Wrapping up the Arc de Triomphe


For almost 60 years, the artist known as Christo dreamed of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe. As a young man, having fled communist Bulgaria, he would gaze at the monument from his tiny garret apartment.

Now, a little over a year after Christo's death at the age of 84, "L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped" (right) is a reality. About 270,000 sq ft of silvery blue fabric, shimmering in the changing light of Paris, hugs the monument commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 at the giddy height of his power. The polypropylene material, its tone reminiscent of the city's distinctive zinc roofs, is secured but not held rigidly fast by more than 3,000m of red rope, in line with the artist's meticulous instructions.

Vladimir Yavachev, Christo's nephew and project director, moved from New York to Paris two years ago to lead the project. The work has been arduous. France's League for the Protection of Birds expressed concern about two falcons nesting high in the facade. That led to a first delay, before the pandemic caused a second.

Bastille Day on July 14 and Armistice Day on Nov 11, when ceremonies take place at the monument, left a limited window.

Building the cages whose steel bars pass an inch or two from the outstretched hand or foot of a frieze or a funereal relief was painstaking. So was rappelling down to work under the overhangs of the cornice. In all, 1,200 people laboured on the wrapping.

From its official opening on Saturday to Oct 3, the arch has in fact become something else - transformed into an oversized imagined object through the liberating obsession of an artist who refused to accept limits.

Born into the stifling oppression of the Soviet imperium, Christo - whose full name was Christo Vladimirov Javacheff - always had one core guiding idea: the inalienability of freedom. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, he made a wall of oil barrels on the Rue Visconti in Paris, a first defiant public statement.

The Arc de Triomphe, like any great monument, was built to last. Christo's conceptual art is ephemeral. Within weeks it will be dismantled.

This is not the first time that Christo has wrapped a Paris icon.

In 1985, after many years of battling the authorities for permission (he was a specialist in the attritional bureaucratic warfare often required to achieve his aims), the artist wrapped the Pont Neuf and the 44 streetlamps on the bridge in a sandstone-coloured fabric. Three million visitors came to see the installation during its two-week life.



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