The Criterion Shelf: Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The couple's large-scale fabric projects paid tribute to the power of imagination and the wonder of seeing a landscape transformed.

One of the most cherished qualities of cinema is the tribute it pays to the power of imagination. We generally equate escapism with the tricks that special effects artists use to stretch the possibilities of real life to extremes that are, as far as we know, impossible. It’s fitting, then, that films should pay tribute to the power of imagination as expressed by artists in other disciplines. Two of them have had their dreams recorded on film for decades by documentary filmmakers (in most cases the Maysles brothers) that are now on the Criterion Channel: Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The two late installation artists are known for finding ways to hang fabric in such grand, magnificent manners that change your idea of an entire landscape. He was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria in 1935. She born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon in Casablanca on the exact same day. They met in Paris in the 1950s and she ended her brief marriage to be with him, stating that she became an artist out of love. Their union began them on a long path of collaboration that lasted until her death in 2009. Christo outlived her by eleven years, passing away this past May at the age of 84.

While at first they only signed Christo’s name to the projects, Jeanne-Claude’s part in their works coming into being was essential and eventually led to them rightly putting her name next to his. “I’m here to protect him, that’s my job” Jeanne-Claude says in Islands, and throughout these films, we frequently see her negotiating with construction foremen and politicians, and arranging fundraising sales of his drawings while he decides which buildings he wants to swathe in material. While the initial concepts are attributed to him, the realization of them is credited to them both, and the fundraising for their projects that is generally achieved by selling his conceptual drawings on the international art market is accomplished through her expertise.  The romance of these two, watching them go to places around the world deciding to leave their mark on them, is part of the joyful adventure of watching this entire series.

Christo’s projects push the limit of what people consider to be the usefulness of art. His art isn’t just a canvas on a wall. These films show how he created works that required entire construction crews, the passing of permits that involved political debate, and the occupation of space that sometimes interrupt ed people’s lives. He realized 23 projects in the 50 years covered by these films, while 47 more went unrealized because of the failure to secure permissions. People interviewed sometimes have rapturous, positive reactions to his ideas. Other times, they scoff at them (as one woman in Paris who sees his Pont Neuf, who says that she could have made better use of the money).  The purpose of art is to affect how we see the world and ourselves, and the act of changing a landscape, something we take for granted even when we don’t mean to, is significant for affecting how we feel about changing the world.

The films, in chronological order:


Christo’s Valley Curtain (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Giffard, 1974)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude aren’t painters. They don’t stand in front of a canvas and make their work happen by their own execution. The Maysles have a great deal of respect for every aspect of the process that leads to their magnificent curtain that was strung up on mountainous range over Colorado State Highway 325.  We begin with blueprints and talk of grants and contracts before detailed glimpses of construction workers creating the suspension cables, then hanging the fabrics that would create an image of orange splendour illuminating an already stunning landscape. There are a few arguments on the work site, but for the most part, the project unfolds in what feels like a natural majesty. The unfurling of the fabric itself is even more glorious (despite an interruption that requires workers to go up and unsnag it before it descends completely). Nominated for a 1974 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.


Running Fence (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1977)

Christo’s plan in this film is to erect a 24-mile long, 180foot high fabric fence across northern California into the sea, with the purpose of making it seem to disappear before your eyes. It initially meets with resistance by the people of Marin County, who declare that it is a waste of money and most definitely not art. (The key success of the Valley Curtain, it turns out, was to erect it somewhere that there were no people to disparage it.) Following their initial denial, Christo and Jeanne-Claude make a point of getting to know the people of the county and, in doing so, win them over, but hearings continue and officials offer resistance while local ranchers are all for it.  In this rich and exuberant documentary that is only an hour long, we get to witness conversations about the nature of modern art (including one woman who talks about the temporal nature of her masterpieces in the kitchen) and hear Christo give his own testimony about his feelings on the subject before getting down to work. It’s as much about the project as it is about the work’s ability to bring out the best nature of (most) people, while also being fair about objections to Christo’s plans by people who are concerned about his effect on the environment–and his disregard, in one case, for the lawful decisions of the court.


Islands (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1987)

Christo’s project to surround eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with bright pink fabric is met with the usual resistance from so-called “normal people” who don’t like his abnormal ideas. Made for television in the late ’80s, this film has Christo talking about the purpose of his art more than he has in the previous two films with the Maysles. The film witnesses his struggle to create his vision for the Biscayne islands while at the same time working on projects at the Reichstad and the Pont Neuf in Paris. Christo’s work requires taking up a lot of public space, so the usual arguments before city officials occurs in all three locations, but while the Miami public seems to be against it thanks to their ignorance of his career, the project in Paris is met with resistance only from the mayor. The Parisians, meanwhile, are in thrall of Christo. The Maysles and their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin are, as always, sharply aware of how to form a narrative from the footage they capture of real life, moving through the detailed struggle of getting the project off the ground before the payoff of seeing it come to life in the end.


Christo In Paris  (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Deborah Dickson, Susan Froemke, 1990)

In Islands, we see the beginnings of two other concurrent projects, the Reichstag and the plan to drape the oldest bridge in Paris, the famed Pont Neuf, in a similar manner.  The films in the series follow a formula (planning, practical problems and successful execution) that adds something new to each one, here giving us the intimacy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude as they wander the City of Lovers making their plans for the bridge. She questions his choices of colour and design–for those unaware before seeing this one, some of the ways in which she is integral to his work is as a first point and most important step in his lengthy approval process . We also get a good deal of biographical information on the two of them and their relationship, which is appropriate since they met in Paris. The Maysles double back a little, going through debates with politicians (including then mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac) despite the fact that having seen Islands means we know how it all turns out.


Umbrellas (Albert Maysles, Henry Corra, Grahame Weinbren, 1994)

Two valleys in two different countries are the settings for Christo’s project to place giant umbrellas mirroring life from one place to the other. One valley features a stunning array of blue brollies in the Ibaraki prefecture of Japan and bright yellow ones in California. Four years after travelling to both places to inform the people of his plans, the work begins. Over 3000 giant, 20-foot-high structures are erected with seemingly little political resistance in either location, making this the most ambitious project that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had yet attempted and among their most popular. Viewers in both locations were moved to tears by the sight of these colourful blooms dotting the hills in the distance. With the grandeur of his project comes an increase in stress and anxiety from previous works. We see the couple argue more with each other and with others more than in the previous films, and then the risk of danger leads to disaster: rains in Japan delay the opening in both locations. The American project opens in relative calm as storms rage in Japan and destroy a number of umbrellas, then high winds rise in California and uproot an umbrella that kills a woman jogging by. All of Christo’s projects are temporary, his artwork is never left to rot from neglect, but this one began troubled and ended in an unhappy defeat, claiming a second life in Japan when a worker was electrocuted while removing an umbrella. “Maybe it’s because he added something artificial to nature,” one woman says without overt judgment. “We don’t know the power of nature.” Despite all this drama, or maybe because of it, this is the best of all the films in this collection.


The Gates (Antonio Ferrara, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Matthew Prinzing, 2007)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s completed projects always found their way to reality a long time after they were conceived. One of the most delayed was Gates of Central Park, which saw them put up almost 8,000 fabric gates in the magnificent green space situated in the centre of Manhattan. Messing with Central Park has historically been, thankfully, a very difficult matter. It’s a place so well protected that Trump himself couldn’t build a tower in it, so it’s no surprise that Christo and Jeanne-Claude struggled from the early ’80s to convince the people of New York City that their project intended no harm to their beloved land preserve. The fact that the couple spend their own money on their projects would, you’d assume, make it easier for them to accomplish their goals, but it almost raises more concerns, particularly in New York where the locals are sensitive about what they suspect are carpetbaggers coming to ruin the city as they know it and love it. Through all the repetitive presentations and questions from combative interested parties, Christo maintains his cheerful sense of plucky optimism, then a quarter century after his first attempts, with the city under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, the project (whose cost is now 20 million dollars from the original five) is immediately approved. Christo’s dreams have no practical value for his critics, but the results often prove how profound an effect they have on a person to simply look at a familiar place in a new way: in the case of his Gates, we’re only talking about a series of arches decked with hanging fabric, and yet walking through them seems to provide a rapturous experience for the people doing it.  “Most people look at art for 30 seconds,” one woman says, “but with this they can’t just walk away.” Another woman compares the excitement of the public attendance to the feeling of a crowded theatre lobby.  Unlike the previous films, the directors leave the artistic couple behind once the Gates have opened, calmly observing the crowds as they enjoy the exhibit through all manner of weather for two full weeks. This was the last completed project on which both Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked before her death in 2009, and the last of the films that Maysles made on the couple.


Walking On Water (Andrey Paounov, 2018)

With the death of Jeanne-Claude from an unexpected aneurysm in 2009, fans of the artists believed that Christo would appear no more,. However, he premiered his Big Air Package in 2013 and then, in 2016, revived the Floating Piers project that he and Jeanne-Claude created years earlier. Now in his 80s and more irritable than before, Christo is still chock full of the energy required to schmooze at gatherings, raising interest with the same boyish enthusiasm we have seen him display since the earliest films covering him, as dedicated to talking to art world oligarchs as he is to students at a public school. The value of Christo’s work in the modern world that has embraced artificial experiences in smart screen technology is its tangible nature. He isn’t creating a virtual reality experience but giving you a real pier to walk on with the actual wind blowing through your hair. Originally intended for Argentina in the 1970s, Christo creates walkable surfaces covered in fabric around an island in Lake Iseo, Italy almost 50 years after the project was imagined. It was still financed in the same method as his other works (by selling his own conceptual drawings). In its resurrected form, the Floating Piers doesn’t suffer the same lengthy delays for approval as it had in the past, but Christo is infuriated after it opens and Italian authorities allow too many people to walk on it at once, leading to a young girl going missing, followed by thousands of angry visitors stuck on shore when the exhibit is closed down. Director Andrey Paounov doesn’t have the razor-sharp precision of the Maysles and company for creating a narrative out of the most essential elements of what he observes; a documentary running 100 minutes isn’t a ridiculous notion, but after watching a series of exceptionally satisfying 60-minute films, it’s interesting that Paounov needs the full feature length to cover the usual process of conception and execution without going much deeper. (Like maybe, after seven films, we could find out who these people are that pay millions of dollars for his drawings?) Seeing the artist’s work in higher definition is a pleasure, though, and following the project through its paces is still an enjoyable ride.