BY Wilson Tarbox in Opinion | 28 SEP 21

Understanding ‘L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped’

Dancing between beautiful and moribund, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s mummified reimagining of Napoleon’s monument speaks as much to the present as it does to the past

BY Wilson Tarbox in Opinion | 28 SEP 21

Death and beauty go hand in hand. As paradoxical and macabre as that idea might seem, many anthropologists will tell you that ancestral burial rituals are a significant measure of human civilization. Many of the first objects shaped by human sensibilities, such as the Triangular Tombstones from Le Moustier in Peyzac-le-Moustier, Dordogne, France, were related to death and the afterlife. Ancient humans were entombed with their most precious possessions. Bones of ancestors conferred legitimacy upon rulers, proving royal descendance, giving birth to modern notions of cultural heritage or, in the case of relics, like the Byzantine Reliquary in the Shape of a Sarcophagus (400–600) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, an unbroken lineage with divine actors.

The current public art installation at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806–36) taps into this age-old affinity between the beautiful and the moribund. Sixty years after their plan for L’Arc de Triomphe: Wrapped was first conceived, the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude have finally managed to envelope Napoleon Bonaparte’s monument to his imperial armies (and his own megalomania) from beyond the grave.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1985. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

The effect is at once joyous and lurid. The scintillating, diaphanous mantle, composed of 25,000 square meters of synthetic silvery fabric girded with 3,000 meters of red rope, shrouds the arch’s semi-allegorical sculptural decorations. With its military symbols veiled, the monument appears as a ghost of itself, recognizable only in silhouette, its shrouded surface flickering in the changing light and the late-summer breeze.

The towering spectre indeed has a fulgurant elegance that is in marked contrast to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s earliest Parisian public art project, Mur provisoire de tonneaux métallique, rideau de fer, rue Visconti (Temporary Wall of Oil Barrels, The Iron Curtain, rue Visconti), realized on 27 June 1962, just over a year after the couple formed their artistic partnership. Consisting of 89 rusted oil barrels stacked into a makeshift barricade – a recurring motif, even in the couple’s later practice – the work was their artistic response to the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Christo in his studio with a preparatory drawing for L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, New York City, 20 September 2019. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s more recent interventions, which progressively gained institutional acclaim, the Mur provisoire was sternly reprimanded by the authorities, who forced the artists to dismantle it immediately. This notoriety carried over into Christo’s first solo exhibition in 1962 at Galerie J in Paris, which caught the attention of eminent French critic Pierre Restany.

This is not to say that Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t still draw ire from segments of the public and commentariat, or that they didn’t struggle for years to have their art recognized, but their later work has a jovial lustre that is absent in earlier productions. Indeed, there is something uncanny about the artists’ first, more intimately scaled wrapped sculptures – Petit cheval empaqueté (Wrapped Toy Horse, 1963), for instance: a toy horse wrapped tightly in burlap and bound with knotted cord – which are evocative of repressed childhood memories. The wrinkled surfaces of some works are even lacquered with an additional layer of transparent plastic, further embalming the mummified forms.

This is also true of the initial plans for L’Arc de Triomphe: Wrapped, of which remain a 1962 photomontage and a collage from 1988. Unlike the final version, the photomontage Édifice public empaqueté (Projet pour l’Arc de triomphe, Paris) (Wrapped Public Building: Project for the Arc de Triomphe, Paris), depicts the arch at night from a low angle with its openings covered, transforming its familiar outline into an anonymous architectural mass. By contrast, the final version appears fatuous – like a cartoon adaptation of a horror film. Clearly an effort was made to soften the roughness of earlier works, to make them – in the words of Christo himself – ‘sensual’ rather than repulsive.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris, 1961–2021. Photo: Benjamin Loyseau © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Yet, something of the morbidity of these first works persists in the final version. The silver paint that coats the exterior drapery, for instance, is designed to wear away over the course of the installation, progressively revealing the blue underside and highlighting the ephemerality of the entire enterprise. Destined to decay in real time, the work is a memento mori for the modern age.

Born in the crucible of the cold war, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is typically presented as being about freedom – Christo’s escape from the Communist joug; the couple’s unique way of financing their projects through the sale of preparatory works – but it is also about making tangible the limits of and spaces between things. Never were these barriers rendered so palpable as during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. As borders, masks and social distancing became reality, so too did the spectre of our common mortality. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation reminds us of age-old truths: life is short, beauty is fleeting, and all things must come to an end.

Main Image: Fabric panels are being unfurled in front of the outer walls of the Arc de Triomphe. © 2021 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Thumbnail Image: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris, 1961-2021. Photo: Benjamin Loyseau © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Wilson is an art historian, journalist and critic based in Paris.