Remembering Christo

One year ago, the final installation project of the pioneering artist Christo unfolded in the heart of Paris: Arc de Triomphe Wrapped. He envisioned it a few years after his 1958 arrival in Paris, where he sought creative freedom impossible to exercise in his native, then Soviet satellite, Bulgaria. Arc de Triomphe Wrapped was an appropriate posthumous tribute to the artist, who died in April 2020, and to his creative partner/wife Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009 and whom he met and married in Paris before relocating to New York in 1964.

All preparations for the project had been completed well before April 2020, the original installation date. Christo had moved it to September when he learned that birds nest in the Arc during springtime. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the artist moved the date forward one year.

All Christo’s projects are fully self-financed labors of love. The Christos funded everything—environmental impact studies, fabrication of fabric, rope and metal structures, Issay Miyake-designed uniforms for the three hundred ‘educators’ stationed round-the-clock at the Arc for the three-week duration of the project, catering, alpinists and engineers, photographers and consultants—through the sale of beautiful preparatory designs and drawings, which sell for upwards of $250,000 if purchased before the dismantling of the installation, at which point prices rise significantly.

To obtain the necessary permissions to envelope this iconic monument in thousands of yards of custom-made (and later recycled) fabric and rope required a daunting number of permissions—from the mayor’s office to the Ministry of Culture. The project was complicated: not only is the Arc de Triomphe an important historical monument commissioned in 1806 by Napoléon to honor his army Roman style, but it also lies at the center of Paris’s busiest traffic circle, place Charles de Gaulle—a dangerous vehicular whirlpool. During the almost two months of installation, exhibition, and dismantling, place Charles de Gaulle should, according to the Christos’ ethos, continue its habitual activity and remain open to traffic. The decision to close it to traffic on several weekends was the decision of the Paris city government, a welcome accommodation to the more than six million visitors who traveled from six continents to experience this temporary marvel.

It took three weeks to prepare the Arc for the dramatic draping, a spell-binding, day-long  performance piece in itself. Specially designed metal cages protected the four life size sculptures on the Arc’s ‘legs’ as well as other delicate areas such as corners. To avoid possible damage, it was decided that metal shouldn’t touch the Arc directly, necessitating the fabrication of wood ‘cushions’ to mediate between the monument and the protective metal structures over which the fabric draped.

Many compromises were made. The Ministry of Culture requested the addition of a bench to line the Arc’s interior perimeter to encourage visitors to pause and contemplate this temporary work of art. I found this an inspired idea, one that, like the project itself, would create for a brief moment an experience that was an appropriate contrast (a lush, fabric enveloped contemplative space) to its normative condition (a ceremonial space—The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marked by an eternal flame: a stark, noisy, seatless space where wreaths are laid by members of the armed forces or by the President on anniversaries—of ends of wars, mostly). The emotive splendor of Arc de Triomphe Wrapped heightened, briefly but respectfully, the monument’s solemn symbolic significance.

With my guest pass, a courtesy extended a mutual friend of Christo’s with whom I tagged along, I visited the interior during the installation and loved the idea of resting quietly in that transitory oasis once the wrapping was complete. Later, I was surprised to find benches absent when the interior opened to the public. I asked Christo’s nephew Vlad Javacheff, the project’s director, why. He feels responsible for ensuring that projects are executed exactly according to the wishes of Christo and Jean-Claude, because there was a reason motivating every decision the artist made in the conception first realized in his drawings. Indeed, if you compare the folds and rope placements among Christo’s many drawings, you will find a surprising uniformity among them, and it was they that guided the installation. In addition, Vlad understood—as did the artist—that benches jutting out, even along the interior, would destroy the unified harmony of a continuous fabric flow from top to ground and, at the last minute, instructed workers to conceal them. Benches were there, just not visible or utilizable. I could feel them projecting from the walls—the fabric bumped out a bit where they were, appearing then like a kind of sculptural base or molding. Few visitors, undoubtedly, noticed much less understood the issues that detail evoked.

The Arc appeared differently depending on weather conditions and time of day. The heavy burlap-textured polypropylene fabric, blue underneath with a thin coating of silver on its surface that abraded as the ropes rubbed, created a surface that changed physically as well as visually. Astonishingly, the ‘fabric’ fluttered like silk in the wind when draped on this ten-story tall monument: so delicate, so responsive to nuanced changes in atmospheric conditions. I was astonished and moved to realize that Christo knew exactly how Arc de Triomphe Wrapped would look in a breeze and when it was wind still, and at every time of day, a detail I understood after viewing Christo’s Arc-related drawings then on sale at Sothebys and nearby art galleries. It made me feel less sad that neither he nor Jeanne-Claude would see this project, one that had special significance for them because it was in the city where the couple initiated their life-long collaboration.

I went many times and at all times of day to view the Arc and the social scene surrounding it. I chatted with numerous Germans who witnessed the 1995 Wrapped Reichstag, an event that for Germans came to symbolize reunification after five decades of separation and suffering, just as the 1880 completion of Cologne Cathedral symbolized the first unification of Germany in 1871. One German couple brought their teenage children because they wanted them to experience the magic they remembered from that event.

The social experience was extraordinary. In the weeks leading up to the wrapping and subsequent ‘opening’, a lively scene unfolded a half block away at project headquarters, which occupied a huge rented second floor space that usually functioned as a luxury car showroom. Press officers busily organized kits for journalists who began to descend, supervisors reviewed specs and plans, workers with tool belts hanging from their hips or harnesses from their shoulders gathered at tables to eat or drink coffee, and Team Christo—which included the engineer and photographer who had worked with the Christo’s for decades, and others who, once having experience the magic of a Christo project—came together at sporadic intervals to aid in their realization, embraced and caught up.

Once ‘open’, the action shifted to place Charles de Gaulle. Art teachers brought their charges to sketch the temporarily mysterious monument, enveloped in a shimmering silver gown. Vietnamese merchants wearing matching shirts with the logo of their professional organizational posed for a group portrait. Locals out to air Fido stopped by regularly to check out the scene. I shared the experience with friends from France, Israel, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.S.

Educators from more than three dozen countries wearing easily identifiable turquoise vests and identical outfits down to their shoes circulated during their eight-hour shifts, approaching visitors, answering questions, and distributing souvenir fabric samples from purpose-designed pockets in their vests that were delivered periodically by bicycle-riding shift supervisors. For educators, it was a bit like an international summer camp that brought together enthusiasts young and old, professionals (I met several architects), retirees, and students from more than three dozen countries. Some had ‘educated’ on earlier projects and became hooked.

The emotions this event generated were intensified for many by the knowledge that this was the last such event ever in the history of the world. There were moments when one chatted excitedly with other admirers and moments when one contemplated it alone, overpowered by its magnificence.

The Arc de Triomphe Wrapped offered an inspirational aesthetic experience, a wrinkle in time that offered a glimpse into an imaginable world of beauty, creativity, harmony, and solidarity. Thank you, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, for one last awe-inspiring caprice that was huge and difficult, superfluous and short-lived. For more, visit

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.


  1. Dear Michelle,
    Thanks for your memory. It was also lots of fun to see you and Harriet. Much love

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: