A week after it opened - and the posthumously realized work of visionary contemporary art duo Christo (1935-2020) and Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) at Paris's Arc de Triomphe has already drawn thousands of visitors. The buzz was noticeable even before the premiere as the arch's incremental covering became a spectacle all of its own for anyone passing near the "Champs-Élysées" and "Charles de Gaulle".
"L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped" transformed the landmark monument by covering it in recyclable silver-blue fabric, which plays with light and is free to touch and interact with. The public art work, budgeted at 14 million-euro, had really been gestating since 1961, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude first outlined the wrapping.
Although never one to belabor his national identity and background, Christo's ancestry obviously explains part of his appeal in Bulgaria: many aficionados have flown from Sofia to Paris to see the long-awaited work, while many of the workers and collaborators on-site are Bulgarian.
Christo died in 2020, shortly before his 85th birthday, while still working on the wrapping of L'Arc de Triomphe. His final wish was for the project to be finished by his collaborators, which include his nephew, Vladimir Yavashev, one of the most active figures in its ultimate fulfilment. Yavashev was the person behind the technical side of another great project of Christo - Floating Piers at Lake Iseo in Italy (which also was constructed by a Bulgarian company - Deep Dive Systems).
"I was charmed by the positive energy that could be felt in every aspect of completing the project", photographer Lyubomir Armutliev - Lubri, told Kapital Insights. Usually associated with Sofia's contemporary scene, in recent weeks he's been one of the project's official photographers, documenting the construction process and initial reactions. "It was a non-stop working cycle, both day and night," he says. "One felt part of a big family; it was like everybody was moving in tandem towards the realization of Christo's dream. I felt Christo's energy everywhere."
He's not the only one to describe the project as a dream. "This is the culmination of a 60-year-old dream, a crazy dream come true," French President Emmanuel Macron said last Friday, when he visited the location.
The art of being ephemeral
The ambiguous nature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's project has always been an important nuance, with the Washington Post describing the latest work as "an act of useless - and splendid - beauty".
The event coincided with various retrospective exhibitions in France and Bulgaria, with Sofia City Art Gallery hosting an exhibition by photographer Wolfgang Voltz who collaborated with the duo from the beginning and is currently documenting the wrapping of the Triumphal arch. "Life - Works - Projects" can be seen until November 7 and over the coming weeks it will be accompanied by several guided tours, the next one on October 2.
The project's history is also a subject of a new book of photography and drawings by publishing house Taschen, coming out in several editions.
Christo was born Hristo Yavashev in 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, to a family with a long history of contributions to the local community, but later repressed by the postwar Communist regime. Frustrated by the limited possibilities for experimental art amid the rise of social realism at Sofia's National Academy of Arts, in 1956 Yavashev immigrated illegally to Prague and then to Vienna, never to return. After a short stint in Zurich, he settled in Paris in 1958. There he met his partner, wife and creative collaborator, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon.
Through subsequent decades, Christo and Jeanne-Claude would become known for their grand-scale, environmental, temporary and always privately sponsored works. Their installations, usually preceded by years of planning and negotiations, have now lured millions of visitors. Documentary films usually described Christo as the hard to decode artist, and Jeanne-Claude as the practical one - solving the logistics and negotiating the ideas, ensuring it all worked out in the end.
The duo lived in New York from 1964. Their major works include Valley Curtain in Australia in 1972, The Umbrellas in the US and Japan (1984-1991), The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1985) in France, Wrapped Reichstag (1995) in Germany, and The Gates (2005) in the US.
After Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo kept pursuing projects for another decade, still crediting his wife in the process. His last projects were The Floating Piers in Italy (2016) and the London Mastaba (2018), both decades in the making. In 2019, director Andrey Paounov documented the nerve-wracking creation of The Floating Piers in the movie Walking on Water, edited from approximately 750 hours of footage.
"The genius of Christo, working with Jeanne-Claude, was his ability to marry spectacle with politics while expanding the idea of what sculpture could achieve", said to Capital art critic Oliver Baschiano, shortly after Yavashev's passing.
"To be an artist is not a profession, as the artist can't retire or go on leave," Christo said in an interview for Capital in 2015. "It's a way of living, not just love. The artist breathes through art."