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The Irrational Brilliance of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were stubborn and tenacious. Yet it is exactly that aspect of their personalities that made them into arguably the most unusual artists of the 20th century. During their collaborative career, which lasted more than 50 years, they created 22 of the largest, ephemeral public art pieces ever created. The world itself was their canvas. 

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-69 | Photo: Shunk-Kender

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude at The Gates, February 2005 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was a Bulgarian refugee who arrived in Paris, stateless from Communist Eastern Europe, in 1958 at the age of 21. “I was so angry about my non-existent place in the world—I didn’t belong to anybody,” Christo recalled. The former art student, who survived by washing dishes and eventually portrait painting, had already begun his signature idea of wrapping objects. First he wrapped paint cans covered with fabric, lacquer and string, before moving on to oil barrels on the industrial outskirts of the city. 
Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and Christo were born on the same day. They fell in love when he was commissioned to paint Jeanne-Claude’s mother's portrait, much to her family’s initial dismay. By 1961, however, they were passionately collaborating and their marriage was one that last both their lives. Listening to old interviews of the duo, they exude excitement, constantly expanding on each other’s points about their work. 

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

The work that made their name was 1962’s ‘The Iron Curtain’, where they barricaded a street in Saint Germain with 89 used oil barrels, without permission. The work was innately political, reflecting the French turmoil around the Algerian war and the erection of the Berlin wall. The piece lasted from 6pm til 3am, local residents throwing water on the artists for blocking the entire area’s traffic. This was ground zero for public intervention. 
The pieces that did occur however were poetic, overblown fantasies. They approached architecture like couturiers. Turning the Pont Neuf in Paris, for example, into something sensual, tactile and inviting. They worked with mountains, museums, bridges, oceans, lakes and trees. Their approach sat between sculpture, architecture, installation and even painting. Instead of pigment, they used swathes of coloured and metallic fabric in a vibrant palette of sandstone, pink, silver and gold. Light and nature were also their collaborators, transforming the gleam of their fabrics throughout the day. Even their oil barrels were richly coloured blues, pinks and yellows.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

The scale of their projects was enormous. Covering the Reichtstag, the German parliament, took 25 years to realise. It involved 100,000 square metres of silvery grey fabric held together by 15 km of rope. 5 million visitors came to see it. None of their works lasted more than 14 days. The temporary nature added a special element. What Jeanne-Claude described as “the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for that which does not last. Each project was once in a life time.” she pointed out. “We still love the words once upon a time.”
One of the most unusual parts of their projects is that it was entirely self-funded. Everything they made was supported by the sale of Christo’s original drawings and collages. He never had an assistant and even framed his works himself. Christo once described himself as an "educated Bulgarian Marxist who has learned to use capitalism for his art." That sense of innovation also applied to their materials, which were all recycled after their projects. Often, they would clean and restore the sites they worked on to a better state then when they arrived. The duo spent years conceiving, researching and trying to get permission to create their works. They never did the same thing twice and had at least 46 projects that they were unable realise.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz (9) - Christo at The Floating Piers, June 2016 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

Christo died this year - 11 years after Jeanne-Claude. He was working on a 150-metre-high Mastaba of oil drums in the desert in Abu Dhabi – what perhaps will be the largest sculpture in the world if completed. One final work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be installed after their death. Originally conceived in 1962, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe will be wrapped in 25,000 square meters of silver and blue fabric, held together with 7,000 meters of red rope, to coincide with a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. The work will be a fitting epitaph for arguably the most unique careers in art history. They leave behind a fascinating legacy that, in Christo’s words, is “totally irrational, totally useless.”

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Christo at The Floating Piers, June 2016 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-85 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76 | Photo: Jeanne-Claude

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005 | Photo: Wolfgang Volz

Text: Francesca Gavin

Images: © 2020 Estate of Christo V. Javacheff