The Wrapped Arc de Triomphe is Christo's ephemeral gift in Paris

PARIS – For nearly 60 years, the artist known as Christo dreamed of enveloping the Arc de Triomphe. Young man, having fled Communist Bu...


PARIS – For nearly 60 years, the artist known as Christo dreamed of enveloping the Arc de Triomphe. Young man, having fled Communist Bulgaria, he looked at the monument from his small attic apartment. A photomontage dated 1962 shows the 164-foot-high arch crudely bundled up. Freedom won over the sacred. He always wanted people to look again at what they maybe weren’t seeing.

Now a little over a year later Christo’s death at 84 years old, “The Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” is a reality. Some 270,000 square feet of silvery blue fabric, sparkling in the changing light of Paris, embraces the monument commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 at the height of his power. The polypropylene material, echoed in tone of the city’s distinctive zinc roofs, is secured but not rigidly held by nearly 3 km of red rope, per the artist’s meticulous instructions.

“He wanted a living object which, with its moving folds, would transform the surface of the monument into something sensual,” Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew and project director, explained to me. Suddenly, at the top of the Champs Élysées, a pale and magical object beckons, its sparkling lightness anchored by steel slabs weighing 150 tons. The effect is both disorienting and fascinating.

Yavachev moved from New York to Paris two years ago to lead the project. The work has been hard. The French League for the Protection of Birds has expressed concern about the nesting of two falcons at the top of the facade. This caused a first delay, before the pandemic caused a second.

Bastille Day July 14 and Armistice Day November 11 when ceremonies take place at the monument left a limited window. Building the cages whose steel bars pass a few centimeters from the hand or the stretched foot of a frieze or a funerary relief was laborious. The abseiling also to work under the overhangs of the ledge. A total of 1,200 people worked on the packaging.

“It was difficult, stressful,” said Sébastien Roger, the chief engineer, as we stood under the arch. “You have to be careful, it’s the Arc de Triomphe after all!

From its official opening on Saturday through October 3, the ark has in fact become something else – transformed into an imagined object oversized by the liberating obsession of an artist who refused to accept limits. Born in the suffocating oppression of the Soviet imperium, Christo – whose full name was Christo Vladimirov Javacheff – always had one guiding idea: the inalienability of freedom. During the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, he made a wall of oil barrels on rue Visconti in Paris, a first provocative public statement.

Standing at the Arc de Triomphe this week, President Macron said: “I think what we believe is this: Crazy dreams must be possible. The dressing of a monument at the same time military, historical, artistic and repository of the national memory made the French “extraordinarily proud”, he suggested, “because that is the artistic adventure”.

There were grunts. Florian Philippot, a right-wing politician, denounced “a garbage bag draped over one of our most glorious monuments”. In the daily Le Monde, Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect, asked if it was environmentally acceptable to use large amounts of fabric to wrap a monument. In fact, almost all of the material used is recycled, Yavachev said.

As with all major Christo projects, no sponsors or donors were accepted. The wrap was fully funded by the artist’s estate. “My uncle always told me that if you are accountable to someone, you have no freedom,” Yavachev said. “Remember, at the School of Fine Arts in Communist Bulgaria, he was criticized by the authorities because the peasants in his painting didn’t look happy enough! It was too much for him.

Roselyne Bachelot, the Minister of Culture, declared: “The Arc de Triomphe is hidden from our view and at the same time overexposed to our gaze. This subtraction and overexposure are at the heart of the work. Thank you, Christo, for giving us the gift of looking in another way, in a new way, at masterpieces built by other artists.

The Arc de Triomphe, like any great monument, was built to last. Christo’s conceptual art is fleeting. In a few weeks, it will be dismantled. There is something liberating about this, perhaps because the ephemeral nature of the work makes possession impossible. The work is immense, but insignificant. The fabric seems to express something nomadic, in keeping with Christo’s own traveling life.

After living for many years in Paris, he moved to New York, living in hiding with his wife Jeanne-Claude between 1964 and 1967, before obtaining a green card and becoming a citizen in 1973. At the time of the United States opened its arms to him, he had been stateless for 17 years. Freedom meant something. America was also an idea.

This is not the first time that Christo has enveloped a Parisian icon. In 1985, after many years of fighting the authorities for permission (he was a specialist in the bureaucratic war of attrition often necessary to achieve his goals), the artist wrapped up the Pont Neuf and the 44 lampposts of the bridge in a sandstone-colored fabric. Three million visitors came to see the facility during its two week life.

For the packaging of the Arc de Triomphe, a project supported by Macron and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, the authorization came faster – even if these hawks and Covid made life difficult. From July 15, says Roger, the engineer, the teams worked 24 hours a day, taking turns to carry out the preparatory work.

Only once before has the vault been partially covered with fabric. In 1885, on the occasion of the funeral of the beloved poet and writer Victor Hugo, a large black shroud was hung from the monument. Over two million people joined the funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, where Hugo was buried.

Christo loved Paris. It was his second city, alongside New York. “I miss my uncle’s excitement, he would have jumped everywhere!” said Yavachev. It has been a difficult year for the French capital, often under curfew due to the pandemic, with restaurants and cafes that are the connective tissue of the city closed for long periods. Thus, “The Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” is akin to a moment of liberation, a major public work of art to which crowds throng.

“Christo overwhelms us, pushes us, makes us talk,” Hidalgo said. “He plays with light, with the Parisian sky which resonates through his ephemeral work.

A few years before his death, I met Christo in Doha, Qatar. During a 45-minute interview, he refused to sit down, speaking with unstoppable vitality. Eat little, he advises, in order to channel energy (in his case garlic yogurt for breakfast, then nothing until dinner). Decide what you want – the hard part – and apply yourself without compromise to that end. He was so determined that posthumous work came to fruition in Paris with what Yavachev described as his uncle’s spirit “all around me”.

The Arc de Triomphe is multiple. He began his life as a monument to military glory. The names of Napoleon’s great battles are engraved on it. It was a tribute to a victorious emperor. But war is also a terrible loss, as the 20th century has demonstrated. In 1920, two years after World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was placed under the arch. The inscription is there: “A French soldier died for the fatherland 1914-1918. An eternal flame burns.

The presence of the tomb prevented the military parades from passing under the vault, as if to declare the futility of war.

During the project, the tomb was carefully respected. The people who look after the flame every evening at 6.30 p.m. were able to accomplish their task. One of them told reporters on Thursday that “the unknown soldier has been in his shroud for 100 years. Christo left us prematurely and is now in his shroud. And I believe this temporary shroud tells us that the ark is wrapped up but you will see her again soon – so there is some kind of unity around us.

Certainly, the enveloped Arc de Triomphe – light, breathable, sparkling – speaks of everything but war. After completing a project, Christo liked to say, “We did it! Yes, he did, even from beyond the grave. Freedom is also a fierce act of the imagination.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Wrapped Arc de Triomphe is Christo's ephemeral gift in Paris
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