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A tribute to the life and works of Christo: The artist who wrapped the world

Although most of his masterpieces were only on display for a very short time, installation artist Christo knew how to leave his mark. With his wife Jeanne-Claude, Christo – who was born in Bulgaria – created incredible works of art all around the world, remaining active even after the death of his spouse in November 2009. The artist would have celebrated his 85th birthday on 13 June. According to the announcement made via his official Twitter account, Christo passed away in New York on 31 May.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: An unstoppable artistic duo

The couple first drew widescale public attention in Germany in summer 1995, when they entirely encased Berlin’s Reichstag in silver fabric. The preparations for the “Wrapped Reichstag” had begun back in 1971.

After only two weeks and in line with the planned schedule, the piece was removed without a trace. The concept of transience was part of the pair’s signature artistic style: Video recordings, sketches and photos provide the only proof that their temporary works of art – in the form of wrapped buildings, parks and landscapes – ever existed at all. One of the couple’s earliest pieces that garnered worldwide attention were the “Surrounded Islands” (1983) off the coast of Florida, which Christo surrounded with a floating, bright pink woven polypropylene fabric. Each of his works was entirely unique, tied together only by one common thread: Christo’s passion for fabric.

Global projects by the “master of wrapping”

Whether he was working on a stretch of coastline, a mountain valley or kilometres of paths and fencing: For Christo, nothing was too large or too abstract for wrapping. Early in his artistic career, Christo began wrapping objects such as bicycles and cars, using a special paint that made the fabric rigid and gave the piece a sculptural finish.

In his later works, he preferred a more free-flowing aesthetic: In 1985, he wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris with 41,000 square metres of nylon, and in 2005, he draped free-hanging saffron-coloured fabric from metal frames lining the walkways of New York’s Central Park for “The Gates”.

The “Floating Piers” (2016), which joined two islands in Lake Iseo in northern Italy, also attracted huge numbers of visitors. The floating platforms were made of 220,000 anchored plastic cubes covered in around 75,000 square metres of golden-yellow fabric. These kinds of installations by Christo were huge events in the local area and attracted tourists from all over the world.

“Land art” and free art: A protest against the culture of ownership

Although his works were usually very expensive to create, Christo never accepted state subsidies for his art. His insistence on independence was rooted in his humble background. Born in 1935 in the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo as Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, Christo watched first-hand as his family’s company was nationalised after the war and his father was persecuted at the hands of the Communist regime. In 1957, after completing his studies at the Academy of Arts in Sofia, Christo left his home country.

While living in Paris a few years later, he met Jeanne-Claude – a woman of the same age who would later become his wife. After spending time residing in Prague, Vienna and Geneva, Christo moved to New York and acquired American citizenship in 1973. His life up to this point had taught him to value freedom above all else, and he applied this belief to his art, which was never put up for sale. Following the principles of the increasingly popular “land art” movement of the era – in which spaces were transformed into freely accessible works of art – Christo voiced his protest against the culture of ownership.

Christo: The unrelenting visionary

To make their huge public works a reality, the couple often had to overcome significant bureaucratic and political hurdles. They viewed the negotiations and the long-winded planning and approval procedures as part of their artistic process. More than 30 of their projects never came to fruition due to protests from environmental activists, politicians or local residents. The mammoth Mastaba project in the desert sands of Abu Dhabi is one of the couple’s as-yet incomplete visions. Back in 1977, Christo and his wife designed a 150-metre pyramid to be constructed from oil barrels in the Persian Gulf.

Although the original design has still not been realised, Christo was able to create a smaller-scale version in London two years ago. At 20 metres tall and constructed from 7506 brightly coloured metal drums, the floating Mastaba pyramid in London’s Hyde Park gave the public an impression of the enormous dimensions of the original design.

Until recently, the 84-year-old artist had continued to work on further wrapping projects. Next year will see the realisation of his latest idea:

From 18 September to 3 October 2021, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris will be transformed into a Christo-wrapped masterpiece – likely to be his final work – before returning quietly to normal.

Are there any particular Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects that stand out in your memory, or do you have a favourite piece by the artists? Let us know in the comments.

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