HIGHEST LAURELS

Anna Malpas talks with artists Zurab Tsereteli and Alexander Shilov about staying in the state's graces despite decades of political change.

By Anna Malpas

Dismissed by the black-turtleneck crowd yet rewarded by the state, artists Zurab Tsereteli and Alexander Shilov have fought their way to the top of the country's art scene, with their works reproduced on chocolate boxes and housed in 19th-century mansions.

Shilov, a flamboyant 60-year-old painter with a graying pompadour and sharp taste in checks, is pictured citywide on billboards advertising the state-owned gallery on Znamenka that was given his name after he presented the city with hundreds of his realist paintings. A recipient of numerous state awards, his pictures also top Red October chocolate assortments named after the gallery.

"If an artist works and his art is incomprehensible and not needed by people, that means he's working for the trash can," Shilov said in his gallery office, which is furnished with massive carved wood cupboards and golden candelabras. "But when viewers and government leaders appreciate you, it's a great stimulus for further creativity. It means that people need what you do."

Tsereteli, who celebrated his 70th birthday this year, lives and works in the former West German Embassy and creates vast sculptures for Moscow and other cities, the most conspicuous of which is the 94-meter-high monument to Peter the Great that towers over the Moscow River. Head of the Academy of Arts since 1997, he created a gallery on its grounds to display his sculptures and paintings. He has established two state museums of contemporary art in Moscow alone, and plans to start up more in other cities.

Last week found him behind the easel in dress shirt, vest and gold cufflinks (he was to attend a meeting at the Academy of Arts later that day), painting a vase of flowers to the strains of Georgian folk songs.

He broke off painting to talk with engineers about his latest project -- a Sept. 11, 2001 monument for Jersey City. The engineers' task is to design the hydraulics for a "tear" to fall regularly from an 11-meter glass drop at the center of the bronze memorial, due to be unveiled this September.

"Sometimes I work all day, and sometimes I work and then go to the Academy. It's complete freedom," said the artist, who speaks with a noticeable Georgian accent. He became animated when asked whether his organizational duties as head of the Academy of Arts distracted him from his art. "What do you mean? It's life! I don't like it when people sleep, I don't like it when another person is always to blame. The person who is to blame is the one who didn't manage to create anything, and left life. Yes or no?"

Asked why he was given the use of the former embassy in 1993, Tsereteli said, "The state considers -- and I don't want to praise myself -- that I deserved it." Shilov had a similar attitude when asked whether the state should support artists. "Look at the example of Italy, the Vatican. The Pope chose artists. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," Shilov said. "He chose among the very best, by himself -- what do you call that?"

Both artists rose to fame in the Soviet era, swiftly and without painful run-ins with party ideology. "I remember that I had my first professional exhibition in 1981 on Ulitsa Gorkogo [now Tverskaya Ulitsa] in winter," Shilov said. "Straightaway, a long line gathered to see my work. I realized that it was a success."

The show, which displayed portraits, landscapes and still lifes, attracted state attention, too. "Then the state leaders arrived, though I didn't know them because I had only just graduated from the institute," the artist recalled. "All the diplomatic corps came, and so did everyone from the culture ministry."

For Tsereteli, a Georgian educated in Tbilisi, fame came just as rapidly: "just when I graduated from the [Tbilisi Academy of Arts] and put on my first exhibition," he said. In the 1960s, Tsereteli was commissioned to create giant mosaics for the new Black Sea resort of Pitsunda, working alongside top Soviet architects.

While the Soviet era is often associated with pressure on artists and the banning of suspect works, neither Shilov nor Tsereteli feels he particularly suffered. "I even remember having an all-union exhibition in 1987 at the Manezh, and I showed a picture called "On Victory Day" that showed a soldier with two amputated legs sitting on a wheeled trolley. At that time, it wasn't the done thing," Shilov commented. "No one said anything to me. I didn't have those sorts of problems."

Shilov does remember "a slight reprimand" when he hung a portrait of a "impoverished old woman" next to a picture of a prosperous woman in a fur coat. "They said: 'Rearrange them. You shouldn't hang them together.' But I didn't," he recalled. In the late 1980s, he even painted portraits of Orthodox monks and priests.

Tsereteli also brushed off the question of censorship. "I've always been in control of my work, and therefore I didn't pay any attention. I don't consider it a problem," he said. "We create problems for ourselves, don't we?" Indeed, as the person responsible for the decoration of many Soviet embassies in the 1970s and 1980s, Tsereteli has had his creations displayed in the heartland of officialdom.

Now, Shilov said, he prefers to present the city with his paintings (he has given Moscow over 740 to date) rather than sell them to private clients. Alongside genre scenes such as "The Two Together," which depicts an old man with a collie on his lap, and depictions of coiffed women in ball gowns, are portraits of public figures ranging from Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky to former Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov. Photographs of Russian celebrities who have visited Shilov line the gallery's staircases and corridors.

But Shilov said that his prominent visitors and clients are not his personal friends. "It's just people who are interested in art and like my realistic manner," he explained. He credited his popularity with state officials to the same reason. "Who are the powers-that-be? Just ordinary people. Who wants to see himself disfigured on the canvas? No one."

Also no stranger to high-up circles, Tsereteli has sculpted busts of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, classic crooner Iosif Kobzon and film director Eldar Ryazanov. Large photographs propped up in his workshop feature visitors including French actress Catherine Deneuve, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush and Hollywood leading man Robert De Niro, who signed his photo with the words, "To Zurab: Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Take care, my friend, Bob De Niro."

Both artists say that they receive plenty of support from the general public, too. Asked what people tell them when they're out on the town, both answered with the same words: "They thank me." A teenage girl visiting Shilov's gallery recently asked him for his autograph and the visitors' book contained numerous tributes, including one from a Russian couple who wrote that they had visited the Louvre, but that what they saw there "could hardly be compared with what we saw here."

At the Zurab Tsereteli Art Gallery, young couples took photographs inside the giant Apple sculpture, which is lined with small figures demonstrating a Kama Sutra of sexual positions, and the visitors' book also had several comments praising the sculpture's "energy." More irreverent entries included: "What great tits [poet Marina] Tsvetaeva has. You've flattered her!" and "Please put up a monument to [German rock band] Rammstein."

While linked by their high public profile and ties to the state, the artists' views on contemporary art don't go hand-in-hand. This is hardly surprising given their contrasting styles. Tsereteli is a proponent of modern art, having visited the Paris studios of Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall and collected works for the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. Yet he was reluctant to name any favorite modern Russian artists who are working today.

"To work out the value of an artist or a work you need time," Tsereteli said. "There have been plenty of artists, but time passed and what's left is Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Velazquez and Goya. At this point it's ridiculous to say whom I like, whom I don't like," he said.

Shilov is more categorical when it comes to modern paintings. "If I work in the realist manner, what can my attitude be to avant-garde art where they don't know how to do anything?" he asked rhetorically, going on to paraphrase a disputed statement by Picasso. "'I'm not so stupid as to consider myself a great artist like Michelangelo, Raphael and so on,'" he quoted Picasso as saying about the realist masters.

Then he showed his own detailed brushwork of wood carving and velvet by way of explanation.