L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile in Paris is one of the world’s most iconic symbols of “glorious” architecture. Inaugurated in 1836 to honour the victims that perished during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the monument stands 50 meters x 45 meters x 22 meters in Neoclassical architecture style, adorned intricately with significant sculptural works by major French sculptors Jean-Pierre Cortot; François Rude; Antoine Étex, and others. Its strategic position in the juncture of Place Charles de Gaulle at the western end of Champs Élysées radiates through twelve avenues, constantly reminding the French people of Bonaparte’s “everlasting glory” and triumph.
However, artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his wife Jeanne-Claude had different views about the historical monument. To them, the arch is a “salute to circumstantial beauty.” It needs no reminder of triumphal conquest or military glory. Christo envisioned the structure to represent a sense of freedom and beauty that can be shared by all humanity.
21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo is presenting Christo and Jeanne-Claude "L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped" until February 12, 2023. The exhibition documents the entire creation and production process of the art project "L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris 1961-2021” in minute detail by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude who had conceived the wrapping of the symbolic monument for almost sixty years. A video of Christo drawing L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, scale models, video clips of the actual production and installation, and interviews with key people involved in the project are presented.
The story began like a romantic fairy tale when the couple met in Paris in 1958. Three years later, they started to imagine how to create temporary works of art in public spaces. Christo initially made a photo montage of the arch wrapped in 1962-63. In 1988, he created a collage and eventually worked on developing his creation from 2017. The enormous project was self-financed by Christo through the sale of his studies, drawings, collages, scale models, original lithographs, and other works from the 1950s and 1960s. The Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the city of Paris, and Centre Pompidou gladly supported the endeavour, which captured the public eye’s full attention.
The result is a massive artwork of 25,000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in shimmery silver to match the zinc roofs of Paris and 3,000 meters of red rope. About 1,200 workers, consisting of engineers, contractors, manufacturers, as well as rock climbers who were involved in the assembly of the arch, had faced tremendous challenges in protecting the arch’s sculptural reliefs and nesting falcons, and unforeseen adjustments brought about by environmental concerns and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Christo began wrapping everyday objects and structures as an expressive means of depriving them of their function and preserving them permanently for posterity. This radical approach allowed the material to breathe and to subject the objects to constant change. He developed a passion for treating objects as physical things and not as bearers of meaning. He wanted to emphasize their texture and form more than their content.
Christo’s first public art show in Paris was unveiled in 1962, Wall of Oil Barrels —The Iron Curtain, in which he and Jeanne-Claude blocked an alley with 89 barrels for several hours as a poetic response to the Berlin Wall. The couple scattered their public art across the globe: Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1968-69; Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet in Little Bay, Sydney, 1968-69; Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, 1971-1995; The Floating Piers in Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016; The Umbrellas, 1984-1991 that opened 3,100 umbrellas in the inland valleys of Ibaraki, Japan and Teton Ranch, California; and many others.
It was the Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1975-85 project in Paris that actualized the permission to carry out the L’Arc de Triomphe undertaking. President Macron backed the project because he wanted to restore the monument in the eyes of the public after it was defaced in protests in 2018. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the revitalization of the arch is a “scream of freedom.” Christo explains, “The work must be seen as the expression of total irrational freedom, free from any justification.” Wrapping a triumphal arch was a way of creating something beautiful that shied delusions of grandeur. It is temporary, lightweight, and responsive to the wind, the changing light and the world around it. People can finally gaze at it with solemnity, poignancy and honesty.
"L’Arc de Triomphe,Wrapped" went on view from September 18 to October 3, 2021. Christo died in May 2020 in his home in New York and never got to witness the uncovering of his stupendous masterpiece, but it has remained a powerful and indeed, triumphant testimony of liberation in art in people’s memory.