CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE : FREEDOM

CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE : FREEDOM

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped was officially opened on 18 September and, like other such Christo projects, will be temporary and will be removed on 3 October.

Posthumously fulfilling a 60-year-old “crazy” dream for the artist, the Arc de Triomphe is wrapped in 25,000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue and with 3,000 meters of red rope. It all started in 1961, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s life-long creative partnership began, three years after they had met in Paris. Until then, the Bulgarian-born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was occupied with wrapping objects that were smaller in scale – cans, toys, baby strollers, barrels and even alive models. Only when they started to work together, their projects became more ambitious, recognising no limit to possibility. The couple collaborated together under his first name Christo. 

Christo was born in 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. In late spring 1953, he came to the capital Sofia to study at the National Academy of Art under the doctrine of Socialist Realism. In fall 1956, he visited relatives in Prague and a few months later fled to Vienna, where he enrolled at Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In October 1957, Christo moved to Geneva, bringing him one step closer to his final destination – Paris.

The conceptual twosome met in Paris in 1958, when Christo was doing a portrait of Jeanne-Claude’s mother. By that time, he earned his living painting portraits of wealthy society ladies. When her mother learned of their relationship, she threw Jeanne-Claude out, and the couple moved in together.

The idea of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe was first imagined by Christo, who died last year and his late French wife and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude (curiously enough, both born on 13 June 1935) in 1962, while renting a small room nearby. Per their wishes, the project in progress was realised by their team.

Two of the most eminent and inspiring people of the 20th and 21st century were not just artists, but also architects and urban planners, as their close friend Matthias Koddenberg describes in his book Christo and Jeanne-Claude: In/Out Studio. “Their projects didn’t exist because someone commissioned them but as an idee fixe of two artists who devoted their life to them and who spent their money, time, and effort on them. Their art was no illusion, no fiction, no abstraction. It was one big social experiment.”

For more than 48 years, the pair was reimagining natural landscapes and public spaces as bridges, buildings, valleys and entire islands wrapped in fabric across the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Japan, provoking a variety of interpretations and critical reactions. As for the meaning of their work, Christo and Jeanne-Claude never gave explanations of it. As he once told the Sunday Times, “We make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary”. They refused to describe their work, legitimating every interpretation of the projects, even the most critical and the most positive.

The duo was also known for self-financing their art through the sale of Christo’s preparatory studies – drawings and architectural models and early works. They refused grants, sponsorships, or volunteer labour in order to keep their creative freedom.

And freedom has always been of great importance to Christo. Brought up and educated in terrible times in Stalinist Bulgaria, which he escaped to be an artist, freedom has always been a driving force for his life and art. "All our work is about freedom... Freedom is the enemy of possession and possession is equal to permanence. This is why our projects cannot remain and must go away forever. Our projects are “one in a lifetime” and “once upon a time,” explained Christo himself for Deutsche Welle. 

But freedom is inseparable from responsibility. Their work often took years and sometimes decades to be realised just to last for a few weeks. For example, it took them 24 years to get permission to wrap the Reichstag, which was on view for only two weeks. Just as the Wrapped Reichstag, many of their projects were at an architectural scale. Technical solutions, political negotiation, permitting and environmental approval, hearings and public persuasion were all part of the process.

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, yet Christo continued to work on ideas they planned together. He succeeded in realizing 23 works, but failed to secure permission for a further 47 of them. However, the couple has always made clear that their artworks in progress be continued after their deaths.

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude set up their temporary projects just as nomads set up their tents. Even though their art was ephemeral, their work has left traces that will not disappear any time soon,” concludes Koddenberg.

As the late artist couple’s unfulfilled intervention for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris has just been officially opened, we gathered our six most favourite environmental installations of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

 

Pont Neuf (Paris, 1975-1985)

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

In 1985, the entirety of the famed centuries-old Pont Neuf bridge that crosses the River Seine in Paris was wrapped in 449,931 square feet of orangey fabric. The colour was meant to be the same as “Paris Stone”. In addition to the bridge, its 44 lamps were covered too and remained lit throughout the installation.

 

Surrounded Islands (Miami, 1980-1983)

 

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

In 1983, Christo and Jean-Claude encircled 11 islands in the Biscayne Bay with 6.5 million square feet of fabric. This is their biggest work, and one of their most controversial ones initially met with some concern from wildlife activists and residents. The pink colour of the polypropylene that was silhouetting each island paid homage to Claude Monet's paintings of waterlilies. In early 2019, the detailed preparations of the project were presented in a documentary exhibition at Pérez Art Museum.

 

Gates (New York, 1979-2005)

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

7,503 vinyl gates were installed in New York City’s Central Park in 2005, dotting walkways in squares of saffron-coloured fabric suspended from arch-like structures to create the effect of “a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees.”

 

The Umbrellas (Tokyo-California, 1984-1991)

 

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

The most controversial project of the artists ended with the tragic deaths of two of its spectators. The installation extended in both hemispheres of the earth, opening in both southern California, USA, and Ibaraki, Japan, on 9 October 1991. 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas were erected in the hills and fields – it cost 26 million dollars and took seven years to be orchestrated just to last 18 days. When asked about how the colours of the umbrellas were chosen, Christo explained in front of Another Magazine: "We wanted the work to take place in the summer. In California the grass by then is burnt yellow in the sun, while in Japan their summers are wet and the rivers swell with blue water. The colour of the work is the last element we decide and is picked by how we view the environment."

 

The Floating Piers (Sulzano, 2014-2016)

 

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

Christo and Jeanne-Claude began conceptualizing The Floating Piers in 1970. Then it turned out to be the first major project he undertook after the death of his partner and collaborator Jeanne-Claude. The saffron-hued dock-like structure installed on top of Italy’s Lake Iseo lasted for 16 days in 2016. The yellow fabric floated in open water and formed a footbridge to the island of San Paolo, giving its visitors the uncommon opportunity to walk on water. The installation also encompassed the narrow streets of the villages of Sulzano and Montisola.

 

The London Mastaba (London, 2016-2018)

 

© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

The Mastaba project, planned for Abu Dhabi – is supposed to be “Christo and Jeanne-Claude's only permanent large-scale work” and “the largest sculpture in the world, made from 410,000 multi-coloured barrels to form a mosaic of bright sparkling colours, echoing Islamic architecture. The mastaba is an ancient and familiar shape to the people of the region.”

In 2018, a 20-metre-high temporary version of the sculpture was created in London, consisting of 7,506 horizontally stacked barrels on a floating platform. It was the first large-scale sculpture by Christo and Jeanne-Claude to be realised in the UK and floated atop Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake for about three months.