F or 16 days this autumn, the world will have a chance to experience an epic, site-specific public art project by the much-loved and sadly departed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Between 18 September and 3 October, the Arc de Triomphe will be draped in 25,000 square metres of silvery polypropylene and bound with 3,000 meters of red rope. In conjunction with this monumental undertaking, Sotheby’s is mounting an exhibition of 24 mixed-media works that Christo made over three years while envisioning L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, along with some key historical works for context. One of the historical works is a photomontage Christo made in 1962, in which he superimposed one of his wrapped sculptures on the Arc.
What started 60 years ago as the out-of-reach dream of a young artist gazing from the window of his garret apartment has become a reality at last. In many ways, this gesture marked the beginning of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s extraordinary career. Over the course of six decades, the couple carved out a groundbreaking practice of achieving the impossible and executed some 23 public interventions in built and natural landscapes. One of the defining works of the artists’ career, Wrapped Reichstag, was conceived in 1971, proposed in 1976 and executed in 1995. “The Gates (1979-2005) in Central Park in New York took four mayors before it could happen,” notes Simon Shaw, vice chair of Sotheby’s Fine Arts Division, by way of illustrating Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s infinite patience. “The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975–85) took three prime ministers.”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude came of age in the late 1950s, befriending pioneering artists such as Nam June Paik and John Cage. They quickly absorbed the rapidly shifting dynamics in the art world, as priorities shifted from making paintings to put on walls or objects to place on pedestals, to creating works that sought to engage the viewer and acknowledge their context, instead of pretending it was inconsequential. Christo and Jeanne-Claude plunged ahead with their first site-specific work in 1961 when they were in Cologne to install an exhibition, composing a makeshift barrier from nearby packages and barrels on a dock on the Rhine River.
Shortly after this initial endeavour, they were inspired to work on a more ambitious scale by a significant contemporary event: the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. In response, the couple blocked the Rue Visconti in Paris with a wall of barrels, which they titled Iron Curtain. It was a guerilla act that screwed up traffic in the city for several hours and planted the seed for the artists to pursue ever more impressive projects, often focused on public architecture. Small wonder, then, that the Arc de Triomphe made such an impression on Christo in 1962. Though the Arc is officially the tomb of the unknown soldier, a tribute to those lost in battle as well as a celebration of military victory, it is also a symbol of Paris and the democratic principles the city embodies. The artist was all too familiar with the stifling effects of communist regimes – he fled Bulgaria to escape authoritarian rule, as well as the rigid, outdated artistic regimen imposed on him by the art school in Sofia.
Christo had grown bored of having to focus his considerable artistic talent on the rigid execution of lifelike studio works and paintings, yet his drafting skills served him well: first in Paris, where he made a living executing portraits of wealthy aristocrats, and later as a mode of promoting and funding his public projects. The Sotheby’s exhibition celebrates Christo’s fluency in this area, exhibiting 24 of the studio works he made of the wrapped Arc. The works show it at different times of day and from various angles, studies that not only help with the planning of its execution, but also function as part of the “software” stage of his work, as Christo called it; this is when he promoted the work to the public and sold original works to pay for it, to avoid being compromised by accepting money from corporate or non-profit entities that might try to influence his vision. “[The studio works] aren’t just tracking the imaginative path from his mind to the final happening, but the guarantee of its freedom and authenticity,” Shaw says.
Christo’s L’Arc de Triomphe | 60 Years in the Making
Christo famously balanced his unbridled creativity with a grounded view of the challenging logistics. The work was about the “real things”, he once said, explaining that he was not interested in elaborate theories or interpretations of his work; it was, and is, architecture, he emphasised. His nephew, Vladimir Javacheff, who works as the project director, recalls with bittersweet tenderness how much Christo enjoyed the actual realisation of the projects. “We know that he would have really enjoyed it [the Arc],” he says. “When we start the hardware period, when we are on site and really working, he really loved that.”
“[The studio works] aren’t just tracking the imaginative path from his mind to the final happening, but the guarantee of its freedom and authenticity”
Javacheff declines to guess what the project meant to Christo on a symbolic level. “Every interpretation is legitimate,” he states. “Sixty-seven million French people will each have their own take.” For the artists, public access was paramount. “The beauty of this project, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude,” says Eddie Hautchamp, deputy director and head of day sales for contemporary art at Sotheby’s Paris, “is that they were always thinking about the project as free for everybody.”
Freedom in a world still recovering from a pandemic is a hugely appealing concept. “You can’t ignore the significance of the date,” says Shaw. “It’s happening at a moment where we lived for 18 months under privations and restrictions and anxiety. That overlays a poignancy and power to this work, which is all about freedom and joy. That is something Christo could never have anticipated but it makes it the perfect work of art for the period we have just been through. It is completely democratic and completely open, designed to evoke joy and wonder, surprise and imagination. We need that more than ever right now.”
The Final Christo: Original Works for the Arc de Triomphe takes place at Sotheby's Paris from 17 September–3 October
LEAD IMAGE: Christo, L'Arc de Triomphe Wrapped (Project for Paris) Place de l'Etoile – Charles de Gaulle, Drawing, 2018. Photo: Sotheby’s / ArtDigital Studio