Christo Wraps the Pont Neuf Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After more than ten years of planning and negotiations, Christo transformed the oldest bridge in Paris into a temporary artwork.

Summary of Event

For two weeks in 1985, the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, was draped and swathed in fabric, transforming the familiar tourist attraction into a personal statement by the artist Christo. After more than ten years of negotiations and preparations, three million viewers swarmed to see the sight. Some reportedly sat on the bridge’s stone benches, which Christo had cushioned with foam rubber and covered with fabric. Some Parisians even slept there. More energetic visitors played musical instruments on the bridge or painted pictures, and photographers captured the light and shadows of the pleated fabric, appropriating Christo’s work to make it their own. Some found the bridge, with all its viewers, a romantic place to steal a kiss. Others hired catering services and held dinner parties at the site; still others, with more serious agendas, found the bridge a suitable place to stage demonstrations and air their grievances before a large, ready-made audience. Pont Neuf Wrapped (Christo) Art;environmental installation [kw]Christo Wraps the Pont Neuf (Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 1985) [kw]Pont Neuf, Christo Wraps the (Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 1985) Pont Neuf Wrapped (Christo) Art;environmental installation [g]Europe;Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 1985: Christo Wraps the Pont Neuf[05820] [g]France;Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 1985: Christo Wraps the Pont Neuf[05820] [c]Arts;Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 1985: Christo Wraps the Pont Neuf[05820] Christo Schaub, Johannes

Reviewer John Howell, Howell, John writing for Artforum, declared that Christo’s latest artwork would ensure him a “spot right up there in Cecil B. DeMille’s class as a creator of dazzling spectacle.” Howell likened the transformation of the old stone bridge, covered by 440,000 square feet of golden fabric, to a spectacular waterfall. Other reviewers, such as Thomas R. Matthews Matthews, Thomas R. of Progressive Architecture, reminded readers that the spring collection fashion shows occurred during approximately the same time period when Christo’s temporary artwork was exhibited. Matthews noted the even pleating of the fabric covering the bridge, made more regular by adjustments carried out by specially hired professional rock climbers.

The physical wrapping of the Pont Neuf required eight thousand person-hours of effort over seven days. The removal of the work took an additional thirty-five hundred person-hours. While the work was exhibited, 660 people were employed as monitors; their tasks included answering questions and protecting the work from any vandalism. It is estimated that Christo spent the equivalent of $2.5 million on the project (about $1 million more than originally planned), which he financed personally through the sale of his preparatory drawings, collages, scale models, prints, and early work by the C.V.J. Corporation, of which his wife, Jeanne-Claude, and he are president and treasurer.

The Pont Neuf project, like all of Christo’s large environmental works, offered unique challenges and problems. Christo respected the historic importance of the structure and designed an appropriately dignified treatment for it. Construction of the Pont Neuf (which means “new bridge”) was started in 1578 and completed in 1606. Joining the Left Bank of the Seine with the Right Bank, the Pont Neuf also transverses the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine that has been the heart of Paris for more than two thousand years. From the bridge, one can see many of the sights of Paris: the Panthéon, where many famous French people, such as Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, are entombed; the Eiffel Tower; the Académie Française; and the Louvre, the celebrated art museum that was once the palace of the French kings. One can also see La Samaritaine, one of the most famous department stores in France, displaying the best of Parisian high fashion.

Christo wanted to create the illusion that the fabric was supported by the bridge alone. In reality, however, such an approach could have damaged the fragile structure. Christo had to devise a method of suspending the fabric that would not entail driving nails or bolts into the limestone of the bridge. Working with architectural advisers, Christo’s team members tested and refined their methods by first experimenting on a trial bridge located in a town sixty miles southeast of Paris. The mayor of the town offered to let Christo use the twelfth century stone bridge in exchange for funds that the town used to bury unsightly telephone lines.

In 1985 Christo wrapped the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in yards of sand-colored synthetic fabric.

(Airair/GFDL)

The method that was devised and used on the Pont Neuf consisted of steel-tube construction created to keep the fabric and ropes away from the stone ledge. Wood protected the parapets of the bridge. Concrete beams held the piping to which the fabric was attached. Professional rock climbers scaled the bridge and placed rubber attachment points on the stone that were later removed without leaving a trace. The fabric was also secured three feet underwater at the base of the tower of each arch. This job required more than twelve tons of steel chains.

Christo promised that traffic on and around the bridge would not be hindered in any way at any stage of the project. That traffic included automobiles moving over the bridge and also under one of the twelve arches where the Georges Pompidou Expressway runs, pedestrian traffic that would move on fabric-covered sidewalks on the bridge and also on the point of an embankment surrounding a statue, and boat traffic under the arches of the bridge. Christo personally covered all of the forty streetlights that line the bridge and the four that illuminate the embankment. Originally, the lights were to shine through the cloth, and the fabric was treated with a flame retardant. For the safety of night traffic on the river, however, holes had to be made in the fabric so that the lights were more visible to boaters.

Significance

To understand Christo, one must appreciate the fact that he was born in Nazi-occupied Bulgaria and was only nine years old when Soviet forces invaded to liberate his country. Christo lived behind the Iron Curtain in a world divided, and curtains and fabric became important to him in a symbolic way. Trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, he was influenced by the work of the Russian constructivists, whose ideas officially were not to be taught but in reality were. Christo was also introduced at this time to the value of art as propaganda and political statement. As a student, he spent weekends from 1952 to 1955 with classmates traveling the route of the luxurious Orient Express. The students’ task was to create, through art, the illusion of wealth and of a successful communist revolution for those who passed through Bulgaria on the rapidly moving train. The students draped boxes and various other objects to give the illusion of new farm machinery or of mighty military equipment. In reality, very little of substance lay beneath the fabric.

This early experience greatly influenced Christo’s later work, which often involved the creation of illusions. Christo’s work is political in nature, and it is viewed by passersby rather than by regular museum or gallery attendees. Christo challenges political systems, governments, laws, and established mores and norms. He also challenges the art world and shies away from established art world procedures. He is allied with no gallery, and he owes no debt to art journals for any of his publicity. He prides himself on accepting no grants or public funding for any of his large, temporary projects. He is a capitalist from a communist country, completely embracing practices of entrepreneurship. He and his wife have created a corporation for the sale of his portable work. It is in this manner that they are able to raise the great amounts of money his projects demand.

Christo managed to leave Bulgaria, traveling first to Prague, then to Vienna, and then in 1958 to Paris, where he earned his living by meticulously painting realistic portraits in an academic style. In Paris, General and Comtesse Jacques de Guillebon hired Christo to paint a portrait. The couple’s daughter, Jeanne-Claude, later became Christo’s wife and partner.

Christo lived in Paris for six years before moving to New York City with his wife and son in 1964. It was in the 1960’s that Christo first envisioned his six plans for artwork in Paris in which he would wrap the Arc de Triomphe; shroud the crowns of trees along the Champs-Élysées; wrap the École Militaire, the Pont Neuf, and the Pont Alexander III; and barricade the Rue Visconti, the smallest street in Paris. In 1962, without a permit, he created a wall of stacked oil barrels two stories high on the Rue Visconti, obstructing traffic in this area of the city for eight evening hours. He called this work Wall of Oil Barrels, Iron Curtain, Wall of Oil Barrels, Iron Curtain (Christo) and linked it thematically to two events in the politics of the time: the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and an attack on British Petroleum in Oran, Algeria, that resulted in an explosion of ten million liters of oil. This risky work pushed the little-known refugee into the area of renown in the international art world.

Christo created photo collages and photomontages of his other intended artworks for Paris, and in 1968 he made a formal proposal to wrap the trees on the Champs-Élysées, hiring an arborist to study the various side effects such an action would have. In autumn of 1969, permission for this project was denied. During this same period, however, Christo had many other projects approved, including wrapping of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (1969), the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland (1968), a sea coast in Little Bay, Australia (1969), and a wall in Rome (1974). With each successful project, he matured and became more knowledgeable about the procedures necessary to accomplish his goals.

In 1974, he returned to his Paris project idea, concentrating on the Pont Neuf. He made his first formal proposal for the Pont Neuf Wrapped project in 1976. Using all the influence of Jeanne-Claude’s family connections, Christo and his wife attended countless meetings with people such as the wife of former French president Georges Pompidou, Michel Boutinard Rouelle (the director of cultural affairs of the city of Paris), and Jacques Chirac (the mayor of Paris). Despite the influence, negotiations were at a standstill until Christo met Johannes Schaub, a Swiss management consultant. Schaub persuaded Christo and Jeanne-Claude to change their tactics and campaign like politicians for the Pont Neuf project. Rather than focusing on obtaining approval from highly placed political figures, Schaub believed, Christo should work to reach the members of the business community surrounding the Pont Neuf as well as the Parisian social establishment. The project had to achieve support at this grassroots level before the politicians would agree to anything.

In 1981, Schaub became the project director for the Pont Neuf Wrapped and immediately set up press conferences and a lecture series for Christo in which the artist spoke at major universities in the Paris area. A door-to-door lobbying campaign for the project was also conducted: Young women were hired to distribute thousands of postcards of Christo’s drawings of the wrapped Pont Neuf to to residences and businesses in the vicinity of the bridge. The women explained the project to the people of Paris on a one-to-one basis and arranged for individuals and groups to meet with the artist. This campaign aroused the interest of hundreds of people who started writing letters to the mayor of Paris, encouraging approval of the project.

Schaub also got permission from the chief executive officer of the La Samaritaine department store to have Jeanne-Claude and Christo meet with the employees of the store during their lunch and coffee breaks. The artist and his wife spent three days at the store speaking with employees, and, as a result, the store personnel were able to speak knowledgeably about the project to thousands of customers.

La Samaritaine also allowed a twenty-foot model of the Pont Neuf Wrapped to go on display in one of the store’s windows facing the bridge. Information sheets on the project were posted at the department store on a heavily trafficked sidewalk. In this way, yet more people were mobilized, and an organization called “Parisians for the Pont Neuf Project” was formed. Members organized a series of dinner parties involving the art world, especially those connected with Paris’s new Museum of Modern Art. It was apparent to everyone, except the politicians, that permission would be granted.

The mayor of Paris and his conservative advisers remained emphatically against the project. It was not until 1984 that the mayor finally gave his consent, only to have the chief of police of Paris block the final permit in 1985. Schaub persisted, however, and was able to reach France’s president, François Mitterrand, Mitterrand, François who ordered that the final permit be granted.

The Pont Neuf project was the most spectacular of Christo’s work up to that time. He mobilized an entire city, gaining final approval from no less than the head of the country himself. Christo continued his work despite the lack of approval of Parisian officials. The refugee artist who had blocked city traffic with 240 oil barrels returned in triumph, spending millions of dollars of his own money to realize his dream. He involved millions of people in the same dream. No longer commenting on a specific political event, he created a political event.

With the Pont Neuf Wrapped, Christo linked art to other areas of existence. He negotiated and campaigned as if he were the head of a political movement. The budget for the project resembled that of a film production, and the work involved a cast of thousands. Christo created the fervor of a rock concert, with people sleeping outside his office to be the first to register to become a monitor or a worker. Christo has stated that his ideas emerge out of the frenetic energy he creates and the endless bureaucracy he faces; his works show that the individual still has significance in the modern world. The fact that Christo has accomplished works such as the Pont Neuf Wrapped has changed art and the concept of what art can be. Pont Neuf Wrapped (Christo) Art;environmental installation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chernow, Burt. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: An Authorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Biography of the artist and his wife and business partner presents their story in an uncritical manner. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christo. Christo Prints and Objects, 1963-1995: A Catalogue Raisonné. Edited by Jörg Schellmann and Josephine Benecke. 2d ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996. Catalog of Christo’s work up to the mid-1990’s. Includes an introduction by Werner Spies. Indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Himmel, Eric, ed. Christo: The Pont-Neuf, Wrapped: Paris, 1975-1985. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990. Presents comprehensive details on the Pont Neuf project, including copies of original correspondence and documents concerning the project. Also contains a history of the Pont Neuf, many reproductions of Christo’s preliminary drawings and collages for the project, and wonderful photographs of the completed Pont Neuf Wrapped.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laporte, Dominique. Christo. Translated by Abby Pollak. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Presents an excellent detailed discussion of the artist from political, historical, and artistic perspectives. Includes illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaizey, Marina. Christo. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990. Coffee-table book includes little text but presents many impressive photographs of the artist’s work.

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