The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrap of L’Arc de Triomphe reads like a salient point on hollow glory

A child in front of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, wrapped in fabric, as it was designed by the late artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who had dreamed of the project for decades. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Christo, the artist who died last year after wrapping everything from a stretch of rocky coastline in Australia to Berlin’s parliament house, the Reichstag, had a long-term dream: to wrap Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The project, which was still in the planning stages when he died, has been realized posthumously. “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped,” which was declared open on Saturday and will run until Oct. 3, has been attracting big crowds, as you can see on a live feed on YouTube.

Why would anyone conceal something that was built to be seen — and which most people would consider too big to wrap?

Like so many of the projects of Christo (1935-2020) and his wife, Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009), wrapping the Arc de Triomphe was an impressive logistical feat. Much of the media attention has understandably focused on the scale of the project (270,000 square feet of polypropylene fabric, shimmery gray to match the zinc roofs of Paris; almost 1.9 miles of red rope), the number of workers involved (1,200), the technical challenges (protecting the arch’s sculptural reliefs and nesting falcons), the bureaucratic impediments and the delays caused by environmental concerns and then covid-19.

But logistics are logistics. Once you have said “wow,” there’s little left to add. In the end, we’re talking about a work of art, not a bridge or a tunnel, so it’s more interesting to wonder what it means — to you, to me, to the people of France — to wrap the world’s most famous triumphal arch in pleated fabric. What does “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” evoke? What emotions does it stir?

Beauty, unquestionably, is part of it. To convert something as solid and sturdy as the Arc de Triomphe into a gently billowing, pleated wrap, like a Greek gown cinched at the waist, is an act of useless — and splendid — beauty.

Charles Baudelaire, who haunted the streets of Paris during France’s Second Empire, described beauty as one part timeless (“eternal and invariable”) and one part ephemeral (“relative, circumstantial”). In his great essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” he upheld the importance of all the aspects of beauty in that second category, the things that didn’t last: The pageant of fashion. The sketch of manners. Curiosity. Appetite. Eros.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” belongs in that same category. The Arc de Triomphe was erected at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was intended as a tribute to his and France’s everlasting glory, whereas the duo’s wrapped arch is a salute to circumstantial beauty. It’s temporary. It’s lightweight. It’s responsive to the wind and the changing light and the world around it. And after just 16 days, it will be gone.

But it goes deeper than beauty. It’s also a question of ethics. Christo (who was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff) loved beauty, but he cared just as much about freedom. He had attended art school in communist Bulgaria where, as his nephew and this project’s director Vladimir Yavachev told the New York Times, “he was criticized by the authorities because the peasants in his painting did not look happy enough!” This assertion of control over the artistic impulse bred in Christo a lifelong distrust of making things look as the authorities wanted them to look.

Like most public monuments, the original Arc de Triomphe expresses an idea. It is the idea of national glory — what the French call “la gloire” — achieved through military victory and underwritten by tragedy. When you wrap that idea, it seems to me that you are concealing it, snuffing it out. At least temporarily. Why would an artist do that?

There are many possible reasons. We can each find our own. We certainly don’t have to pin them down. But when we cover something up — when we put on clothes, paint over graffiti, or erect facades around rubble — we are concealing shame, and specifically the shame we attach to ugliness (shame is always ugly).

When Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, it read to me primarily as a way to acknowledge — by conspicuously covering up — the shame associated with Germany’s 20th century, and the weight of responsibility borne in particular by that one building, a seat of national power.

Florian Philippot, a far-right politician in France, recently denounced the wrapped Arc de Triomphe as “a garbage bag draped over one of our most glorious monuments.” It’s easy to imagine a similar response on Fox News if an artist were to wrap Mount Rushmore or the Capitol.

But Christo might not actually have disputed M. Philippot’s characterization. He was, if I read him right, extremely skeptical about the virtue or necessity of “glorious monuments.” He couldn’t say it openly (it would have made getting the permissions and public support he needed extremely difficult), but I think he thought the very idea of an “arch of triumph” was garbage — an expression of what Wilfred Owen called “the old Lie,” that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Garbage needs to be wrapped.

Napoleon had the Arc de Triomphe erected in 1806, at the height of his power. In retrospect, it was one of the most delusional moments in French history. Napoleon was a complex figure. His positive achievements were considerable. But his dream of European domination was doomed to collapse within a few short years. It was founded on earlier imperial dreams (Alexander the Great, Imperial Rome, the Holy Roman Empire), and after his death, it continued to seed more dreams of radical territorial expansion (colonialism, the Third Reich).

You could see his era as glorious — and many still do — but only, I suspect, if you were looking from a great distance. Look closer, let in more reality, and the picture changes dramatically. Where was the glory in the catastrophic retreat from Russia, where order broke down, soldiers froze to death and ate their own horses? Where was the glory in the terror and barbarity of the Peninsular War (which Goya depicted in his “Disasters of War” etchings)?

So much of the Napoleonic “adventure” was in fact a debacle. But ever since his demise, France has had trouble casting off his spell. His nephew, Louis-Napoleon, assumed power in a coup in 1851 riding the coattails of “la gloire.” But his reign ended in September 1870 when his reckless declaration of war against Prussia ended in a swift and humiliating defeat. Louis-Napoleon — or Napoleon III as he fashioned himself — was taken captive at Sedan, and Paris was besieged for more than four months.

America has the recent experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam to remind it that every war has unintended consequences. At the beginning of 1871, when Paris was still surrounded by an enemy army and reduced to eating horses and rats, Otto von Bismarck masterminded the unification of Prussia with the smaller German-speaking states to its south to form the nation of Germany — an unintended consequence that turned out very badly for France in the first half of the 20th century.

The fact that the unification ceremony took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles — France’s former royal palace — only deepened the humiliation. And when Paris finally surrendered, the German army exacerbated the shame of defeat by marching through the Arc de Triomphe and along the Champs-Élysées.

What happens to the idea of a triumphal arch when your enemy is marching through it?

It isn’t canceled out. It is simply reversed. The result will be more shame and a thirst for revenge. The cycle of violence will continue. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. It is impossible to understand the causes of the first and second world wars without registering the humiliation felt by France in 1870-71.

Christo wanted to cancel it all out. Or at least, to toy with that idea — to invite us all to imagine what would happen if we did away with triumphal arches, with “la gloire” and with military parades. The idea of military glory was inimical to his and Jeanne-Claude’s conception of art, to their sense of freedom and beauty and their longing for a shared humanity.

Wrapping a triumphal arch is a way of creating something beautiful that also says: Enough with your delusions of grandeur. Away with your nationalist rhetoric, your dreams of world conquest. Away with all lies. Let us instead gaze at something solemn, poignantly mute, and beautiful to boot. And after we do that, let us take a moment to bow our heads in shame as we contemplate the millions of lives lost for the sake of such lies.