World: Russia's master of kitsch turns his eye to Diana

Phil Reeves on the latest idea of a controversial artist whose work provokes such hostility that protesters nearly blew up one 165ft statue
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The Independent Online
While her friends and family ponder the highly sensitive question of a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales, one man is already beavering away, regardless of public sentiment.

Zurab Tsereteli, an award-winning sculptor in the old USSR, has begun work in Moscow on a tribute of his own. "It is too early to say what form it will take," his secretary said. "It could even end up being a picture, not a sculpture. Nobody has commissioned it. He's doing it for himself." The final form may well come to Mr Tsereteli in his sleep: he says he is greatly influenced by his dreams.

If the elderly Georgian's recent output is any guide, however, controversy is assured. Muscovites are furious about his 165ft statue of Peter the Great, which looms over one of the city's most splendid vistas. On a podium in the Moscow river, a muscle-bound Peter stands goggle-eyed on the deck of a galleon, topped by an aircraft warning light. Critics have claimed that it was originally meant to represent Christopher Columbus and was destined for the US, but that the sculptor changed its identity when the Americans couldn't raise the cash. He denies the allegation.

Apart from honouring a tsar who hated Moscow so much that he moved the capital to St Petersburg, the statue has outraged public taste to the extent that earlier this year protesters wired it up with explosives. They abandoned their plan at the last minute, for fear of killing passers- by.

Nor was this the first time that Mr Tsereteli, until recently a close friend of the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, found his work under attack. He was also behind a work called Tragedy of the People, a bronze of skeletal naked figures intended to pay tribute to victims of the Second World War. For a while it stood at the entrance to Moscow's Victory Park, but such was the outcry that eventually cranes were brought in at huge expense to move it to an obscure spot in the shadow of a building.

The news that Mr Tsereteli has turned his creative thoughts to the world's most celebrated beauty was greeted wearily by his opponents among Moscow's artistic elite. They felt so strongly about Peter the Great's statue that they created a site called "Stop Tsereteli"on the Internet. "One can only laugh," said Anatoly Osmolovsky, an artist who was vocal in the campaign. "We can't expect it to look good. Let's hope it isn't on show here in Russia."

But is such pessimism justified? After all, according to his publicity material Mr Tsereteli, 74, boasts many distinguished patrons: owners of his work apparently include such connoisseurs as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. His pieces are also said to appear in collections assembled by Robert de Niro, Francois Mitterrand, Pope John Paul, Armand Hammer, Mother Teresa and Indira Gandhi.

A former winner of the Lenin Prize and the coveted title of "People's Artist of the Soviet Union", Mr Tsereteli gained international notice in 1990 when he made a 40-ton statue out of decommissioned Pershing and SS-20 missiles to celebrate nuclear disarmament. It was erected in the grounds of the United Nations in New York. He now hawks a limited edition of 3ft-high replicas of the work on the Internet, asking a mere $50,000.

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