“My life in Paris was like a French movie of the 1950s, absolutely crazy.”
W hen Christo reached Paris in March 1958, his art was a wild mishmash of styles. In his tiny studio, works of every kind fought for space, from cubism or Fauvism-influenced still lifes and landscapes to abstract drawings, paintings, reliefs and sculptures. With almost stoic indifference, Christo turned a blind eye to the fact that hardly anyone wanted to buy his work. To earn a living, he did what he later called ‘prostitution’: he painted portraits of rich society ladies. As for Jeanne-Claude, who Christo got to know when he painted her mother’s portrait in October 1958, first friendship developed, then love and finally an artistic partnership.
Under the influence of a progressive art scene bursting with every practice, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began to ‘appropriate’ everyday objects, to wrest their function and to permanently preserve them with wrapping for posterity. Even if the first works evolved as chance artistic experiments, they both soon recognised them as the start of an artistic career in which the transformation of everyday objects and places was to become the central theme.
Christo’s L’Arc de Triomphe | 60 Years in the Making
Their approach was direct, immediate and radical. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were soon no longer content with small-scale objects. Their works got bigger, more complex and increasingly encroached on the room. They were most interested in particular shapes or volumes, which were given a new form with fabric, foil and rope.
By 1961, Christo had already had the idea of wrapping a public building, and since his studio at that time was not far from L’Arc de Triomphe, he became attracted to precisely this iconic structure, which he passed almost daily. A photo montage created the following year, which has become famous in the meantime, shows Avenue Foch with L’Arc de Triomphe at the end against the night sky, wrapped in lengths of fabric and fixed with rope. The work was a bold, yet ultimately utopian musing on the possibilities of a monumental wrapping project. “Back then“, Jeanne-Claude confessed years later in an interview, “we were ‘just thinking’”. Fifty years would pass by before Christo finally officially and successfully attempted to get permission for the project.
Yet, the art is not only what the audience gets to see at the end; the whole process counts or has meaning: the work in the studio, the energy and emotions which were released through constant interaction, controversy, discussions about the project, the pros and cons, negotiations, technical, legal and political challenges, setbacks, success. It is this that you have to understand: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects were and are perhaps not so much art, as architecture and town planning. They do not exist because a politician, company or collector commissioned them. They exist as the obsession of two artists, who dedicated their life to them, sacrificing their money, time and energy. Their art was and is no illusion, nor fiction or abstraction, rather a single big social experiment. A fable about social and political conditions.
Yet Christo and Jeanne-Claude always avoided talking about the meaning of their works. “The project builds its own reality, which is beyond anything I can imagine. The project is teasing society and society responds in a way, as it responds in a very normal situation like building bridges, or roads, or highways. What we know is different is that all this energy is put to a fantastic irrational purpose, and that is the essence of the work”. If Christo and Jeanne-Claude ever had an objective, then it was to increase people’s understanding of the workings of our society and their own lives, to get people to reflect on their relationship, their normal way of life and their role in society.
Ultimately, this is also the reason for the project’s limited duration. For the artwork itself no longer held any meaning for Christo and Jeanne-Claude once it had fulfilled its effect in the here and now, once it had changed people’s consciousness in some way or other. “I don’t believe any work of art exists outside of its prime time, when the artist likes to do it, when the social, political, economic times fit together“.
It was with a sense of destiny, that one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first projects was at the same time their last, that Christo at the end of his life – now, after the end of his life – was to return to the city in which his artistic career had its starting point and to which he owed his fated meeting with Jeanne-Claude. It seemed that the right time had come to realise Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s long-cherished dream. Perhaps it did not only need a lifetime to reach this point. L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped will be the first big event after one-and-a-half years full of constraints and hardships.
In 1995, the Wrapped Reichstag became a symbol of the German reunification, a landmark for the transformation of the city, representing the emergence of a whole country. The installation, The Gates, in New York’s Central Park provided the city with a resurrection in 2005, after it had been paralysed by shock following the devastating terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped will not only commemorate the life of two artists, it will also be the silvery, illuminating torch for the newly won freedom.
Main image: Christo & Jeanne-Claude in front of The Pont Neuf Wrapped, in Paris in 1985. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © The Estate of Christo V. Javacheff