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It is a project 60 years in the making. Christo and Jeanne-Claude first discussed the idea of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1961; this weekend, it became a reality. Their final project cloaking a building in fabric, it is now open until October 3 and is already drawing huge crowds.
I was lucky enough to be among them this weekend. Sadly, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not—Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo on May 31 last year, a couple of months after the project had initially been due to open. It was postponed, first to protect kestrels nesting in the building and then due to the pandemic. In the months before he died, Christo had settled on every aesthetic and practical detail of the work, but never saw his vision realised.
It is all the more poignant that Paris is the city for their final fabric project: the couple met here in 1958, their son Cyril was born here in 1960 and they married at Paris City Hall in 1962. They first conceived of wrapping objects, and then buildings, here. They wrapped the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest and most famous bridge, in 1985, a landmark moment in their career.
The Place Charles de Gaulle-Étoile, Paris’s most chaotically busy junction (Hyde Park Corner is like a suburban cul-de-sac by comparison) is becalmed, pedestrianised for the two-week run of the project. It means the public can walk up to the triumphal arch, which has been covered in 25,000 sq m of shiny blue-tinged recyclable polypropylene fabric and bound with 3km of crimson rope. Beneath the fabric are 400 tonnes of steel. Around half is ballast to weigh the fabric down, the rest a skeleton protecting the monument, with cages to clear the neo-classical statuary and reliefs that decorate it.
In smoothing over the arch’s ornate details, the steel also plays an aesthetic role. “Christo liked this very clean shape,” says Christo’s nephew Vladimir Yavachev, who has been in charge of the project. “And also to make the Arc look like it took a breath, and expanded a little bit.”
Inevitably, great care has gone into the whole endeavour – “It’s a national monument, it’s the national monument. So you treat it like an egg,” Yavachev explains – and like all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping works, it’s an extraordinary feat of engineering. “It’s not like you come, you take a piece of fabric and you wrap it like a Christmas present,” he says. But it has to look effortless, doesn’t it? “Well, I hope so, I think it does,” he says. “But it’s not as easy as it looks; like with good ballet dancers, they make it look easy.”
It’s also a feat of bureaucratic patience and courage, though not as tortuous as some of their projects have been. Still, it needed the go-ahead of the French president Emmanuel Macron, who inaugurated it last week just as it was being completed.
I meet Yavachev on the eve of the public opening, on a roof terrace above the project team office on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, a couple of hundred metres down the road from the Arc and with stunning views of the work. He’s been part of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude team for 30 years: “I was underage labour when I started,” he jokes. For all the practical obstacles he surmounted, he says the biggest challenge was Christo’s absence, “especially in this moment when it’s really the final stuff. I think we got it 99.9 per cent close to what he would have wanted. But I really miss his energy, his enthusiasm, his criticism, his screaming.”
The yelling was always a feature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s production process. When I interviewed Christo for the Evening Standard in 2018, he recalled his battles with his wife in the projects’ gestation. “She was absolutely ferociously critical,” he told me, “[we were] almost fighting, Jeanne-Claude and myself, screaming.” He, too, lamented the absence of that tension when she was gone. It was notable, then, that Christo told me that Yavachev and Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Jonathan were key sounding boards after her death. “I will say to them, when we are in crisis, always: ‘What would Jeanne-Claude say now?’”
All the important decisions about the Arc de Triomphe project were made before Christo died, including the fabric’s particular shade of blue, covered in a thin layer of aluminium, which makes it ping. The effect is “very reminiscent of the roofs of Paris”, Yavachev says, “because Christo lived close to here when he first came to Paris.” The artist first lived in the French capital at 8, rue Quentin Bauchart, while his studio was at 14, rue de Saint-Sénoch. The 20-minute walk between them would take him past the Arc de Triomphe every day. It was one of two monuments he and Jeanne-Claude proposed wrapping at that time: the École Militaire was pictured in the very first photomontage Christo made of a building consumed in fabric, in 1961; the wrapped Arc appeared in a photomontage in 1963. “But they never proposed it to anybody,” Yavachev says.
Christo, who made the two-dimensional works on his own, made another collage of wrapped Arc in 1988. But the duo didn’t seek permission to take on the Arc at that stage. Only in 2017, when Christo was planning an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, did the idea gain momentum. He was asked to do “some sort of an intervention around the exhibition, maybe something with the building or the piazza around”, Yavachev says. “And that’s when Christo said: ‘The only thing I would like to do in Paris is to wrap the Arc de Triomphe.’ They didn’t think it was that crazy an idea.”
It is an extraordinary achievement. As I boarded the Eurostar (the Arc is a quick 20-minute whizz on the metro from the Gare du Nord), I had a sense that I was on a journey to witness a major cultural event. I was in Paris for less than 24 hours just to see it, and made it my mission to experience it multiple times, to observe its response to its changing environment. I stayed at the Hotel Fauchon, which is offering a package including a one-hour private transfer through the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées to the Place Charles de Gaulle. Taking this journey, you see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work appear almost as a mirage in the distance before looming ever larger.
Its appearance shifts remarkably over the course of a day, from a subtle, milky sheen as it absorbs the warm tones of sunrise, to a stunning, occasionally almost hallucinogenic, luminosity in full sun, to a more gentle and beautiful shimmer in the artificial street lighting at night.
So what does it mean? Christo always said the works weren’t political but he also linked the wrappings to his status as a refugee from Cold War Bulgaria. He left Eastern Europe in 1957 after the Hungarian revolution and told me in 2018 that the fabric “is a connection to the fact that I lived a nomadic life. I had nothing, literally nothing, when I escaped to the border… I had no nationality, I was stateless at this time of the Cold War. The fabric is a principle, an element to illustrate this nomadic character of contemporary life.”
Applied to such an emblematic monument at the moment when refugees around the world are trying to escape to Europe, this becomes particularly poignant. It’s also jarring to see the a triumphal arch commemorating military victory become silent – Napoleon commissioned it to celebrate the French armies’ triumph at the battle of Austerlitz. Now, its symbols are hidden, its messages masked. Only the sombre tomb of the unknown soldier from the First World War beneath the arch remains visible, the eternal flame beside it continuing to burn.
Above all, I was struck by the work’s sheer strangeness – it’s irrational, radical power, even as it was surrounded by crowds of Instagramming visitors. The most famous historic site in Paris has been turned into an Surrealist object; André Breton, who founded that movement in Paris nearly 100 years ago, would no doubt have loved it.
For all that you can touch the fabric and rope and walk around it, it almost looks like it’s been collaged on to the site, just like Christo’s first photomontage 60 years ago and his drawing-cum-collage from 1988. As Yavachev says, this is a key criterion. “At the final moment when we have to finish the final touches in detail, we really look at the drawings,” he says. “And if people say it looks just like them, that’s when we know we’ve done a good job.”
I’d seen the drawings and collages, endless photographs and videos, but never witnessed any of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapped buildings in the flesh, never fully appreciated their uncanny power. And this is the very last one. I ask Yavachev if any of their unrealised projects could still be built. “No, because that would be unethical,” he says. “We wouldn’t do things á la Christo, or even ideas that he had but they were not finalised enough for us to complete. The two projects he really wanted us to finish were this one and the Mastaba [a huge oil-barrel sculpture, like the Serpentine project in 2018] for Abu Dhabi.”
What about reconstructing past works? “People have offered that many times. But no, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime-and-never-again experience.” You heard the man. This really is the last ever Christo and Jeanne-Claude fabric work. Then it’s a wrap. There are two weeks left; if you can, go.
Until Oct 3 (christojeanneclaude.net)
Fauchon L’Hotel Paris’s Christo package includes: Breakfast for two, a one hour private transfer from the hotel to the Arc de Triomphe, a half bottle of champagne in the car and a cocktail hour for two. Suite deluxe package €1,000, Suite duplex Eiffel Tower package €1,300, available until October 3, direct booking here. Nightly rates at the hotel start at €450, room only. hotel-fauchon-paris.fr.Eurostar travel from London to Paris starts at £39 one way (based on a return) with a journey time of 2h15, eurostar.com