Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff (1935-2020) and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935-2009), or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are an artist duo known for their large-scale, site-specific Environmental (Land) Art installations. The couple were born on the same day (June 13, 1935) in Bulgaria and Morocco respectively.
Politics and art shaped Christo’s life from the beginning. After studying at the Fine Arts Academy of Sofia, where the government-mandated style was Soviet Socialist Realism, Christo left for Prague and worked in theatre design. Here he was first exposed to early European modernists such as Matisse and Kandinsky. In his first year in Prague, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out, causing Christo to flee to Vienna, eventually moving to Geneva, and finally settling in Paris. It was in Paris in 1958, while working as a portrait artist, that he would meet his wife and the other half of the artist duo, Jeanne-Claude.
The couple began working together in the early 1960s, experimenting with gradually larger objects (such as furniture, cars, and oil barrels) alongside the Nouveaux Réalistes. In 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude moved to New York City and began to sell their life-sized Store Fronts series to fund their larger-scale projects, toying with ideas of wrapping monuments.
Their long term collaboration stands out with monumentally large, site-specific sculptures and installations which primarily used draped or wrapped fabric around entire buildings or across natural landscapes. The first of these large works in 1969 involved wrapping 1.5 miles of the Australian coast with erosion-control fabric. The duo insisted that there was no greater meaning or value to their works than the aesthetic. This stands in contrast to the Socialist Realist movement in which Christo was trained, which idealized reality.
Jeanne-Claude handled the organisation, funding, and project managing end of their works, while Christo created the sketches and project plans (which would later sell to fund projects). The artist duo did not accept financial aid for their projects. Originally they worked only under the name Christo, due to prejudice against female artists, but retroactively credited their works to Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Each piece took years of preparation and hundreds of assistants to execute, and often was not exhibited for longer than 14 days. Their work stood starkly outside of the gallery system, and their refusal to negotiate with a political art market set a precedent for artists to work outside of the system and still generate international success. By intervening in sites temporarily, viewers of these pieces would interact with a new perception of the day-to-day world in an exciting manner, inspiring “revelation through concealment”.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude received mixed critical reviews, lauded for the ambition and innovation inherent in their pieces but questioned about their environmental impact. However, the artists conducted environmental impact studies and recycled all of their manufactured materials, such as their 2005 The Gates in New York City.
The couple were working on multiple projects in 2009 when Jeanne-Claude died due to a brain aneurysm. Christo continued to carry out their proposed projects, including The Floating Piers in Italy and The London Mastaba, until his own death in 2020. In 2021, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped will go forward as a posthumous installation at Christo’s wishes.