Christo (Javacheff) and Jeanne-Claude (de Guillebon) are a husband and wife who together create environmental artworks in urban and rural sites. They both go by their first names only, and were born on the same day in 1935, he in Bulgaria and she in Morocco of a French military family. Christo studied art in Sofia and in Prague. Jeanne-Claude studied Latin and philosophy in Tunis. They met in Paris in 1958.
In 1956, Christo left Bulgaria to go to Prague, Czechoslovakia; from there he escaped (from Communism.) He and Jeanne-Claude came to the United States in 1964, with their son Cyril, born in 1960. They have created their temporary environmental artworks together since 1961, with Christo doing the preliminary drawings for the works.
The environmental works the pair creates span great distances in populated landscapes, both rural and urban. They are mostly made of fabric, created in the form of a large curtain, wrapped forms (buildings, coastline, a bridge), surrounded islands, large umbrellas, and other forms. They pay all expenses associated with the artworks, including planning, construction, and taking down, partly from the sale of Christo's preliminary drawings, early works from the 1950's and 1960's, and lithographs. They accept no contributions, grants or other financial assistance, preferring to make their aesthetic decisions apart from any influence financial backing might involve. A large group of paid workers is necessary to construct and take down these works, which can extend for great distances. Usually, there are years of planning, and meetings and hearings held by governments and communities, to gain approval for their projects. They wrapped the Reichstag, today the Parliament of Germany in Berlin, and the process of approval took 24 years. Their work is very expressive, of romanticism, whimsy, poetry, and like much contemporary art, is more experiential perhaps than viewing art in a museum (passively) can sometimes be.
I saw a documentary on them once, by Albert and David Maysles, which showed the process from the beginning, where they first had to have public hearings on the project, a large running fence in northern California, where the residents of the area came to hear the artists' plans, and to voice their concerns. In the beginning, the community residents were vocally against the project - it would disrupt their farms, it would be a hazard, a nuisance, etc. Christo and Jeanne-Claude sat quietly and listened to their concerns thoughtfully, then explained their intentions in creating the work, the plans for construction, the materials and labor involved, etc. The documentary showed this series of hearings as it played out, and interestingly, the community members gradually came to understand what the artists were trying to do, that it would not have an adverse effect on their land or them. Eventually, many became enthusiastic supporters. The artists' sincerity and childlike joy were contagious - art was not the esoteric enemy - it became a shared joy for artist, participant and viewer.
Some of the ideas involved in their work:
- The works are deliberately temporary, because this enhances their value and intensity - just as the
idea of death makes us more aware of life's precious brevity.
- Christo escaped from Communism in 1957, so the notion of freedom is extremely important to him,
and thus in the art.
- They want feelings of love, joy, beauty, tenderness and sharing surrounding their work.
- Their work is related to painting, sculpture, architecture, and urban planning.
- Most of their works take many years of planning, hearings, etc. to get governmental and
residential approval to proceed - as long as 32 years.
- They like the idea that their work is "irrational" - that it has absolutely no practical function - just
poetical creativity, that makes people feel free and smile.
- Their work is 'sublime and unique' - as opposed to the abundance of triviality and repetition in the
- They like to create 'gentle disturbances' in spaces owned by human beings - to make people
become more aware of themselves and their surroundings.
- They like the fact that their art is not just part of the hermetic world of art museums - it is in the
street, the world - in populated spaces. (NASA asked them to create a work in space - Jeanne-
Claude answered that NASA should call them back when there are lots of people up there.)
- The fabric used is dynamic, sensual and tactile, and moves with the wind, as opposed to the
static quality of bronze or steel.
- The environment is carefully protected during the construction and display of all projects; all
materials are recycled at the end of projects.
Ideas involved in specific works:
- The wrapping of buildings and the surrounding of islands: The wrapped fabric hides the details
of the forms, revealing only the essential structure, like drapery in classical sculpture.
- The wrapping of the Reichstag building in Berlin had, for Christo, importance because of the
idea of East-West relations (the Cold War), where the U.S. and the Soviets had their biggest
- The series of umbrellas in Japan and California: The umbrella was, to the artists, an ancient and
universal form, and it has the meaning of shelter, from the rain and sun.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are sometimes referred to as conceptual artists - which they say isn't so, that they are environmental artists. They are interesting people; a website created by two friends of theirs is worth a visit, with photos of their work. Also, Stanford University has web pages on Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which include a good interview and photos.
Environmental, or earth, art began in the 1960's and '70's, perhaps because of the increased concern with the health of the earth at that time. Also, I think these works are related to the ancient earthworks around the world, like the great mounds of the Native Americans, or the giant heads on Easter Island.