscow, there is no sun in winter and the colour range disappears, so I take colour from flowers and bring the sunshine back into my studio through my work. I am also lucky that I have been able to live by the principle of 'art for art's sake'. It's important for me to take charge of what I paint. I go with my instinct and have never worked according to market demands.
What else inspires you?
My art is my life. I am always creating! Life itself provides me with inexhaustible sources of inspirations. Picasso once said, "I don't look for. I find." I find inspiration in music, art, people in my life, the places I have visited and, of course, nature. From travelling all over Georgia (where I was born), drawing what I saw and studying ethnography and archaeology, I developed a respect for nature, learning that every leaf and flower has its own colour and, together, they generate a unique colour scheme. In my recent exhibition, Larger Than Life at the Saatchi Gallery (London), I showed Flower Tree, a huge enamelled sculpture that took me one-and-a-half years to create and showcases my admiration for the intricacies of nature.
Is it true that as a child growing up in Georgia, you were surrounded by music, a memory that has become embedded in your being?
(Laughs) Ask any Georgian and they will agree that life without music is meaningless. In childhood, I always had a feeling that everybody in Georgia was a singer! Even today, when I paint or when I am conducting my weekend classes for painting, I switch on the music. I can see why Leonardo da Vinci called music the 'sister of painting'. It's true that my spiritual life in Georgia and Russia began to take shape under the influence of music. I have preserved those memories. In my work, music can be seen as a philosophical and symbolic expression of beauty, pain and emotions.
You travelled to Paris as a young man in the Soviet era, a journey that played a decisive role in your development as an artist. Can you recollect the Paris years?
Hemingway's famous words come to mind, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." Paris was my first trip abroad and it was life-changing. In the 1960s, my wife (Inessa Andronikashvili), who had many wealthy relatives in Paris, was invited over to France, but only one of us could go - so, I opted. I feel Paris inspired me to reinvent myself as a painter and look at life with new eyes.
You famously socialised with Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in Paris of the 1950-60s. How did that happen?
I once went to Picasso's studio and that changed my life. Picasso chose the genres of art with the freedom that no other artist in the annals of art ever could. He worked as a painter, dabbled in ceramics and sculpture and that made me reflect on the unlimited possibilities of art. Picasso taught me to believe that an artist is fundamentally free and can do anything. As for Marc Chagall, he was my idol. I love everything about his art - the violin, the floating kisses, the musicality and the dreamy quality. I visited him often in Paris. But it was impossible to enter the heart of Chagall's studio where he kept his palette and paints. He never let anyone in there (smiles). Once, I managed to get a glimpse. I think I got to see a fragment of his soul. I will cherish that memory.
You turned 85 earlier this year. Clearly, slowing down is not on your mind, is it?
Many people have asked me how I feel about turning 85. The truth is, I still feel 23! I exercise every morning, in the same way I did back then, and I continuously work through the day and into night. Nothing brings me more joy than hosting family and friends, taking weekend art masterclasses, painting in my studio and enjoying life. I take energy from people around me.

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