Christo in Vienna

A chance encounter with Christo and Jeanne Claude, the artists who once planned to wrap up one of Vienna’s Flakturm in a giant gauze.

Christo loved to transform space.  The conceptual artist who wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris, who draped a curtain across a ravine in Colorado and lined the walkways of Central Park with giant curtained gates, wanted us to experience a place, natural or man-made, as if touched by magic, wrapped up like a gift. But only for a little while.  Fine, but it’s not art, said his critics.  The public didn’t care.  They loved it. 

If art is about, anything, it’s about how we see the world. And Christo, who died Sunday, May 31, at his home in New York at the age of 84, certainly helped us to see things in a new way, and have great fun doing it.

For us in Central Europe, it’s also fun to realize that he was one of us.  Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Gabrovo, Bulgaria in 1935, “Christo” studied at the Art Academy in Sofia, leaving for Prague in the fall of 1956 for a promising internship at the avant-garde Burian Theater.  Change was in the air, as student protests in nearby Budapest led to a new government committed to reform.  Then, in the midst of negotiations, the Politburo changed its mind; Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed Hungarian hopes for greater independence within the communist block.  Christo had to get out. Stowing away among the packing crates in a freight car carrying medical supplies, he slipped across the border to Austria undetected.  He arrived in Vienna on January 10, 1957, stateless and penniless, speaking only Russian and Hungarian. He was 21 years old. 

“Vienna was the outpost for refugees at the time,” Christo said in an interview with Die Presse conducted in February in New York and published June 2. Supporting himself washing dishes and doing a few portraits, he found his way to the Akademie der bildende Kunste, where he spend a semester until he could save enough money to get to Paris.  In March, 1958, he arrived in the City of Light, “the art capital of the world.”  It was there that he was hired to paint Précilda de Guillebon – three portraits, actually: one traditional, one impressionist, and one cubist. It may be that he just wanted an excuse to stick around a little longer, as he had fond the love of his life in her daughter, Jeanne Claude, who became his wife and creative partner for the next half century.  Still painting portraits, he soon began imagining things on a bigger scale, creating walls of painted oil drums and his earliest wrapped objects.  By 1962 he was already making sketches for a great dream – to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris…  It got nowhere.  The drawings stayed in the drawer.

*                                         *                                        *

It was on a Wednesday evening in mid April 2009, that our paths would cross: The weather was unseasonably mild, warm enough to sit outside at Skopik and Lohn, the 2nd District bistro where I had reserved a table for a dinner interview with Australian poet John Mateer.

Walking up the Leopoldsgasse, the globe lamps along the façade shed a soft glow over the wooden café tables spread across the broad sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Most were occupied and alive with conversation, faces bright from the wine, features sharpened in the lengthening shadows, laughter blending with noises from the street. The allure was strong, but the fading light would be a problem, so we headed inside, figuring it would also be quieter.

We were shown to a table in the second room, which was empty except for two couples in the far corner. Of course: Every one else had opted for the sidewalk. This would be perfect for a quiet conversation about poetry and politics, I thought, as we settled in for what promised to be a very pleasant evening. We browsed the menu, made our selections and placed our order. The wine arrived, I folded back my notebook and the interview began.

We’d covered his childhood in South Africa, his recent reading at the literary society Alte Schmiede and his enthusiasm for the Karmeliterviertel neighborhood we were in – which he called the “East Berlin of Vienna,” clearly meant as a compliment – when a crowd of high volume dinner guests began filing in from the bar area. They entered in mid flight, the flow of words and gesture barely suspended long enough to negotiate the logistics of finding seats at the one long table – that I hadn’t noticed before – and several surrounding smaller ones set up to accommodate them.

This well-turned-out crowd was an event in itself, BoBos first class, in stylish swaths of silk next to clashing plaids, jewels with jeans, stretch bodies and blazers and belted linens a crush of noble wrinkles. Who were they? I scanned the group for a familiar face. What was going on?

Then I noticed Peter Noever, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), all in white, stage-managing from the center of the crowd. He gestured to one group to take the far end, to another, a table to one side; leaned down to a dark haired man his leather jacket open over a collarless shirt, as he ushered a vivid woman with lobster red hair to take a seat beside him. From across the room, he smiled at a table just behind us, where a stooped man in a gray safari jacket his mane of white hair reaching to his shoulders, was just finding a seat.

The crowd settled, and we went back to our interview, now infused with a new tone. Mateer the poet had studied art when he was young, “as a way of creating a sense of history,” he was saying… when suddenly Noever rose and began to speak: “So pleased all of you could come, to wel…” but it was hard to hear in the din and his words got lost amid the hum of voices from other diners. “…as extraordinary for what was imagined, as for…” and then it was lost again.

We lowered our heads and tried to stay focused. Mateer had gotten jaded with the visual art world; it had seemed more about selling than art…

Which made what happened next all the more remarkable, as out of the clatter of china and conviviality, Noever’s voice again emerged, and the lobster-haired woman rose to her feet.

“…with greatest pleasure…. my very old friend, Jeanne Claude!” Dimly, muffled bells sounded in the recesses of my memory. Who was this? Across the room, heads snapped to attention; the noise subsided at least a little, enough to catch her first few words.

“…for the warm welcome Christo and I have received here in Vienna…” And then I remembered.

This was Jeanne Claude, the wife and life-long professional partner of the environmental artist Christo, the one who wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris, who set up the Running Fence for 24 miles through Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and a field full of blue Umbrellas in Japan. They were in Vienna to dedicate a postage stamp of yet another project – never realized – of the 1970s, to wrap one of the massive WWII Flaktürme (munitions towers) that still stand in the Augarten, to support a MAK project to convert the Flaktürme in the Arenberg park into a Contemporary Art Tower complex.

So where was Christo? I followed her eyes, craning my neck fully around to the table just behind me – literally a meter away: It was the man in the gray safari jacket and long white hair. At 74, the years show on his weathered face, but the energy seems undiminished from when I first saw him across a restaurant after the opening of his 2005 Gates installation in Central Park.

Home on a visit, the apartment was just around the corner, and we had walked through the installation again and again as it wound along the park paths, saffron banners blowing overhead.

I had expected to hate it, and instead found myself moved, and then charmed by the way it enveloped the passersby, by the way it transformed the space I knew so well.

Jeanne Claude had finished speaking, and suddenly I wanted to tell Christo about seeing the Gates; I thought he would want to know. Was it just the wine? I decided to risk it. I eased around the table to where he was sitting. He looked up, and I told my story…

Happiness is rare enough; real joy is rarer. But in that moment, that was what I saw on Christo’s face, as he clasped my hand in his two.

“Oh, this was such a wonderful, such a monumental project,” he said, effusive and heartfelt. “Seven years in the making. You know, we wanted so much to be there, at the heart of things in New York.” I spoke of how it had looked and felt to walk it, the curiosity it had evoked.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you,” he said, pressing my hand again. And I was sure he meant it. Glowing, I returned to my seat, to John Mateer and the transformative power of poetry in wartime.  

*                                         *                                        *

Six months later, I saw in the paper, that Jeanne Claude had died. A brain aneurism. I thought back to that evening, the kinetic energy, the joy in living the two had shared.  I wondered what Christo would do now.   Of course he carried on, as Jeanne Claude would undoubtedly have wished.  First with The Floating Piers, on Lake Iseo, Italy, in 2016, the London Mastaba, on the Serpentine in 2018, and now, his youthful dream – soon to be fulfilled – to wrap the Parisian Arc de Triomphe.  Temporarily suspended because of the pandemic, the wrapping of the Arc has been re-scheduled for September 2021.

“I have enjoyed every moment of my life,” he told journalist Heinz-Norbert Jocks in the February interview.  The wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe – a centerpiece in Baron Haussmann’s reimagining of the French capital – seems like the perfect parting gift.

(Foto: MAK)

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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