October 21, 2020

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‘Wrapped Reichstag’ artist Christo dies, aged 84

He was most famous for wrapping huge buildings and spaces, such as the Reichstag in Berlin and Paris’ Pont-Neuf. American-Bulgarian artist Christo has died at the age of 84.

His last monumental work was to be the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In the fall of 2020, Christo was to cover the famous landmark with 25,000 square meters (270,000 square feet) of silver blue recyclable polypropylene fabric, tied with 7,000 meters of red rope.

Christo however didn’t get to witness the unveiling of his ambitious installation. On May 31, the world famous Bulgarian-American artist died of natural causes at his home in New York City.

“Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realising it,” said a statement from his office.

Wrapping to awake curiosity

Shiny fabrics that covered buildings, objects or entire areas were his trademark. Together with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, he wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, trees in Switzerland or paths in Kansas City. And sometimes he just covered up air in big “air packages.”

Christo’s big ‘air packages’

Christo and Jeanne Claude planned together large-scale projects such as the oversized Valley Curtain installed between two Colorado mountain slopes in the early 1970s.

Other spectacular works include the pink Surrounded Islands in Florida and the Pont-Neuf Wrapped bridge installation in Paris in the 1980s. In 1995, the artist couple wrapped the German Reichstag in silver glittering fabric.

In 2016, some 1.3 million visitors walked on his Floating Piers across Lake Iseo. “I love real things, real wind, real dryness, real wet, real fear and real joy,” Christo told a group of Italian students in the documentary Walking on Water.

Christo’s Floating Piers across Lake Iseo

Christo started wrapping or covering items such as cans, bottles and boxes early on in his artistic career. Yet he always rejected being defined as a “packaging artist.”

He left the interpretation of his art to others, but his basic approach was to arouse the curiosity of viewers by concealing objects, without ever changing them beyond recognition — a process the artist’s biographer, David Bourdon, described as “revealing by hiding.”

Famous artist couple: Christo & Jeanne-Claude

Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff was born in Bulgaria on June 13, 1935. In the 1950s he studied painting, sculpture and architecture in Sofia. In 1956, he fled the communist country across the Czechoslovak border.

In Paris at the beginning of the 1960s, he joined a group of artists known as the “Nouveaux Réalistes” — the new realists — who, among other things, integrated real-life objects into art by transforming them.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 2006

To earn money, Christo also painted portraits. While working for a general, he met his daughter, Jeanne-Claude, who was born on the same day as he was. Jeanne-Claude was first seduced by Christo’s charm; her enthusiasm for his art came later. She contributed to his artistic talent through her organizational skills.

Relations with Germany

Wolfgang Volz became the couple’s official photographer in 1972. “Although Christo had a worldwide reputation, I never worked ‘for’ the two of them, but ‘with’ them as equal partners,” Volz once told DW. That’s why their relationship lasted so long, even though Christo could also be difficult, having a reputation for being short-tempered and stubborn when it came to realizing the detailed concepts of his works exactly according to his plans.

Over time, his art projects became increasingly ambitious. “The ‘working family’ grew with the size of the projects,” said Volz on the occasion of Christo’s 80th birthday. “Engineers, professional climbers and other specialists were needed.”

The veiling of the Reichstag in 1995 was one of Christo’s most ambitious projects

Christo’s panels of fabrics were made in Germany, where he also realized one of his most ambitious projects, the veiling of the Berlin Reichstag in 1995.

Within two weeks, five million visitors had admired the impressive sparkling Wrapped Reichstag. Christo had been waiting for over 20 years to realize this project.

Freedom as a driving artistic force

As a representative of so-called Environmental or Land Art, Christo, together with Jeanne-Claude, undertook many spectacular wrapping and design campaigns for buildings, parks and entire areas.

In the 1960s, a time of social upheaval, Land Art had a political dimension. Geographical spaces were transformed into works of art that could not be owned — a form of protest against property and the bourgeoisie.

One of the artists’ most spectacular installations, ‘Umbrellas,’ from the early 70s

Christo remained true to this ideal until the end. His large-scale installations were only visible for a short period, but they were open to the public and free of charge for everyone. “The fact that they disappear is part of the aesthetic concept. They are deeply rooted in freedom, because freedom is an enemy of property — while property is linked to durability,” said Christo as he worked on the Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin.

Freedom has always been a central concept for the former refugee from Bulgaria. In order to remain independent, he financed his projects from the sale of sketches and merchandise related to his works.

An artist with a political stance

Christo’s socio-critical ambitions became artistic happenings that fascinated the public. Jeanne-Claude often described their work this way: “We create temporary works of art of joy and beauty.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude working on their project ‘Over the River’

But all while promoting beauty and joy, Christo remained political. He gave up his Over the River project in Colorado, which he had been developing for 20 years, in protest against US President Donald Trump in 2017. “The US government is our landlord here,” Christo told The New York Times. “It owns the country. I cannot do a project that benefits this landlord.”

Oil barrels for a grave

Christo not only covered buildings and landscapes; oil barrels were another recurring material in his art. In 1962, he blocked the Rue Visconti in Paris with a wall made of 441 oil barrels. He called the work The Iron Curtain, created in protest against the East German regime and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The Mastaba in Hyde Park

In 1977, Christo and Jeanne-Claude designed The Mastaba, inspired by Ancient Egyptian tombs. They aimed to build a colorful pyramid without a tip made of 410,000 oil barrels in the United Arab Emirates desert near Abu Dhabi.

Christo realized smaller versions of this pyramid, most recently a floating Mastaba of 7,506 oil barrels in London’s Hyde Park in 2018. The Abu Dhabi Mastaba in the desert, which would have been the world’s largest sculpture and his only large-scale permanent installation, remained one of his longstanding unfulfilled dreams.

(DW)