The monumental feat of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in 25,000 sq metres of material and posthumously fulfilling a 60-year dream for the artist Christo has begun.
As the rolls of silvery blue recyclable fabric slowly descended from the top of the Paris landmark early on Sunday, guided by orange-clad abseilers, there was excitement, emotion and a few frayed nerves over an operation that combined art and engineering on a massive scale.
There was sadness too that the artists, Christo and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, who had first imagined L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped in 1962 while renting a small room nearby, were not there to see it. Bulgarian-born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff died in May last year, while his wife and artistic partner – the couple worked together under the name Christo – died in 2009.
Christo, who famously wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, left minutely detailed drawings and instructions covering every visual and artistic aspect of how he wanted the wrapped arch to look.
“This is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision. It’s very important that we pay attention to every detail that Christo wanted,” the artist’s nephew Vladimir Javacheff, who is overseeing the wrap, said. “It was completely designed by Christo to the very last detail and we have to keep to that. If people come and say it’s just like the drawings, that means we’ve done a good job.”
Engineers and construction teams have been working round the clock since July to prepare the Arc de Triomphe, erecting scaffolding to hold the fabric away from the monument stone. The actual wrapping began shortly after dawn on Sunday and was expected to take at least 24 hours. The fabric will be held in place by red cords.
Christo made a photo montage of how he wanted the wrapped arch to look in the 1960s but never proposed actually doing it, assuming they would never obtain the necessary permission. The idea was revived in 2017 to coincide with a Christo exhibition and has been approved by the Paris city authorities and the Centre des monuments nationaux, which oversees public monuments.
The €14m (£12m) project has been entirely funded through the sale of Christo’s preparatory studies, drawings and collages of the project as well as scale models, works from the 1950s and 60s and original lithographs on other subjects. It has received no public funding.
It will be officially opened on 18 September and like other such Christo projects will be temporary. On 3 October, work will begin to remove the wrapping in time for Armistice Day ceremonies.
Christo studied in Sofia but defected to the west in 1957, stowing away on a train from Prague to Vienna and on via Geneva to Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. The couple moved to New York in 1964, spending their first three years there as illegal immigrants.
Among Christo’s most famous works was the wrapping of the Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985.
Javacheff added: “I was 17-years-old when I started working with Christo – underage labour you could say. I’ve been working on this project for four years.
“Right now we are concentrating on getting the job done and we are postponing the feelings for a little later. It’s a kind of therapy; you concentrate on something so you don’t think about something else. The biggest challenge for me is that Christo is not here. I miss his enthusiasm, his criticism, his energy and that is for me the biggest challenge.”
He added: “One very important thing is that people can come and walk around the Arc de Triomphe and touch the material. It’s a work of art that is alive, moving with the wind.”
Asked what it all meant, he replied: “Christo and Jeanne-Claude believed their work was ultimately about freedom. Nobody could own this work of art not even them. Everyone could have their own meaning and every meaning was important and right.”
In an interview shortly before his death, Christo said he had 18 months to draw up details of the Arc de Triomphe project, compared with 25 years for the Reichstag and 26 years for The Gates in Central Park.
He said he had been invited to do “something” outside the Pompidou Centre to coincide with his exhibition, but had told the museum: “I will never do anything here. If I do something, it will be to wrap the Arc de Triomphe, but nothing else.”
“The packaging of the Arc de Triomphe is quite special,” he said. “It all came together quite suddenly. The proposal goes back to 1962, of course, but the authorisation was granted suddenly.
“In the 1960s I made several plans that we sold to finance other projects. At the end of the 1980s I even made a very elaborate collage edition with fabric; we thought at that time that the Arc de Triomphe project would never see the light of day. Honestly, it’s strange how suddenly everything came together.”
He added: “I never though it would ever happen … But I want you to know that many of these projects can be built without me. Everything is already written.”
Mike Schlaich of the German engineering company SBP told journalists: “We’re very proud to be a member of the team to finish Christo’s dream. It’s a wonderful thing, a wonderful piece of art. This is exactly how Christo wanted it. We engineers had to learn the language of the artists.”
Vince Davenport, one of Christo’s engineering consultants, who worked with him for 35 years, said: “The particular challenge with any Christo project is that it’s always a first time; it’s never been done before and it will never be done again.”
His voice wavered as he added: “It’s very emotional. We only wish Christo was here to see it.”