Christo created some of the world ‘s biggest and most ambitious public art ventures with his wife Jeanne-Claude, including the legendary Wrapped Reichstag, their groundbreaking shrouding of the Berlin Parliament building in 1995.
Christo, who died at the age of 84, once said of their work: “Traditional sculpture creates its own space. We take a space not belonging to a sculpture, and make sculpture out of it”.
The same day, 13 June 1935, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born: Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Casablanca, Morocco and Christo Javacheff in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Christo made a dramatic escape from his repressive home country in 1957, traveling to Czechoslovakia and Austria and France from there. His biographer, Burt Chernow, recalled the moment when Christo and 15 other deserters loaded into a cramped rail car in Prague: “It was the coldest winter in Christo Javacheff’s memory…A knifelike wind howled outside…No one spoke as the door locked behind them. There was no turning back.”
The pair met in Paris in 1958 while Christo painted a portrait of the mother of Jeanne-Claude Precilda de Guillebon. The following year Jeanne-Claude married Philippe Planchon but soon afterwards left him, already pregnant with Christo ‘s son, Cyril. In 1964, the couple moved to New York, first living at the Chelsea Hotel and then moving to a Manhattan loft, which would be their home and studio space. The couple jointly created their first public art project, Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages, in 1961.
The initiative of the Bundled Reichstag, for which the pair became well known, was conceived in 1971 and it took 24 years to bear fruit. On 24 June 1995, the wrapping of the German Parliament building was completed by a team of 210 professional climbers and installers, dropping woven fabric from the top of the building, like a huge curtain. The result has been both surreal and eerie, drawing five million visitors over the next two weeks.
“The building is so symbolic, we faced a lot of opposition,” said Christo at the time. “In the course of 24 years, we worked with six different presidents of the bundestag and were refused three times. I was so depressed, I was ready to give up. Then finally, in 1994, it went to a vote and we won.”
Some remained to be persuaded, given the public ‘s appreciation: Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had unambiguously rejected the proposal, quit Berlin for fortnight. Significantly, the projects of all artists have always been self-funded, never receiving any public money from local or national governments. Such was their determination to remain independently funded that they refused a $1 m fee on Japanese television in 1988 for a proposed 60-second slot. The ephemeral nature of the works allowed artists to sell preparatory sketches, photos, and prints to raise the funds required for the next project to be realized.
The Gates, opened in 2005, was the first outdoor initiative the pair had in their adopted New York neighborhood. The construction, realized in Central Park, had neon orange drapes creating arches across the paths of the park, which received about 5 million people. Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, described it as “one of the most exciting public art projects ever put on anywhere in the world”. In 2018 Christo and Jeanne-Claude brought The London Mastaba to Hyde Park, a brilliantly colored 600-ton trapezoidal structure consisting of 7,000 barrels of oil floating on the Serpentine. Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery, said at the launch: “It is our dream come true to have Christo with us.”
When Jeanne-Claude passed away in November 2009, Christo insisted on keeping her as part of the name of her artist, continuing to work as “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.” Its son Cyril, a photographer and filmmaker, survives them.