Wrapped and Re-imagined: The Enduring Power of the Arc de Triomphe
"By covering the Arc, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ambitious project gives us the space to see it afresh, to reconsider it. Its meaning evolves yet again"
Paris, December 1st 2018. The protest movement known as the gilets jaunes or “yellow vests” reaches a crescendo with a violent demonstration on the Champs-Elysées. Hooded men in high-vis vests attack the Arc de Triomphe. A molded woman’s face of the famous Marseillaise statue, which is displayed inside the monument, is left with a huge hole. The image floods the world’s news channels. It captures the shock and violence of the moment: The very idea of France is under siege.
That was the last time the Arc de Triomphe made the world headlines. Now it’s back, for much more positive reasons. It’s currently being wrapped in 25,000 square meters of silvery-blue polypropene in preparation for a public art event imagined by celebrated artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. When it opens on September 18, the eyes of the world will once again be on the iconic monument.
With his wife, Jeanne-Claude, Christo found fame with his giant-scale wrapping projects including the Berlin’s Reichstag, the islands surrounding Miami, and the Pont Neuf bridge, their last Paris outing in 1985. He lived not far from the Arc de Triomphe in the early 1960s, and wrapping it became a great desire. He made his first sketches for the project in 1962 and returned to it over the decades before his death in 2020 (Jeanne-Claude died in 2009). In accordance with his wishes, his team is now realizing his long-held dream.
But why the Arc de Triomphe? According to Michael Cullen, a long-time Christo collaborator who accompanied the artist from the genesis of the sensational Reichstag project, Christo would never tell. “He would say, ‘It’s there and it’s something that would create a lot of controversy,’” Cullen says. But there is nothing random about the choice. “All these buildings are controversial – the Reichstag was, the Arc de Triomphe was very controversial while it was being built,” Cullen says: Christo “might have had some hidden political ideas but we can’t ask him about it because he’s no longer with us; besides, he would deny it anyway.”
The Arc’s status as a Paris icon and tourist must-see tends to obscure its controversial and fascinating history. Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, it was eventually inaugurated by King Louis-Philippe after a troubled 30-year construction, reflecting a particularly tumultuous period in France’s tumultuous 19th century.
The stop-start building project spluttered along as Napoleon abdicated, was exiled, and then died. The Bourbon restoration came and went. Louis-Philippe, who became king in 1830 after the July Revolution, “acts as a kind of phantom of Napoleon,” says Quentin Henric, Secret Journeys' storyteller. Louis-Philippe brought the emperor’s imagined monument to completion. Where the Arc de Triomphe stands was, at the time, a wooded area at the entry point to the city. “Napoleon’s dream was to make Paris a new Rome, and building a Roman road between the Tuileries and Versailles was a part of that,” Henric says. If the Arc is still controversial, that is due to the ambivalent place of Napoleon in France’s history. “How you feel about the Arc de Triomphe depends on how you feel about Napoleon,” Henric says.
The meaning of the Arc has evolved through the years. Its sculptures celebrate the armies of the Revolution and the Empire, yet the structure itself was glorified by the French Republic. Two million people – more than the population of Paris at the time – gathered here for the funeral of Victor Hugo, literary icon and hero of the Republic, in 1885. In 1921 it became the resting place of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating the 1.4 million French soldiers who died during World War I.
By covering the Arc, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ambitious project gives us the space to see it afresh, to reconsider it. Its meaning evolves yet again. Previous meanings – such as, perhaps, the Marseillaise shattered – recede as a more celebratory vision takes hold. As Cullen recalls of his experience of the Pont Neuf Wrapped: “To see it in Paris, this glorious bridge, packed in this champagne color, it was stupendous… It’s not the object alone, but the people around it… It’s like coming out of a rock concert – it’s not just the music, it’s that you were there with 3,000 people clapping and dancing. That’s part of the enjoyment of the project, and it will be the same with the Arc de Triomphe.”
Secret Journeys has created a bespoke “Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” experience, including a guided visit with our expert storyteller and a privileged encounter with Michael Cullen.
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