Until recently, for many, thinking about the Arc de Triomphe would induce hair-raising images of near miss crashes on Paris’ deathly roundabout that lies at its feet. It therefore may come as a surprise that this oft-overlooked monument has now become the site of Christo’s posthumous installation, Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped.
Past and Present
Nevertheless, Christo’s draping of the Arc de Triomphe in 270,000 square feet of ethereal, silver-blue fabric had been long-envisioned. In 1961, three years after Christo met his wife and life-long artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, with whom he lived and worked in New York, the two found themselves back in Paris, renting a small room near the Arc de Triomphe. It was here that the first plans for wrapping Paris’ momentous arch were laid.
Never believing they would gain government permission for the installation (it had, after all, taken three attempts over 25 years for the German government to agree to the wrapping of the Reichstag), it was only 60 years after the project’s conception that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s shared vision was finally put into motion.
Despite its retroactive planning, The Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped seems fated to have appeared only now, as it has captivated the French imagination with is layers of significance, speaking to both the past and present situation in equal measure. With Christo’s recent death, it seems fitting that the Arc’s luminous mantle has symbolically turned into an exquisite burial shroud, honoring the artist who found a home in Paris, after his self-imposed exile from Bulgaria. However, with its encasing red rope, neatly tying up the monument, Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped is also Christo’s last gift to a city that he both loved and found love in.
But this gift is more than just a jewel of a visual spectacle, nestled at the end of Paris’ affluent Avenue Champs-Élysées. The gravitas of Christo’s installation arises from the historical significance of the chosen monument. It is a monument with a dual heritage. Constructed during Napoleon’s reign to commemorate the victorious battles of the French army, in 1919 the Arc de Triomphe also became the resting ground of The Unknown Soldier and a place of remembrance for all those who lost their lives in WWI.
It therefore seems unexpectedly fitting that this installation returns us to Paris’ site of collective grieving and celebration in the wake of Covid-19. Whilst many of us are still reeling from the events of the last year and a half, Christo’s real gift, as always, yet more pertinent than ever, is the opportunity to change our perspective. Not only has the Arc de Triomphe become a healing reflection of the current mood, but it moves our gaze forward into a more hopeful future, its location alone reminding us of Paris’ mayor, Anne Hildago’s, plans to transform the Champs-Élysées into an urban oasis.
More poignant, yet, is the Arc’s comment on the French spirit. The outer grey layer of the polypropylene material, although designed to withstand harsh weather, is also intended to slowly erode under the welcomed touch of visitors, ever increasing the presence of the blue underside. Thus this reawakened playfulness, this returned joie de vivre, turns the monument into a monumental tricolour French flag, a metaphorical resurrection of the French identity through trying times.