Paris Watches the Arc De Triomphe Get Wrapped Up in Christo’s Vision

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Edward Berthelot/Getty
Edward Berthelot/Getty

In French, the word emballer means to wrap or package. It also means to be thrilled about. It also means to get carried away. All of these definitions apply to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe at present, as it is transformed from totemic tomb into a monument ensconced in 25,000 square meters of blue-tinged loosely woven silver polypropylene fabric and “belted” with 3,000 meters of red polypropylene rope, as conceived by the married artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (She died in 2009, he died last year.)

The arch, reborn as L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris, 1961-2021, from today through Oct. 3, will be wearing a shimmering outfit, its every millimeter literally emballé. Parisians’ reactions are either emballé—excited—or side-eyeing the city for s’emballer—losing sight of things.

Why New York’s MoMA Was One Building Christo and Jeanne-Claude Couldn’t Wrap

Over 1,200 people worked on the project, from managers to engineers to architects to security to carpenters (the latter of which could be seen dangling off the Arc in their neon orange jumpsuits as the finishings were still being put in place yesterday).

The wrapping fabric—the same one used on the Reichstag in 1995—was selected for both aesthetic and structural reasons, and is industrially recyclable (the textile will be reconverted into pellets). The project is fully self-financed—as in, zero public or private funding—thanks to the sales of original vintage Christo works: collages, preparatory drawings, models, and lithographs.

The project came to the fore in 2017, when the Centre Pompidou was beginning preparations for an exhibition spotlighting the couple’s Parisian projects, and French curator and museum director Bernard Blistène suggested Christo think about a new on-site Paris project, given that it had been 36 years since he’d last intervened there, wrapping the Pont-Neuf (a 10-year feat to organize and complete, 1975-85).

Christo immediately proposed the Arc de Triomphe as a place to play—his initial conception had been drawn up 60 years ago, but even he had deemed it too ambitious until recently.

Now, Christo’s whimsy has been instated in the French capital—where he first took refuge in 1958, having fled his native Bulgaria under communist rule. Like many, Christo “found himself” as an artist in Paris: he began signing his name as such, preceding Madonna (he was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff).

Crucially, it’s also where he met his lifelong partner Jeanne-Claude, and the two produced their first work together on rue Visconti as a retort to the Berlin Wall, which had been built the previous year. Although they eventually settled in New York, their Paris period (1958-1964) provided an indispensable rite of passage to who they became. They wrapped statues at Esplanade du Trocadéro and in the Place des Vosges. They dreamed up wrapped trees on Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which did not come to fruition, but which presaged what they would come to do.

At a press conference in Paris, the key actors facilitating the project spoke effusively. Vladimir Yavachev—Christo’s nephew—the director overseeing L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, stepped up after Christo died in May 2020. “We try to carry the spirit, carry the enthusiasm,” Yavachev said, but emphasized that “every visual aspect” had already been laid out by Christo before his death. (Permission had already been secured, and as Yavachev said, “the hardest part is getting permission.”) Yavachev appraised the result with pride: “As the French say, it’s ‘pas mal’ [not bad] but I hope it becomes nickel [excellent] for the unveiling.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Siegfried Modola/Getty</div>
Siegfried Modola/Getty

Regardless, he concluded, “we did-ed it”—citing a favorite expression of Christo’s, despite “not being proper English.” L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris, 1961-2021 is one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s two final projects, the other one being The Mastaba (Project for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates), which is still in negotiations.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, noted the project was “un peu fou”—a little crazy—but that it inspired “re-enchantment and rediscovery” on one of the “most beautiful avenues of the world—pardon my chauvinism.”

Whether people ultimately love it or hate it, she noted that its effect was to “bousculer” or shake things up—which, admittedly, is not a term French people always love to apply to their patrimonial heritage. Philippe Bélaval, president of Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN) and a key partner of the project, framed Christo as one “who respects, but dares.”

He also noted—in response to a question posed about the risks of repurposing a venerated monument—that anything intervened upon would be restored, and moreover the team had given free rights to all Christo images, meaning any product sales go to the CMN as a bonus.

“It’s such a part of Paris that we stop seeing it,” Lou Forsans, 33, a freelance graphic designer who has lived in Paris for eight years, noted of the Arc de Triomphe. “Now, by hiding it—we see it. And we talk about it! When was the last time anyone talked about the Arc de Triomphe?! Suddenly, it’s become central.”

Forsans is eager to see the monument this weekend and the whole of the Champs-Elysées without cars; she felt the outcry against the project seemed misplaced. “Why isn’t anyone critiquing Fashion Week as virulently for not being sustainable?”

Anastasia Bernal, 28, a project manager at a food-related app, describes herself as not at immersed whatsoever in the art milieu, nor friends with people who are—but saw Christo’s intervention mentioned on Facebook and in Instagram stories because of the visibility of the Paris site.

As a native Parisian, “My instinct was to say: ‘It’s precious don’t touch it,’” she admitted. “When Notre Dame burned—even though that wasn’t voluntary!—I was affected. These fixed and lasting icons, they shape your sense of your culture.” But she wasn’t hardline about it. In fact, the wrapping “makes me think of modesty. You cover something up, and suddenly you’re curious about what’s underneath.” She said it would ultimately be interesting to see the wrapped Arc, if only from afar.

Marika Bekier, 37, who works for Oxfam, told The Daily Beast: “Artists are not celestial beings. They need to be accountable for the effects of what they create, and today should be thinking about their ecological impact from the very conception of the work.”

Bekier is familiar with Christo’s oeuvre, although has never seen it live. She said she will visit the site, yet would feel better if she had clear and transparent statistics about how the project would make sustainable gestures for when the fabric was taken down. “If they’re recycling their material in China,” she noted, she would not be supportive of the project’s sustainability promises.

However, she praised the Arc de Triomphe project as a “democratization of art,” knowing that the accessibility of the monument would appeal to “a different public than the ones who frequent dedicated art centers.”

The Arc was originally commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon I, to glorify the Grande Armée; work was completed in 1836, under Louis-Philippe, who dedicated it to the spirit of the French Revolution and the Empire. Since, the Arc de Triomphe has been the centerpiece of events such as the return of Napoleon's ashes on in 1840; the national funeral for Victor Hugo in 1885; General de Gaulle’s march in 1944 in liberated Paris.

For some, this modern reupholstering of the arch refreshes it, spinning it from historical solemnity to sculptural playfulness. The Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc sits, will be exceptionally pedestrianized for three weekends, shifting the urban environment—there are 12 avenues leading to Place de l’Etoile, which is never not clogged with cars and tourist buses—so the relationship to the monument will be renewed spatially as well as aesthetically.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Workers begin the process of wrapping up the Arc De Triomphe monument in silver-blue fabric on September 12, 2021.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Siegfried Modola/Getty</div>

Workers begin the process of wrapping up the Arc De Triomphe monument in silver-blue fabric on September 12, 2021.

Siegfried Modola/Getty

It comes as no surprise that not everyone is pleased with the intervention. One recent article in a regional publication rounded up a handful of disparaging tweets: one dismissed it as looking toilet-papered, another scoffed that it was a scandalous waste of 14 million euros (even if none of the money came from the public domain).

A young “philosopher” wrote in Le Figaro that the work had transformed from something provocative to something blandly, bureaucratically State-approved. A 2020 article in a Swiss newspaper by an architecture critic framed Christo’s work as expired long before his passing: not only repetitive, but discordantly out of step with the still-present anger of the gilets jaunes (at a local level) and the impending ecological state of emergency (at the global one).

The architect Carlo Ratti, who befriended Christo at a dinner years ago, wrote an opinion piece for Le Monde saying he felt the act of wrapping was at one point effective, but had turned hollow in these times. Christo’s style had formerly evoked Verfremdung [German for “distancing”] or radical defamiliarization, a concept articulated by Bertolt Brecht and Russian formalists—but no longer.

These are fair criticisms. But for this journalist, an expatriate who has lived in the city long enough to glaze over great works with a kind of blasé unseeing, the act of re-presenting a symbolic monolith, in a way that estranges it from its loaded history, rather effectively provided a renewal of perspective. Whether this ephemeral wrapping truly helps anyone better understand urban landscapes in the long run is debatable. But rethinking silhouettes via a refreshing jolt is welcome: Paris needs that.

This is not a billionaire zooming into space; it is a shared, public work at no cost to the city, and hardly the most noxious anti-ecological gesture that needs reforming. It’s a cheeky transformation, nudging a place that often feels almost stagnant with its own prestige.

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