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Christo’s memorable link with London

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Christo’s Serpentine installation ‘Mastaba’ under construction.

Christo’s memorable link with London

By James Brewer

Two years to the day before his death, London had paid enthusiastic tribute to Christo, one of the greatest contemporary artists, who “realised impossible dreams” with his gargantuan art installations.

Christo died on May 31, 2020 in New York at the age of 84. He collaborated with his wife Jeanne-Claude until her death in 2009, after which he continued to produce some of the most eye-catching art of all time in their joint names.

In the last two days of May 2018, the Bulgarian embassy in London and Bulgarian Cultural Institute put on events to mark the launch of his first public outdoor work in the UK, which involved stacking 7,506 oil drums on a floating platform on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, to form a structure he entitled Mastaba after the ancient Egyptian tombs which were “houses for eternity.” The events were covered in depth in AllaboutShipping  at www.allaboutshipping.co.uk/2018/06/04/celebrate-christo/

Christo chose not to appear at the London celebration – for years he kept a distance from his native Bulgaria. Even when people encouraged him to visit his birthplace in the interior of the country, he said he did not have time.  When most people say they are “too busy” to do something, this is usually a lazy excuse, but Christo just wanted to keep on working, rather than taking time off for vacations. He made his name transforming parks, buildings, coastal areas and island bridges by wrapping them with reams of gleaming textiles. He had to go on creating, and earning money, for his expensive projects were free to view and financed by the sale of sketches, collages, scale models and lithographs.

Christo biographer Evgenia Atanassova-Teneva.

Announcing that the artist had died from natural causes, a statement on his official Facebook page said that his artworks “brought people together” around the world.

“Christo lived his life to the fullest, not only dreaming up what seemed impossible, but realising it,” the Facebook statement declared. The couple’s art “lives on in our hearts and memories.” The message quoted a 1958 letter written by Christo in which he wrote, “Beauty, science and art will always triumph.” Said the statement: “We hold those words closely today.”

Despite the artist’s cool attitude to his native Bulgaria, the country is proud of him. Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said on Twitter: “An extremely talented Bulgarian has gone… His interesting and bold works and projects conquered the whole world.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same day, June 13, 1935, and met in Paris in October 1958. Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff came from Gabrovo, noted as a city of humour and satire, at the foot of the Balkan Mountains.

He studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia and had begun working with a theatre in Prague when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956. He fled by freight train to Vienna, and after a short time in Switzerland went on to Paris where he met his wife.

The couple’s first collaboration, known as Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbour, was in 1961. So began their use of oil barrels, which in the Cologne piece were supplemented by rolls of paper, tarpaulin, and rope.

The duo transferred to the US in 1964 and worked conceptually 14 hours a day from their New York studio, on an ever grander and more costly scale.

Their vast productions would take years of preparation, were costly and technically complex to erect, and y were usually dismantled after a short while. The struggle to get permission from local authorities and governments was all part of the adventure, they insisted, although they had to give up in some cases.

Celebrate Christo evening in 2018.

They draped the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in silky material in 1985, and 10 years later in Germany despite fierce resistance from politicians, eventually won parliamentary approval to swathe the Reichstag building in silvery fabric.

An Australian beach was blanketed in white, and a 39 km cloth fence threaded  through the Californian hills.

The Umbrellas in 1991 cost $26m. It was a simultaneous and popular installation in southern California and Japan with giant blue and yellow umbrellas – 3,000 of them in all – but it was taken down prematurely after 18 days after a fatal accident to a spectator.

In 2005, they created The Gates, comprising 7,503 saffron-clothed steel gateways spread across 37 km of New York’s Central Park. The work, on display for 16 days, attracted more than 4m visitors.

Although under communism he was deprived of citizenship and labelled a deserter – a fact that prevented him from returning even to attend his mother’s funeral – and he professed to have lost his fluency in Bulgarian, eventually there was reconciliation of a kind with his first retrospective in the country. A gallery in Sofia in 2015 undertook an exhibition dedicated to him and his wife, for which he provided most of the funding and designed and arranged the works.

The UK celebration in 2018 included two biographical films screened in a theatre at the Victoria & Albert Museum. One of them was Bridge to Christo, a 35-minute documentary made for Bulgarian National Television about the construction of The Floating Piers, a 3 km fabric walkway connecting two small islands in Lake Iseo in northern Italy and their mainland. Over 16 days, the piers attracted 1.2m people.

“To celebrate such an open mind, such a bright spirit is thrilling,” said one of his admirers in London.

Christo did visit the capital, to supervise completion of The Mastaba which with barrels, platform and anchors had a total weight of 500 tons.

Christo’s final scheme will live on, after his passing. This is to cover the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with 25,000 sq m of silvery-blue recyclable material and 7,000 m of red rope in September 2021 to coincide with a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre. He had expressed a wish for the project to go ahead.

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