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Christo's dream unveiled: A wrapped Arc de Triomphe

Christo's wrapped Arc de Triomphe
Christo's wrapped Arc de Triomphe 06:41

In Paris this weekend, traffic stopped and crowds gathered to see the Arc de Triomphe transformed: the huge monument wrapped in shimmering, fabric, tied in place with red rope – the colors subtly emulating the French flag.

It's the creation of the artist known simply as Christo. But when Christo died last year at 84, finishing the project became a mission for Christo's small team of three: his nephews, Vladimir Yavachev and Jonathan Henery, and studio manager Lorenza Giovanelli.

"All the design was done," said Henery. "Every rope, every fold, every pleat, is exactly, exactly and precisely the way Christo designed it. It will be his baby. We're just finishing it for him."

Christos Cloth-Wrapped Arc de Triomphe Monument
Workers prepare the "L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped" project, designed by the late artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Nathan Laine/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Giovanelli said, "I really don't believe that Christo thought that the Arc de Triomphe would be his last project."

The wrapping took a crew of construction workers two months following Christo's precise plans – plans he actually began making almost 60 years ago.

In 1962, as a young artist in Paris, Christo created a photo montage of the Arc as it might look if he could wrap it. He'd arrived in Paris in 1958 after fleeing Communist rule in his native Bulgaria. Henery said, "To Christo, coming from, of course, a Communist country, his freedom was immensely important his entire life. And if you have a temporary work of art, which you pay for yourself, it's completely your idea, you had to fight tooth-and-nail to get permission, you own that work of art."

Christo's long-planned dream of the wrapped Arc de Triomphe.  CBS News

But Christo's early ambitions for a different kind of art had to wait. Even struggling artists must eat.

"He supported himself by painting ladies' portraits," said his friend, art historian Annie Cohen-Solal. She said that is how Christo met Jeanne-Claude: "Jeanne-Claude's mother said, 'Why don't you do the portrait of my daughter,' who was extremely beautiful. And so, Christo did, and then he fell in love with her and stole her from her husband. She was recently married. So, that's a very romantic story."

"He is a unique artist," Jeanne-Claude told CBS News in 1976. "There comes a few of them, maybe sometimes one or two in each century, and he's one of them, and I'm very proud to be helping him."

More than a married couple, Christo and Jeanne-Claude became an artistic team, their creations considered as much hers as his, with her intensity matching his.

"Each one of our projects is like a child of ours," she said.

Their work seemed to challenge the very definition of art. Even for the best reporters who struggled for years to describe their work, there was always the question:  Is Christo even an artist?  It's a struggle we saw watching some early CBS News stories:

From Dan Rather in 1983: "Christo, the alleged artist …"

Roger Mudd in 1976: "The artist Christo, who goes in for the global approach in sculpture, is at it again …"

Richard Roth in 1991: "It is the biggest venture ever by the Bulgarian-born showman known as the world's original wrap artist, Christo."

Mark Phillips in 1995: "With all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work, there's always the question as to whether it's art or just an artistic event."

Martha Teichner in 1995, at the site of the wrapped Reichstag in Berlin: "So, is it a work of art or a lavish conceit?"

From 1995: Christo & Jeanne-Claude put Berlin’s Reichstag under wraps 08:30

Steve Kroft in 1983, reporting on the wrapped islands: "This is art, whatever that is … not something that matches the sofa, but an idea."

And Richard Wagner, in 1976: "What its creator calls the running fence, and he calls it art. Its detractors call it the world's longest clothesline, and they call it a fraud."

But by 2005, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude created the Gates in New York's Central Park, the answer seemed to be, yes, this is art.

"It's a work of art on a titanic scale," said "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer. "Take a look: It's a spectacle that will disappear in just 14 days."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the opening of The Gates in New York's Central Park in 2005. CBS News

Like the Gates, all of their large-scale projects lasted just two or three weeks, and all were entirely paid for by Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves through the sale of his drawings.

"All our project is about freedom," Christo told "60 Minutes." "Nobody can buy this project. Nobody owns his project. Nobody can charge tickets for this project. It'll be there for a few days, and then gone."

"We are not different from all the other artists that create art," said Jeanne-Claude. "It is sold, the artist gets the money. With the money, the artists purchase whatever they please. We do exactly the same. Only what pleases us is to purchase 5,000 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl poles!"

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. Seven years later, Christo completed his first major project without her: the Floating Piers on Italy's Lake Iseo.

Christo's Floating Piers.  CBS News

Annie Cohen-Solal said, "A million-and-a-half people were able to walk on water, thanks to Christo. It was for free. They could enjoy this magic for free."

And now in Paris, people can experience the wrapped Arc de Triomphe for free – but only for 16 days.

Blackstone asked, ""Is it really art if it doesn't exist anymore?"

"The art is the memory, the joy, the experience," Cohen-Solal replied.

Lorenza Giovanelli said, "That's the beauty of those projects – the fact that they're temporary, because they're unique, and you feel like you have to enjoy it all because you know it will disappear in a few weeks."

The Arc de Triomphe will remain under wraps until October 3. CBS News

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Story produced by George Osterkamp. Editors: Ben McCormick and Ed Givnish. 

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