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Jeanne-Claude and Christo

Matt Schudel

Jeanne-Claude, the wife and collaborator of the artist Christo, has died at 74. She was a vibrant figure in the art world, and not just because of her hair, which was the color of a fire engine crossed with a pumpkin.

I particularly enjoyed working on this obituary because I was able to draw on one of my former journalistic lives as an art critic. I've seen two Christo efforts in person (the Central Park gates and the 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris), and I have to say there really is something magical about what Christo and Jeanne-Claude created. There's an enchanting spirit of joy in their work. People respond to it, and there is a palpable sense of shared communal happiness that can't be denied. They lift up the heart.

The New York Times's Michael Kimmelman captured the essence of their work in this description of their 1995 Reichstag project in Berlin: "It was a celebration of art as a galvanizing and transformative, even magical, experience."

Everyone knows the name of Jeanne-Claude's husband, of course, and his vast environmental works that sometimes extend for miles. His "Running Fence," for instance, raced across the California hills for 24 miles before vanishing into the Pacific Ocean. His monumental work of 1995 -- the wrapping of the Reichstag building in Berlin -- required 200 climbers and technicians and nine miles of rope. With its shimmering silver fabric, it looks something like a building designed by Frank Gehry.

In fact, Christo and Jeanne-Claude sometimes said their creations were more like architecture than conventional art. Christo did drawings for all his projects -- he was an excellent draftsman, as you can see from this preparatory sketch of the Reichstag project -- and sold the drawings to raise money for the installations. Jeanne-Claude, who was as devoted a spouse as any artist could hope for, managed the financial side of their collaboration and did so quite well. Their projects cost millions of dollars to complete ($21 million for the Central Park gates in 2005), yet the Christos never accepted money from donors or from any government.

In 1994, the couple added Jeanne-Claude's name to their joint creations, giving her credit as a co-artist. She rather snappishly explained the decision to the Washington Post's Rick Atkinson in 1995:

"Christo is waxing poetic on art, on the sensibility of displaced persons, on how Cold War politics burnished his vision of a German Reichstag shrouded in a million square feet of silver fabric. Abruptly his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, cuts him off.
"Jeanne-Claude: 'I have to interrupt you because I notice that this photographer is making great efforts to take a photo only of you. Christo wants to say something.'

"Christo: 'Yeah. The artist. Christo. Jeanne-Claude. . . . '
"Jeanne-Claude: 'It's two artists. There is no longer the artist Christo. That doesn't exist anymore. We have officially changed our name, repairing a 37-year-old mistake. We feel we are old enough now to tell the truth. Now it is Christo and Jeanne-Claude. So don't waste your film taking only photographs of the one with glasses. The one with red hair is also an artist.' "

Their Web site, which is quite good, includes this amusing page on "common errors" about their work, including confusion about their names and their work. Here's just one of their puckish comments, responding to claims that their work is best seen from the air: "No! None of their work is designed for the birds, all have a scale to be enjoyed by human beings who are on the ground."

By the way, I wrote that Jeanne-Claude was "French-born." Just to clarify, she was born to French parents in Casablanca, Morocco, when Morocco was a French protectorate. She and Christo were born in the same hour of the same day, June 13, 1935.

Finally, here's an interesting interview with Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (Actually, only their comments are interesting; the interviewer seems superfluous.)

About the question of retirement, Jeanne-Claude says: "Artists don't retire. They die. That's all. When they stop being able to create art, they die."

By Matt Schudel  |  November 20, 2009; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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