Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The early Paris years | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 17.03.2020
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The early Paris years

Until the death of his wife, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were artists and artworks in one, famous for their veiling projects. For now, the major Christo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou has been canceled.

As in many places, the coronavirus pandemic hit cultural life in the French capital with full force. The Louvre first closed in early March because the staff were afraid of being infected with the corona virus SARS-CoV-2. Then it reopened, but since Friday it has been closed again indefinitely, as have other museums. Various book and art fairs have not opened at all.

Christo project: the planned veiled L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris (AFP/Christo and Jeanne-Claude - 2018 Christo/Andre Grossmann )

This is how the veiled L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris would look after wrapping

On Saturday, March 14, the Centre Pompidou closed its doors to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. The greatly publicized exhibition "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Paris" there will thus be postponed.

It was expected to be the blockbuster of the year, accompanied by another event aiming to be a tourist magnet: the Bulgarian-born artist Christo was to 'wrap' the French capital's Arc de Triomphe in his (and the late Jeanne-Claude's) own signature fashion — in 25,000 square meters (269,000 square feet) of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue, secured by 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) of red rope. The long-awaited wish of the artist dates back to when he lived in Paris.

Christo's move to Paris

Christo arrived in the French capital in 1958. With the Cold War in full swing, he had fled his home country Bulgaria via Vienna to Paris. To make ends meet, he first did odd jobs: washing cars and taking on commissions for artworks, still signing them with his birth name "Javacheff."

At one point, Vladimirov Javacheff/Christo painted a portrait of the wife of General Jacques de Guillebon, director of the Parisian elite school École Polytechnique for prospective engineers. Delivering the painting, he met their daughter Jeanne-Claude. An "extravagant redhead, as if wrapped in plastic foil," is how he later described the attractive French woman, born in Casablanca, in French Morocco. They shared the same birthday: June 13, 1935.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude in Paris, Portrait empaqueté de Jeanne-Claude, 1963 (Christo 1963/Photo: Chr. Baur)

Jeanne-Claude, 1963, 'wrapped' by Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were 23 years old, fell in love and wanted to get married. But Jeanne-Claude had to divorce her husband Philippe Planchon first, whom she had recently wed. She was soon pregnant with her and Christo's son, Cyril, who was born May 11, 1960. Christo and Jeanne-Claude finally married in November 1962, without the blessing of the bride's parents.

Early years

In 1960, the young artist Christo joined the group "Nouveaux Réalisme" (New Realism), founded by the art historian Pierre Restany and the painter Yves Klein. He'd brought along his passion for large swaths of fabric from Bulgaria: Introduced to textiles at his father's factory, he would sketch drawings of large bales of fabric at an early age.

Shortly after arriving in Paris, Christo began to 'wrap' cans and bottles in resin-soaked canvas, tying them up and treating them with glue, varnish, sand and car paint. The Cologne art collector Dieter Rosenkranz was the first to recognize his talent, buying some of his early works.

Early work by Christo from 1963 (Christo 1963/Photo: D. Bakker )

An early work by Christo from 1963

Shared art and life

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's love affair marked the beginning of an artistic partnership which, for many years, bore only Christo's name. Jeanne-Claude's projects took the backseat for strategic reasons: During the 1960s, artistic partnerships barely existed or were hardly accepted, and women were rarely recognized as artists. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the risk of not being accepted as an artist couple was simply too great.

Nevertheless, their work underwent extraordinary development in the Paris years from 1958 to 1963. Their first joint artistic project in 1962 was called "Iron Curtain." The couple also transformed the city and its streets into an exhibition space, blocking the street in Paris' Rue Visconti with an illegally-built pile of oil barrels. It was an installation with a political message, intended as a social commentary on the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Exhibition: Christo & Jeanne-Claude in Paris (Christo 1983/Photo: Wolfgang Volz )

Christo and Jeanne-Claude visiting then-French President Jacques Chirac in 1982

Move to New York

Despite their move to New York in 1963, Christo and Jeanne-Claude remained closely connected to Paris. In 1975, they developed the idea of 'wrapping' the most prestigious bridges of France's capital. Ultimately, however, only Paris' Pont Neuf was draped in cloth. It was a project that could only be realized after ten years of passionately persuading politicians and residents.

But Christo and Jeanne-Claude were well-versed in that kind of language, having persuaded authorities to allow them to wrap a coastal strip of Australia in 1969. On October 10, 1971, they hung an orange-colored curtain ("Valley Curtain") in the Rocky Mountains in the US state of Colorado. With the first attempt a failure, they repeated the event a short time later.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude remained a couple in life and art until Jeanne-Claude died on November 18, 2009, age 74. The famous artist couple had worked side by side for 51 years, wrapping Berlin's Reichstag in Berlin in 1995 and trees in New York's Central Park in 'The Gates' in 2005. But their early years together in Paris remain highly symbolic of their entire work.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (picture alliance/KEYSTONE)

Artist couple Jeanne-Claude and Christo

Like all the other packaging before it, the project is to be financed by Christo himself, now 84, solely through the sale of his collages and photographs. To this day, he receives no public or private funding for his public art projects.


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