The Great Artists: Christo and Jeanne-Claude
We tend to get pretty nervous around the idea of political art. Some terrible things have been done in its name: it’s encouraged fanaticism, demonised vulnerable groups and pumped out delusional propaganda. But despite our misgivings, our collective existence is very much in need of help from art. And in the late twentieth century, the creative partnership of Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been the leading explorers of how this can happen.
One part of the duo, Christo was born Hristo Vladimirov Yavachev in northern Bulgaria in 1935.
His businessman father ran a textiles factory. In his twenties, he smuggled himself out of the communist regime on a goods train and made his way, eventually, to Paris. He soon met his lifelong partner and collaborator, the well-connected, charismatic Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. They both knew at first hand all about what can go wrong when art gets involved in politics.
Together, they created vast, short-lived – and sometimes very beautiful – works to focus our attention on tricky, but important – experiences. They pursued the essential task of political art: to stimulate collective enthusiasm and channel it in really good and helpful directions.
It’s a bit of an accident of history that we’ve come to think of works of art as being mainly things you can fit through the front door and hang on a wall.
It’s totally legitimate to wonder why someone would go to the immense trouble of erecting a flimsy, temporary fence running dozens of miles across the Californian desert or take such pains to ensure that several islands are all totally surrounded by pink fabric. They’re not marking the boundaries of someone’s property, preserving wildlife, enhancing agriculture or aquaculture.
And surrounding an island with pink polypropylene or hammering tens of thousands of fence posts into the soil seems miles away from traditional artistic activities – such as carefully using oil paint and brushes to make a seven-inch-high depiction of a tree on a square of canvas. But, in fact, essentially the same goal is being pursued. It’s just that the strategy is different. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are making the traditional core artistic move. They are getting us to look more closely at some part of experience. Only, they are doing this through the medium of major real world interventions. Instead of making a picture of an island, framing it nicely and exhibiting it in a gallery, they draw attention to an actual island. Instead of carefully copying the gradations of light over the hills and fields, they get us to look more carefully and more intently at the landscape itself.
Art ideally sets out to compensate for our frailties. And a very basic thing we have trouble with is paying enough attention in the right directions. We continually overlook things (and people) that have something to offer us. We get into ruts: we look only where we’ve looked before.
When Jeanne-Claude and Christo draped the Pont Neuf in Paris, suddenly a lot of people got excited about the bridge. For many, it had been a bridge they’d crossed regularly all their lives, they’d maybe admired it, in a low-level, back-of-the-mind sort of way. Covering it in fabric is like one’s partner getting dressing up a bit for a special occasion. It refocuses attention. It gets us to see what is marvellous about something we have taken for granted.
Their key work was done in 1995 when they enveloped the entire federal parliament in Berlin in huge fabric draperies.
The rebirth of national pride
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Wrapped Riechstag, June-July 1995
Although a nineteenth-century building, the Reichstag had a particularly painful memory attached to it. The Nazi party rose to power in 1933 on the back not of force (as it might be convenient to believe), but of popular electoral success: the party occupied many seats in this very building. This painful fact has traumatic resonances even today in modern Germany. Still, a vote cast in 1933 hardly entails agreement with every element of party policy up to 1945, let alone the actions of the government over the massacre of European Jewry or the behaviour of its armies on the Eastern front. Nevertheless, the election results are a fraught reminder of collective responsibility.
Jeanne-Claude and Christo did not change the Reichstag; but by covering and then unveiling it, they set up a grand public opportunity for renewal of the nation’s relationship to its foremost political building. It allowed Germany to give its parliament back to itself.
Political art can help by giving expression to a collective experience of confession, atonement, grief and renewed good will. It creates a momentous public ritual in which a place associated with horrific events is transformed.
We might think of their work as intensely modern and cutting edge. But it is, in fact, aligned with a classic conception of what art is for: to seductively edge a society a little closer to collective wisdom and maturity.