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Christo and Jeanne-Claude Photo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude - Biography and Legacy

Bulgarian-American and French-Moroccan Sculptors, Photographers, and Conceptual Artists

Born: Christo: June 13, 1935 - Gabrovo, Bulgaria
Jeanne-Claude: June 13, 1935 - Casablanca, French Morocco
Died: Christo: May 31, 2020 - New York City
Jeanne-Claude: November 16, 2009 - New York City

Biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Childhood and Education

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, a small town in the Balkan Mountains. His parents were Ivan Vladimir Javacheff, a chemist and a businessman who ran a fabric factory, and Tzveta Dimitrova, a political activist and a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ivan and Tzveta were socially connected with artists and intellectuals around Gabrovo, and Christo grew up surrounded by progressive ideas and culture.

Christo began creating art early on, inspired by his parents' bohemian social circle, and was encouraged by several professors from the Academy of Fine Arts who would frequent the family home to visit his parents. Politics also shaped his early life, and as a young boy Christo witnessed his birth country's invasion by the Nazis, and later by the Soviets.

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was born in Morocco, where her father, Major Léon Denat, a French general, was stationed. Her young mother, Précilda, divorced her father not long after she was born, and went on to re-marry three times. The military family moved around quite a bit, and she received most of her early education in France and Switzerland. She was, from the start, an outgoing, highly social person with strong organizational skills.

Jeanne-Claude earned a degree in Latin and Philosophy from the University of Tunis in 1952 , the same year that Christo enrolled at the Fine Art Academy in Sofia, where he studied and worked until 1956. The curriculum at the academy focused mainly on Soviet Socialist Realism, a government-mandated style of artistic production that was developed in the early-20th century in the Soviet Union as a specifically non-capitalist form of populist art. Christo also became involved in a campus Communist Youth group, where he assisted in creating propaganda posters in line with the tenets and techniques of Socialist Realist political art.

After he graduated from the academy, Christo left for Prague, Czechoslovakia. There he forayed into theater design, and studied with the Burian Theatre, where he was first exposed to the work of Matisse, Miró, Klee, and Kandinsky. During his first year in Prague, the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, a situation that became particularly dangerous for students and members of the artistic and intellectual classes. Christo fled Hungary by bribing a railway worker to stow him away on a train transporting medicines and medical supplies. He made it safely to Vienna, Austria, but the move forced him to lose his Bulgarian citizenship and become known as a "stateless person," a UN designation initiated in 1954 to manage the mass refugee crisis following World War II. He stayed briefly in Vienna, studying sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts under the artist Wotruba for one semester.

Early Period

Christo then relocated to Geneva for one year, and then on to Paris in 1958, where he met Jeanne-Claude when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of her mother. At the time, Jeanne-Claude was engaged to a man named Philippe Planchon. However, it is believed that shortly before her wedding, Jeanne-Claude became pregnant by Christo. The two had become very close very quickly upon learning that they were born within the same hour of one-another. Although Jeanne-Claude went through with the wedding to Planchon, she divorced him immediately after the honeymoon, and married Christo in October of that same year. Their son, Cyril, was born on May 11, 1960.

Early Photo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo's early years in Paris were not without difficulty, as he struggled to learn the language and assimilate into the culture. He made a living by painting portraits on the street, which he felt were not representative of his skill or true artistic identity, so he signed these under the name "Javacheff" rather than with his own. The couple made their first work together, a temporary installation consisting of oil drums, rolls of industrial paper, and tarpaulin wrapping, in 1961. The act of "wrapping" objects and buildings would become hallmarks of their work. By the mid-1960s, they were already gaining recognition as ground-breaking artists. During their years in Paris, they met Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Yves Klein, all artists associated with the Nouveau Realisme movement in which the objects and materials of everyday life are directly appropriated and incorporated into multi-media works.

Christo working in the field

In 1964 the couple moved to New York City and lived as undocumented immigrants for three years, squatting in an illegal building that they eventually purchased in 1973 when Christo also became an American citizen. Christo created life-sized installations entitled Store Fronts and Show Windows, and sold these large-scale gallery works to help finance his other, less saleable projects, which included wrapping entire buildings in Italy and the U.S., and working with landscapes from the Australian coast to the mountain ranges of Colorado.

Later Period

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Berlin in 1995, working on the final stages of their monumental project <i>Wrapped Reichstag</i>, which they had begun to conceive in 1971.

Jeanne-Claude was originally seen as Christo's publicist and business manager, but was later given due credit for her role as his creative and administrative partner. The pair emphasized that everything they created since the 1960s had been a dual effort, and for marketing purposes, they chose only to put Christo's name on their artwork. It wasn't until 1994 that they decided to attribute their outdoor works and large-scale temporary indoor installations to "Christo and Jeanne-Claude". The couple worked from their studio and home in New York, rarely hired assistants, and self-funded their projects through the sale of sketches, blueprints, and 3-D models. Their collaboration was so integral to their process that they often travelled on different planes to ensure that if one plane crashed, the other could continue to work on their joint projects.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the 68th Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon in 2009, shortly before Jeanne-Claude's passing.

The couple were working on two simultaneous projects, Over the River in Colorado and The Mastaba in the United Arab Emirates, when Jeanne-Claude suffered from a brain aneurysm in 2009. She died from resulting complications on November 18, at the age of 74. Christo continued working toward the realization of their large-scale works until his own peaceful passing at his New York home at the age of 84.

The Legacy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

In 2021, Paris’s famous monument stands as tribute to the work and vision of Christo and Jean Claude. <i>L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped</i> (2011) at Place de l’Étoile, Paris.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's outdoor works are regarded as some of the most ambitious and innovative in the world, though they are oftentimes controversial due to their size and questionable impact on the environment. To address these controversies, the artists conducted thorough environmental impact studies and recycled every material that they expressly manufactured.

Aesthetic impact is the value that Christo and Jeanne-Claude emphasized as the most important, intended aspect of their work, yet the effect their work has had on the world far exceeds the merits of aesthetics alone. Their work pushes the boundaries of convention and categorization of art, in particular the notion of sculpture as a fixed, permanent object. Acting directly upon the environment, rather than at a contemplative remove from it, implies for some that their work is a commentary on notions ranging from freedom, to human agency, to the powerful impermanence of the natural world. Jeanne-Claude, in fact, likened their work to a rainbow, made all the more beautiful and exciting because it is temporary.

Christo and Jean-Claude were honorees at the 2005 Ellis Island Heritage Awards.

The couple's efforts have been recognized by filmmakers and photographers, and a 1973 documentary about their work was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2004, they won the Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, and in 2006, they received the Best Project in a Public Space award for The Gates, as well as the Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts for foreigners working abroad.

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Brynn Hatton

"Christo and Jeanne-Claude Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Brynn Hatton
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First published on 26 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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