Renowned for their fabric installations, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have crafted some of the most captivating artworks of the 20th century. Their wrapping of Berlin’s Reichstag contributed to the nation’s transition away from its historical past.
In New York during the 1970s, a private art collector received a package from his dealer. Upon untying the wrapping, he discovered it contained nothing. Enraged, he called his dealer and accused, “The package is empty. Are you attempting to deceive me?”
‘Listen to me,’ said the dealer, taking a deep breath. ‘Tie the package back together very carefully. It’s a Christo.’
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Christo And Jeanne-Claude’s Diverse Artistic Endeavors
In addition to crafting small packages and drawings, Christo, along with his partner Jeanne-Claude, has produced distinctive environmental works of art. Examples include encircling eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with floating pink polypropylene, wrapping Paris’s oldest bridge, Pont-Neuf, in sand-colored fabric, and installing a 24-mile nylon fence across Sonoma and Marin counties in California.
Wrapping constituted their signature style, and the vast scale of most of their projects continues to evoke awe and stir controversy. However, Christo (along with Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009) consistently rejected the notion that their projects carried any deeper significance beyond their immediate aesthetic appeal. They maintained that their goal was solely to create artworks that brought joy, beauty, and novel perspectives to familiar landscapes.
The Realization Of A Dream: Wrapping The Reichstag
1995 after nearly two decades of meticulous planning and persistent persuasion, Christo (alongside Jeanne-Claude) executed their most significant project by wrapping the Reichstag. The post-war division of Europe profoundly influenced Christo’s life: born in Bulgaria, he escaped the Communist bloc by hiding in a railway freight wagon and lived as a stateless person for 17 years.
Christo first garnered public attention with “Rideau de Fer” (Iron Curtain) when he and Jeanne-Claude blocked off Rue Visconti, a small Parisian street near the River Seine, using oil barrels. Wrapping the Reichstag symbolized the fulfillment of a long-held aspiration.
However, was this remarkable project truly devoid of deeper significance? As Jeanne-Claude asserted, is it accurate that “Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art. We do not give messages”?
The Reichstag’s Troubled History And Symbolism
Until 1995, the Reichstag stood as a somber symbol for many Berliners, representing the failure of German democracy. Kaiser Wilhelm II openly expressed disdain for the building, viewing it merely as a “talking shop.” Throughout the Weimar era, its effectiveness was undermined, contributing to the perception of a “republic without republicans.”
The Reichstag’s burning in 1933 provided the Nazis with the pretext to suspend civil liberties. When the Berlin Wall fell and the decision was made to restore Berlin as the capital of a reunited Germany, the building remained burdened by its complex and bloody history, synonymous with totalitarianism.
Christo’s Reichstag Transformation
Berlin historian and writer Niko Rollmann reflected on Christo’s transformative act of wrapping the Reichstag with 100,000 square meters of silver-colored polypropylene. During the two warm summer weeks when the installation stood, a total of five million people marveled at the sight, unable to comprehend its surreal nature.
Some wondered if the hippies had spiked the water supply with LSD or if it was a collective hallucination. However, the wrapped Reichstag symbolized a new beginning for Germany—a unified, democratic, and free nation at peace with its neighbors. It provided a moment of playful liberation from the shadows of the past.
Christo, alongside Jeanne-Claude, accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making the Reichstag disappear, effectively erasing many haunting memories for Berliners. This act paved the way for the rebirth and subsequent reconstruction of the Reichstag by Norman Foster.
As noted by art critic David Bourdon, Christo’s wrappings provided “revelation through concealment,” offering a fresh perspective upon unwrapping. The expansive and audacious vision of the artists enabled Berliners and Germans to perceive themselves in a new light. Unlike the New York art collector, they discovered that beneath the wrappings lay much more than mere emptiness.
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