Christo and Jeanne Claude wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The symbol of nationalism and militarism disappears behind a silvery blue, shiny and reflective shell - and the values of liberty, equality and fraternity stand out more.
For Elodie. My friend. Thank you.
In my eyes, the great art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude lay not in the concealment but in the revelation. You will find out why in the course of reading.
Where to start? That is always the most difficult question for me. Front, back, in the middle, there are many ways to put the cart before the horse.
Late summer 2021: My older son comes into the living room at around 10.30 pm. "Dad, have you seen, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is being wrapped up right now." I sit up and answer him in horror, "No, no. That's not until next year!" "No, now."
I realise the pandemic is also playing with time. Because everything stops. Next year is somehow always next year because there is so much hope of improvement associated with it. But next year is now.
Now I am wide awake. I missed the floating bridges in Italy, didn't see the packed Reichstag. The last chance to see a work of art by Jeanne-Claude and Christo is now. And it will never come again.
Short-term only by car
A quick glance at the Thalys bookings shows me that the only way is by car. Most trains are fully booked and hotel rooms are not easy to find. I contact my friend E. in Paris to see if and when she would have time for me and it all fits best on the weekend from Sunday, 26 September 2021 to the following Tuesday. I'll be staying at the Hotel Le Boissiere in Levallois Perret, a town directly adjacent to the 17th arrondissement. The hotel is very simple, but cheap, is quite close to the metro and has tiny showers, but they work with loads of water. As always in Paris, I forgo breakfast in the hotel and get a baguette and a coffee ToGo in a boulangerie in the morning.
In the evening we go to the Arc de Triomphe for the first time and my enthusiasm knows no words. My Parisian friend E., on the other hand, is not so enthusiastic about it. "It's not art, Thomas," she says to me. "The Arc is beautiful even without the wrapping!" (I hope I'm not repeating this too abbreviated from memory.) In retrospect, I am so grateful to E. for these words. For it was the contradiction, precisely this objection, that made me think so much about the wrapping of this important French symbol.
The Arc de Triomphe
Symbol of nationalism and militarism
It is always important to me to first describe what is. I learned this from an outstanding historian, Dr Sonja Günther, who taught design history in Wuppertal between 1990 and 1995 (from memory). As a rule, she said, even the simple description brings the most to the analysis.
Symbol of nationalism, that's not just some claim I'm making. This is exactly how this "altar of the fatherland" was planned. As a continuation of the ancient veneration of the military and the successful art of war, as a monument to successful imperialism.
The almost 50 m high arch in the middle of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle in Paris was built between 1806 and 1836. The arch is just under 45 m wide and 22 m deep. By way of comparison, the Glanzstoff skyscraper (Enka, Akzo) in Wuppertal is 47 m high and the Stadtsparkasse in Wuppertal is 75 m high. The Reichstag in Berlin is 47 m high. The White House by comparison has only a height of 21,33 m. Four streets started from the Place d'Ètoile in 1806 and twelve streets start from it today. Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned the Arc de Triomphe after the Battle of Austerlitz from the Paris-born architect Jean-François Chalgrin in 1739 to glorify his victory there and his victories in general. The Battle of Austerlitz was a significant victory: on 2 December 1805, Napoleon and his 73,000-strong army defeated the allied forces of Austria, Liechtenstein and Russia in what is now the Czech Republic. The victims of this battle were 4,000 dead Austrians, 11,000 dead Russians, 1,290 dead French and uncounted casualties on both sides.
Construction work on the Arc de Triomphe stopped with the death of Chalgrin in 1811 and Napoleon's abdication in 1814. From 1824 Louis XVII had it continued and commissioned the architects Louis-Robert Goust and Huyot to continue construction and the politician and scientist Héricart de Thury to supervise the site. King Louis-Philippe, the so-called Citizen King because he called himself King of the French rather than King of France, returned to the Napoleonic conception of the arch. He and Adolphe Thiers decided on the figurative decoration and the executing artists. From 1832 to 1836, the construction was carried out by the architect Guillaume-Abel Blouet.
Chalgrin's design follows the style of classicism that was influential between 1750 and 1840 and follows the models of ancient Roman architecture. The Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine in Rome are probably well known. There are said to have been 50 triumphal arches in Rome alone. The resemblance to the Arch of Titus is unmistakable. The above quotation makes it clear what Napoleon had in mind, namely to follow the ancient example of erecting triumphal arches for famous generals and commanders.
And this is exactly what happened.
It is hard not to be disrespectful in the face of this demonstration of militarism and military superiority, especially towards our French neighbours. Disrespect for a memory or a memorial is completely beyond me. In the same way, I have the utmost respect for all people who serve in the military. It's just that, as a child of the peace movement, I consider military conflicts to be completely outdated, even though they are nevertheless and unfortunately an undeniably real part of this world in which I also live. (This is really a difficult chapter for me.) My rejection of the military may also be rooted in the fact that in two wars in the 20th century alone, we Germans brought such unspeakable suffering to the people in our neighbouring countries and to our own population. This must never be repeated.
What does it say about a nation when it stylises a place into a monument that is so militarily oriented, so militaristic? That is meant to be an open question.
The inside walls of the Arc de Triomphe are adorned with the names of no fewer than 660 French military officers, mostly generals. Underlined are those who fell in battle. Among them, General Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, whose grandson E. D. Lafayette was on the passenger list of the ship that sailed to America with Jenny Lind. (Boston Daily Evening Transcript note)
To the list of 660 military personnelis added a list of 158 victorious battles. The list is impressive, and yet also a testimony to conquering frenzy, megalomania and imperialism, to which many many people fell victim.
The plinth is dominated by four large reliefs commissioned in 1833 from sculptors Antoine Étex, Jean-Pierre Cortot and, above all, François Rude.
The most famous is the relief Le Départ des volontaires de 1792, also called La Marseillaise. It was created by the Dijon-born sculptor François Rude and depicts the departure of the volunteers for war against the armies of the First Coalition in 1792. (The First Coalition refers to the war waged by a large coalition of Prussia, Austria and smaller German states against revolutionary France between 1792 and 1797. The threat to France from almost all European monarchies was one of the reasons for the introduction of universal conscription in the form of the levée en masse. (Source: Wikipedia).
With his relief, Rude succeeds in building a bridge into a new era of art, in contrast to the three reliefs arranged in a more static classical manner; he leaves the rigid classical convention and carries his lively sculpture into the artistic epoch of Romanticism. Unabashedly heroic, he shows the passion of departure, led and driven by a winged figure that, like goddesses, leads the fighters into battle.
Above the figurative and sculpturally carved reliefs on the base, there are 6 more bas-reliefs on the sides of the arch, depicting scenes from the time of the Revolution and the Empire. These are works that either honour generals or further battles.
The funeral of General Marceau on 20 September 1796, by Henri Lemaire (south right side).
The Battle of Abukir on 25 July 1799, by Seurre aîné (left south side).
The Battle of Jemappes on 6 November 1792, by Carlo Marochetti (east side).
The crossing of the bridge of Arcole on 15 November 1796, by Jean-Jacques Feuchère (north right).
The conquest of Alexandria on 3 July 1798, by John-Étienne Chaponnière (north left).
The Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, by Théodore Gechter (west side).
In four of the above-mentioned battles or military conflicts alone, more than 27,000 soldiers died on both sides, probably without counting the civilian victims.
The grave of the unknown soldier
Since 11 November 1920, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been located in the exact centre below the vault formed by the Arc de Triomphe. It houses the body of a soldier who died in the First World War and was recognised as French, to symbolically commemorate all the soldiers who have died for France throughout history. (Source: Wikipedia)
On a slab of Vire granite, the inscription reads: "Here rests a French soldier who died for the Fatherland - 1914 - 1918". In 1923, a perpetual flame was added, which is relit every day.
Jeanne-Claude and Christo
Driven, provocative, revealing
The Running Fence Projekt
Running Fence was an installation art work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that was completed on 10 September 1976. The art installation was first conceived in 1972, but the actual project took more than four years to plan and build. After it was installed, the builders removed it 14 days later, leaving no visible trace.
The art installation consisted of a 24.5-mile (39.4 km) shrouded fence that stretched across the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in Northern California, United States. The 18-foot (5.5 m) high fence was made of 200,000 square metres of heavy woven white nylon fabric, which was used to create 2,050 panels, and was suspended by 350,000 hooks from steel cables. The cables were supported by 2,050 steel rods (each 6.4 metres long or 9 centimetres in diameter) embedded 1 metre deep in the ground and supported by steel cables (145 kilometres of steel cable), 14,000 ground anchors and no concrete at all.
The connection between the artist couple and Paris runs deep.
Christo was born Christo Vladimirov Yavashev on 13 June 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Christo studied at the Academy of Arts in Sofia from 1953 to 1956. In 1958, he went to Paris via various stations, leaving behind the now completely communist-ruled East of Europe. He discovered his passion for large lengths of fabric in his youth in his father's factory. He became known when he joined the Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) group founded by Pierre Restany and Yves Klein in Paris in 1960. (Source: Wikipedia).
When Christo arrived in Paris, he rented a small room near the Arc de Triomphe and already in 1962 he created a small photomontage of the wrapped Arc de Triomphe.
In Paris, Christo became acquainted with the de Guillebons; he portrayed three versions of the general's wife and fell in love with her adopted daughter, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, born in Casablanca on also the 13 June and in 1935. In 1961, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began their first project together. 1961 was also the year in which the construction of the Berlin Wall began. Christo, himself stateless, a refugee from a communist country, was emotionally stirred by the event.
On 27 June 1962, they blocked the Rue de Visconti with 89 oil barrels. The city of Paris had forbidden the action. According to Jeanne-Claude, Christo carried each barrel himself.
On 28 November 1962, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were married.
It was the beginning of an unprecedented career and the prelude to a long series of sensational art installations around the world.
What all the works have in common is that they have changed the way we look at our world in a unique way. Especially to that which has been veiled by the artist couple. Whether he blocked the visual axis of a valley with a curtain, fringed islands with pink polypropylene fabric or built a 5.5 m high waving fence through the hills of Northern California, after the installation people and landscape were no longer what they were before.
Even with the 1976 Running Fence project, some local opponents complained that separating the landscape with a curtain was not art. As Christo himself acknowledged when he illegally extended the curtain to the coast, there was always something subversive about his work. By the time the case against this extension went to court, the project was long gone. In total, the forehand only blew for 14 days.
Personally, I find it admirable how Jeanne-Claude and Christo often succeeded in getting the residents, the people, on board with the idea. In the case of the Running Fence project, all but three of the farmers and residents were enthusiastic about the project. The couple's power to integrate people into their projects was an achievement that I admired, despite some anachronistic protests by old-timers like Wolfgang Schäuble, even at the Reichstag. Great politicians, such as Willy Brandt, sought contact with Christo and Jeanne Claude and supported them.
Christo and Jeanne Claude's projects were always more than just the visible part, more than what immediately catches your eye. As Christo said when he drove past the Running Fence once again with Ted Dougherty, the contractor:
The curtain describes the wind. I think it's great. Christo expresses himself about what indirect effect his work has. What it reveals.
Unlike a painting or sculpture, which stay, last for centuries, most of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's works are ephemeral art. Apart from the many sketches and paintings made in the run-up to his installation.
We see them as we hear a piece of music. It is only an impression. We only have the pleasure for a brief moment of a few minutes or hours. When the last note fades away, it is quiet, the music is only a memory and what remains in us is the melody, the rhythm or a piece of a text, a certain tone. It is the same with Christo's coverings, which were not the whole of his work. But they too were only fleeting moments of a few days or weeks.
And at the same moment as we see, suspect or remember the wrapping, the covering, like the object, the place, its meaning. We realise with a little self-reflection what the invisible object means to us, what we remember. This can be a playful moment, like guessing a certain present at Christmas, but it can also be very touching, because we become aware of something, we become aware of something we had never been aware of before.
L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped
Silver blue grey with red ropes
Now for the Arc. The 1962 plan comes true. Posthumously, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's sixty-year-old plan comes to fruition. The Arc de Triomphe is covered for a fortnight.
This is how Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves described their art.
Exactly 25,000 square metres of polypropylene fabric, draped with 3,000 m of red rope in precisely planned folds, attached in sections to a specially made steel frame to protect the precious sculptures, offer a spectacular impression that changes with every light. We see, whether by day or night, a completely new building, a completely new, modern form. It changes colour, the fabric is blue on the underside and silvery on the top. The blue turns to the inside. The silvery, shiny and reflective exterior towards the viewer. The blue shines through from the inside to the outside depending on the incidence of light.
The folds emphasise the vertical, the ropes emphasise the figurative architectural composition of the arch in a new way.
With the covering by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the historical triumphal arch is invisible. The contours are redefined. The shape of the antique classical arch now only emerges in an abstract form and redefines itself with a different, angular and modern-looking contour. Rectangular surfaces are now polygonal.
The memory of military men, the memory of battles and generals, of military glory and martial conquests, stormings with whatever aim - all this is now shrouded by a metallic shining solid, impenetrable fabric. It is invisible. No longer visible for about two weeks. The familiar image of a monument to generals and battles, it is now only a memory.
What would the Parisians, the onlookers miss? The beautiful, classicist architecture? The memorials to generals, military men or battles won? The reliefs? The sculptures and figures on the sides?
When Christo was awarded the 2014 prize, the Theodor Heuss Foundation spoke of a subtle provocation on the monumental object.
What was meant by this could be seen very well in a documentary about Christo and the preliminary planning for the wrapping of the Reichstag in Germany after the fall of the wall in 1989. Christo was allowed to present his concern to many politicians in Germany, and the Bundestag in Bonn debated it. Despite the indignation that such a serious place as the Reichstag, the parliament, should not be turned into a place of light-hearted art, in the end most members of parliament voted in favour. I think it was Wolfgang Thierse who spoke in an interview about what a new perspective Christo had given the Germans on their own national identity by covering the Reichstag. The Germans were able to rediscover this and themselves after the fall of communism.
An idea from 1961
Like a glistening piece of ice
If one follows Christo's statement about the Running Fences, then Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's works are more than just a wrapping, a cover. On the contrary, they describe a new relationship. This became particularly clear when one went to the covered Arc de Triomphe in the evening or at night. For then, in this blue-silver crystal under a deep blue night sky, a huge French national flag flew over the tomb of the unknown soldier.
The fabric, grey-silver on the outside and blue on the inside, separated the tricolour from the Arc de Triomphe and everything it embodied. All the militarism, the generals, the memories of power interests, emperors, imperialism, sacrifices - all of it completely shielded from the waving, living national flag with its so impressive history.
Le Drapeau Tricolore
National flag since 1794
Jacques-Louis David may be known to some as the painter of the 1793 painting "The Death of Marat", which hangs in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Jacques-Louis David (* 30 August 1748 in Paris; † 29 December 1825 in Brussels) was a French history painter of the classicist period. His work can be divided into three epochs. As court painter to the French royal family and member of the French Academy, he created numerous paintings with ancient motifs. During the French Revolution, David became politicised and took up current political themes. During the reign of Napoleon I, he became his most important iconographic propagandist.
The French national flag is a tricolour of three vertical bars of equal width in blue, white and red and has an aspect ratio of 2:3. The vertical arrangement was made to distinguish it from the flag of the Netherlands. The tricolour has been the flag of France continuously since 1830. It is mentioned in Article 2 of the French Constitution of 1958. What many do not know is that in the 1970s, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing lightened the shade of blue from navy blue to a cobalt blue to match the colour of the European flag. This change, almost unnoticed by the public, was reversed by Emmanuel Macron on 14 July. A good decision, I think, even though I like the idea of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
In the form of the navy flag, it dates from 27 July 1794 - legend has it that it was designed by French artist and painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) at the request of the Convention.
The origins of the French national flag are said to date back to the Three Colours of Liberty of 14 July 1789 and the colours are identical to the three colours of the American Revolution and the flag of the United States.
During the Revolution, combatants began to pin identifying colours to their headdresses, and so over time blue and red, and later after the storming of the Bastille, blue and red and white identifiers or cockades became popular. (Cockades are circular badges worn primarily on headgear). The choice of three colours is even attributed to Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, a French general who fought in both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. The flag of the city of Paris was blue and red, and many supporters of the Jacobins wore Phrygian caps with a tricolour cockade.
The mantle of freedom
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
The French national flag of 1790 was called "the livery of liberty" by Comte Mirabeau on the occasion of the July Revolution in 1830. Impressively, Eugéne Delacroix immortalised the moment when the people stormed the barricades in his painting "Liberty Leads the People".
The French Revolution may well represent one of the sharpest cuts in modern European cultural history. The people rebelled against the feudalistic-absolutist corporative state. New values and ideas of the Enlightenment were propagated, especially in human rights. On 26 August 1789, over 233 years ago, the French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
It is worth re-reading this Declaration, especially in today's times when our common, European and cultural values are threatened in so many ways. Article 1 states, among other things: "Human beings are and shall remain free by birth and equal in rights." Article 2 states: "The aim of every political association shall be the preservation of natural and inalienable human rights. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression." Significantly, I find Article 4 which states, "Freedom consists in being able to do anything that does not harm another." Especially nowadays, in the limitedness of our resources, in the threat of the virus, we should reflect more often on the feet on which our freedom rests. "Thus the exercise of the natural rights of every man has only those limits which secure to the other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights." the article goes on to say.
No one can be prouder than the French for stating this so clearly and unambiguously for all of us.
Even after more than 233 years, Article 11 has not yet managed to be valid for all societies in this world: "The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious human rights. Every citizen may therefore write, speak and print freely, subject to responsibility for the abuse of this freedom in cases determined by law." From time to time we should also remember Article 15, "Society has the right to require every public official to account for his administration."
I am very happy to have rediscovered this statement for myself. It shows me the basis on which our modern-looking society is built and how far we still are, or are again, from implementing these rights that are over 233 years old.
During the Revolution, the French bishop and writer François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon associated the concepts of "liberty, equality and fraternity". They gained wide currency during the Enlightenment period and were one of the many slogans invoked during the French Revolution.
In an 2006 Arte article, the colours of the tricolour were linked to the concepts of liberty, equality, fraternity. The author suspects that as a "secondary but already early reinterpretation is the reference to the motto of liberty, equality, fraternity (liberté, égalité, fraternité), with blue for liberty, white (heraldically: silver) for equality and red for brotherly love."
Like a fire
What do we actually stand for?
And it is the same indirectly with the packaging of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. What is aesthetically masterful is not the beautiful packaging of the huge arch. In my eyes, it is the indirect statements that Jeanne Claude and Christo make about France, the culture of remembrance and the concepts of freedom, equality and brotherhood.
The Corona crisis and the climate crisis just show us how threatened the concept of freedom, conceived in the spirit of revolution, is at the moment. Threatened by politicians and people who confuse the concept of freedom with egoism. I would like to remind you of Article 4: "Freedom consists in being able to do anything that does not harm another."
It is therefore not an expression of freedom not to be vaccinated, just as it is not an expression of freedom to waste any number of resources to satisfy selfish needs.
But the concept of freedom is also threatened in other dimensions, which have much to do with the non-existent equality of people on this planet. People in Africa and Eastern Europe are not free to go where they want. That is why we have created borders. Whenever we separate ourselves as a group, we exclude others.
Even in Europe, we are further away from freedom of the press and freedom of expression than we think. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had published secret US military documents and videos on international military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He revealed truth. For this, if the Americans are proved right in the legal battle, he should now go to prison in the USA for life.
People on this planet are equal. But the conditions are not. In China, the Uyghurs are locked away, in Tibet, Tibetan culture is being assimilated.
We Europeans exploit whole continents, whether for rare earths or precious stones and gold Africa, whether for silicon South America or for palm oil Indonesia. Our hunger for more and more knows no bounds. We do not store our rubbish on our doorstep, but dump it unasked into the landscape and do not even seem to be ashamed of it.
We are taking away the livelihoods of people who live on flat islands in the Pacific due to global warming, which is largely due to the behaviour of a small minority.
We ship used clothes to Africa and destroy local production opportunities, China ships so many cans of tomatoes to Africa that local producers don't stand a chance. And our hunger for raw materials such as oil is destroying whole swathes of land.
And in an effort to leave these unjust unequal circumstances, people do everything. They suffocate in locked trucks and containers, they drown trying to cross the Mediterranean in tiny boats.
There is no question of equality.
And that is not all. Not even in our rich societies of the West do we manage to ensure equality in social and financial terms. While the Corona epidemic plunged many people into financial ruin, others became even richer than they already were immeasurably.
More than 200 years after the revolution, there is still much work to be done.
Über 200 Jahre nach der Revolution liegt noch viel Arbeit vor uns.
Whenever I am not clear about how to understand something, I read a definition. This is always a good place to start.
Fraternity, or more modernly, brotherhood, in modern society, refers to the considerate, social and solidary behaviour of people in a group or society.
Oh, how far we are from that. I only need to say road traffic and everyone, whether walking, cycling or driving, knows what I mean.
Consideration, that means finding a speed limit good, because it benefits everyone. Consideration, that means stopping when someone wants you to cross the road, even as a cyclist to observe a zebra crossing.
Solidarity. A concept that I think we have almost forgotten - after the war. The pandemic is a great danger there at the moment. Politicians and some dangerous arsonists are behaving in a way that lacks solidarity with the majority of people who want to protect themselves and others through vaccination, considerate behaviour in everyday life. The protection of children, that is basically indifferent to politics at the moment. The economy, capital has priority. Let them eat yachts, you hear them shout to people who can no longer afford the heating costs.
A few can pile up unbelievable wealth, while a large part of the population has lost considerable wealth over the last 40 years. That is not solidarity.
People are not equal. Some are more equal.
A new look
A different kind of national pride
I believe, no, I am firmly convinced, that the times are over when one can still be proud of a military victory. The acute threat to Ukraine from Russia shows us how important defending forces still are, but if Russia were to impose this war on us, it would be just another imperialist endeavour, as most wars of the last centuries have been. Started to increase the power, reach and influence of a few, to rule more land, to amass greater wealth, to control and rule over more people.
Visiting the Arc de Triomphe at night and seeing the national flag flying under the massive arch in the Place d'ètoile moved me deeply. And do so even more with the deeper insight and additional knowledge gained.
Just look at how the veiling highlights the values of liberty, equality, fraternity.
The French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the dissolution of feudal rule, they brought about a change in Europe that continues to have an impact today. The power of the Enlightenment, the revoultionary thought, liberty, equality, fraternity, all these are things that for me the French tricolour symbolises. And just as alive and vibrant as these values still are today, the French national flag flew powerfully and strongly in the evening light over the grave of the unknown soldier.
I was very moved by that. We can no longer ask Jeanne-Claude and Christo what their intentions were. But we know how much freedom Christo and Jeanne-Claude meant. And we can make up our own minds about what happens when we cover a great symbol.
So that the wind shows itself.
That is great art.
The wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris by the artist couple Jeanne-Claude and Christo gives us the opportunity to rediscover the values of freedom, equality and fraternity. That, at least, is my personal summary of the visit to this installation. I am very grateful for it.