Christo in Bulgaria: the Act of Wrapping and the Communist Legacy (1935 – 1956)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are probably the most elusive artistic couple in the contemporary art world. Their vast ephemeral projects across Europe and the US, each one existing for no more than several weeks and involving approximately ten years and hundreds of people to realize, claim to possess political and economical autonomy. In order to raise the millions of dollars required for a project to be completed, Christo produces a huge amount of preparatory drawings, collages, and maquettes, while Jeanne-Claude, who plays the role of a manager, PR, and an image maker of the artistic union, deals with them on the art market. They don’t accept sponsorship from any governmental or private organizations. Although often related to the Land and Environmental art of the 1960s, the artists refuse to have their work be situated in the context of any particular artistic movement. According to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s authorized website http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/, the purpose of their art is to offer the spectator the simple pleasures of beauty and joy.www.christojeanneclaude.net.  In practice, however, their projects are powerful machines for advertising, attracting tourists and, finally, making money–not for themselves, but for the state.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s authorized biography by Burt Chernow (2002), starts with an important turning point in Christo’s life. On January 10, 1957 he left communist Eastern Europe from Czechoslovakia and, concealed in a transport wagon together with fifteen other deserters, he illegally fled to Western Europe – Austria. The atmospheric description of the scene carries the mood of melancholy, daunting anticipation, and irreversible past: “It was the coldest winter in Christo Javacheff’s memory…A knifelike wind howled outside…No one spoke as the door locked behind them. There was no turning back.”Burt Chernow, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: a Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 1. Although the book has been written using many primary documents, archives, and interviews, and comprises some quantity of theoretical analysis, this episode illustrates how the text is constructed as a fabric of both fiction and fact that has been carefully woven together as a method for heroization. Through the authorized biography, Christo and Jeanne-Claude try to establish a certain image of themselves. Christo is presented as an artistic genius with a God-given talent, who has overcome the obstacles in life thanks to the love of his loyal and supportive wife Jeanne-Claude; together they fight evil through creating wonderful monuments of beauty and joy. The aim of this article is to deconstruct Christo’s heroic image within art history and reveal an alternative unauthorized version of his artistic personage through chronologically extricating his career from Jeanne-Claude’s influence (since she appears as the main authoriser of his work) and inserts his art into its original context: Bulgaria and the communist legacy.

The strangest fact about Christo’s identity is that since he escaped to the West he has never returned to his homeland since he escaped from the country and does not speak Bulgarian anymore — not even to his brothers. Christo’s excuses for this kind of attitude are various: from the explanation that he is totally focused on his art and does not have time to travel to the suggestion that he has forgotten how to speak his mother-tongue although when he speaks English he has a distinctive Bulgarian accent. The strategy of denying his national identity opens up for Christo the doors of the international art scene. At the same time, his success in the global art world encourages the local Bulgarian artistic setting to regard him as its ambassador and hero. However, the attempt to completely obliterate his own roots and repress the memory of the country where he was born and grew up is a sign of a deeply traumatic experience, which is also reflected in his art.

In order to understand the relationship between trauma and Christo’s art it is important to look at the way his career can be divided into three periods. During his time in Bulgaria he was mostly preoccupied with drawing realistic portraits, while in Paris he got “obsessed” with wrapping objects. Finally, Christo established himself as an international artist when he moved to New York through the gigantic projects done in collaboration with his wife Jeanne-Claude. The relocation from different geographic positions was significant for the development and evolution of Christo’s art. Every time he moved from a place he had to adapt to the conditions of the new cultural and artistic environment, which inevitably involved feelings of trauma and nostalgia, always accompanied by the notion of memory. Therefore, we can see his most recent projects as the final phase of an artistic evolution–as historical monuments, carrying the memory of every place the artist has “conquered” and moved away from. By investigating the dawn of Christo’s career, his first artistic period in Bulgaria, we can get closer to a “forgotten” memory and discover the origins of his art and the basis for the later transformations of his artistic ideas.

<pclass=”body”>The years of Christo’s childhood were a period of dramatic political changes in Bulgaria. After being a German ally in the Second World War the country was occupied by the Red Army on September 9, 1944 and changed from a fascist ideological regime into a Stalinist communist one. Although most of the Bulgarian population was celebrating the coming of communist power because it was seen as a salvation from Nazism, nobody anticipated the troubles that went along with it. This change brought numerous problems to the Javashev family. Their property and their father’s small factory for textile chemicals were nationalized, and therefore Christo’s parents were forcefully downgraded into members of the proletariat. In 1948 Vladimir Javashev was arrested by the Communist government for obscure reasons. This was a disturbing encounter with communism for the thirteen-year-old Christo. He was mocked by his fellow students, who said that his father was a capitalist and an enemy to the people.Chernow, 11.   To this day, the Javashevs’ fight with communism still hasn’t finished; as Christo’s younger brother Stefan has recalled: “We had a long trial in court for the de-nationalization of our property in Gabrovo. Not until 1992 was the property officially returned to us, but only as a document.”Stefan Javashev, Personal Interview, 29 April 2006.   Since his childhood, Christo has been traumatized by communist oppression, which is why as soon as he became a student with his parents’ help he fled from Bulgaria. The memory of communism is still haunting his memory, and although Bulgaria has not been under communist regime for a long time now, he repudiates his national identity.

Nonetheless, Bulgaria loves Christo! In 1998 he was honored for his outstanding achievements abroad by the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, where he was enrolled for two and a half years. He didn’t even come back to take his award. It had to be delivered to him in New York. His old friends and fellow students, who remained in Bulgaria, have constructed a mythologized image of Christo. They always recollect that he was different than the others – shy and quiet and never looking at girls. One of his childhood friends, who is now a distinguished Bulgarian actress, wrote a whole article entitled “The Child Christo.” Remembering the incredibly dynamic and imaginative games together in their childhood, she stated:

“I keep thinking that since the time of our games Christo was preparing for his great artistic career. He was the most interesting child I have ever seen in my life. With him the game was never restricted. It was all-encompassing. And everything was achieved with such an ease, creativity and imagination, in such an engrossing way, that even already at the age of fourteen we continued to play together.”Iva Hadgieva, “The Child Christo” Culture, vol. 7 (12 February, 1993): 18.

Rather than as an objective recollection, this comment can be interpreted as one affected and transformed by the author’s fascination with Christo’s achievements in Europe and the US, naively ready to see his childhood as one that foreshadowed a future genius. As the Bulgarian art historian, curator, and journalist Ruen Ruenov observed, these affectionate recollections by his fellow students keep Christo’s image present in Bulgaria, but at the same time the artist is so distant from the local Bulgarian artistic scene that it is impossible for him to enter into a dialogue with it.Ruen Ruenov, “The Interview (Not?) Possible” Iskusstvo/Art in Bulgaria, vol. 90-92 (2002): 35-37.   Because of this invincible distance, it is inadequate to simply consider Christo a Bulgarian artistic hero, a Bulgarian “creation”and genius who has become successful abroad. However, it would be also unsatisfactory to undermine the influence that the years he spent in Bulgaria had on his further artistic career.

In 1953 Christo was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. His teacher was Detchko Uzunov, one of the most distinguished Bulgarian painters specializing in portraiture at that time, whose French-influenced, quasi-impressionistic style gradually transformed into an example of social realism. The topic of rural life has always been dominant in Bulgarian paintings. Despite the strong French influence after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, which resulted in a rapid industrialization of the main Bulgarian cities, the theme of the village always remained attractive to artists, writers and intellectuals. Christo himself did not stay behind these popular tendencies in Bulgarian art. During his time at the Academy he explored the issue of the peasant in his drawings and paintings.

Illustration 1, Christo Javashev, Man Posing, (pencil on paper, 1953-1956). Image courtesy of the Academy of Fine Art Gallery in Sofia. One of his earliest works (Illustration 1) is a typical example of an academic drawing from a model. The image, however, is one of a peasant. The old man’s hands and feet look rougher and darker than the rest of his body, showing the laborious work done under rural conditions, and yet his protruding chin and pointed nose reveal a noble posture. Additionally, the drawing’s title – “Man’s Posture,” could be connected to the idea that even an old, almost naked, peasant can have an aristocratic stance.

In another work by Christo of this time (Illustration 2) the concept of the nobility of the simple rural-worker is revealed with a nuance of pathos. This aquarelle drawing exhibits a Soviet quality and its resemblance to Repin’s famous portrait of a Russian peasant “The Cautious One” (Illustration 3) can be easily noticed.Beginning in the mid-1920s, a Repin cult was established in the Soviet Union and he was held up as a model “progressive” and “realist” to be imitated by “Socialist Realist” artists in the USSR.

Illustration 2, Christo Javashev, Untitled, (aquarelle on paper, 1953-1956). Image courtesy of the Academy of Fine Art Gallery in Sofia. Illustration 3, Ilya Repin, The Cautious One, (oil on canvas, 1877).

However, while Repin’s character comes across as scared and bitter with sharp and vigilant eyes, Christo’s peasant has turned his face in a prayer to God. Still not having lost faith, his expression appears kind and thoughtful. The dignified and stoic gaze, and especially the spiritual mood of the drawing, however, did not fit the social-realist iconography which after 1944 gradually started to enter Bulgarian art and culture. The magazine Iskusstvo, the only art magazine at that time, promoted the model of Soviet painting. In 1953, a year notable for Stalin’s death, the Union of the Bulgarian Artists was set up, which aimed to endorse painting that showed the socialist order as a new form of human society, with its industrialization and the introduction of science and technology in the labor processes.

Christo’s art, however, did not comply with these new Soviet iconographic requirements. His painting of peasants resting on the grass (Illustration 4) was even rejected by the Academy professors. The reasons for this negative response become obvious when the work is contrasted with a typical example of a Soviet painting, such as Andrey Milnikov’s “Peaceful Fields,” which received a Stalin prize in 1951 (Illustration 5).

Illustration 4, Christo Javashev, Untitled, (oil on canvas,1953-56). (Christo’s brother Stefan in foreground.) Image courtesy of Stefan Javashev.  Illustration 5, Andrey A. Mylnikov, On the Peaceful Fields, (oil on canvas, 1950). (This painting received a Stalin Prize in 1951.)

Although Christo’s painting is untitled, the heading “Peaceful Fields” would have suited it better than it does Milnikov’s work. The legion of female workers in the Soviet example is cheerfully and triumphantly walking towards the optimistic future of labor. With the tools in their hands the women even look forceful and rigid – an impression reinforced by the low-point perspective that was essential for social-realist iconography. On the contrary, Christo’s workers are sober, miserable and negligent. They simply sit on the grass without any work. Their poverty and despair is emphasized by the subtle and gloomy colors, the lack of space in the composition, and the high-point perspective. In this painting there is no trace of manifestation of labor nor communist ideology’s insistence on representing the worker as a victor. On the contrary, it radiates only melancholy and apathy.

Although all of the three examples of Christo’s early works are associated with the issue of the peasant, a lack of interest in the ideological implications of socialism can be observed in his artistic practice. His characters are not put into any technological, productive, or scientific context, nor is there even a hint of positive anticipation of the building of the socialist state and the joyful future it will bring. On the contrary, the peasants’ poverty and hardships are emphasized and their expectations of the future are not bright and glorious, but rather despondent and unpromising. Christo was interested in drawing portraits of all sorts of people, including his family, friends, and himself; in every work, besides his self-assured technique, can be noted an attempt to reveal the individual character and specific mental condition of each person he was portraying, a depiction at odds with the social-realist technique of stereotyped images and ideological insistence not on the individual, but on the masses.

However, communism left a huge impact on Christo’s art, which becomes evident through the act of wrapping and is confirmed by his early monumental projects like “Iron Curtain” (1961), and “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995) that clearly reference the division between the East and the West.

Christo himself has admitted the importance of communism for his art. During his time at the Academy of Arts fine art students were sent as youth-brigade workers– for compulsory “voluntary” work in farms and fields, to help farmers create an agricultural landscape bordering the route of the Orient Express (the only railway connecting the West and the East), in order to impress travelers from capitalist countries. This practice was the Bulgarian version of “Potemkin village,” described by Fitzpatrick in his study Stalin’s Peasants as “the state’s idealized and distorted representation of rural life…the real-life counterpart of the discourse of socialist realism in literature and the arts.”Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 16.  In his authorized biography Christo refers to this experience as a subconscious precedent of his encounter with the act of wrapping: “Bales of hay and equipment were displayed on each side of the railroad tracks. Sometimes the items were wrapped in tarpaulin and tied up for protection or concealment.”Chernow, 20.

In fact, the practice of wrapping up hay in agrarian countries is not for concealment, but only for protection. Haystacks are usually covered (not wrapped) by tarpaulin and secured with ropes, preventing the straw from being blown away. Therefore, we can ask ourselves the question: “Was it the physical and social act of wrapping of the haystacks or the Communist state’s political covering of the true social conditions that had an impact on Christo’s art?”

Illustration 6, Navushta – Bulgarian male folk costume. The act of wrapping things is originally and essentially a peasant practice, a sign of a poor people’s attempt to save, economize and protect. Before their property was nationalized by the Communist Party, Christo and his family lived in Gabrovo, a town well known for its textile industry. However, village life was familiar to Christo because during World War II, when evacuation from the city was necessary, his parents used to send him and his two brothers to the nearby sparsely populated village on the hills, called “Katchori.” During these visits Christo must have witnessed the wrapping up of plants during the winter in order to preserve them from the cold. He has probably seen many times how his grandmother wrapped up the freshly cooked bread in a towel in order to keep it soft and warm. Even the male leggings (navushta) in Bulgarian male folk dress of some regions in Bulgaria are made of cloth wrapped around the men’s calves. The act of concealment is similarly associated with peasant behavior, personified in the character of Hitur Petur (Sly Peter, connected to the Saint) from Bulgarian folklore. He is essentially the archetype of the poor peasant, who, not wanting to accept humiliation from the members of the higher social class, uses his rhetorical skills to conceal or twist reality in a self-aggrandizing manner. Therefore, not only an attempt for protection and saving but also certain class mobility can be found behind the act of wrapping.

Although officially Christo created his first wrapped object in January 1958 in Vienna, a year after he crossed the border dividing the communist East and the consumerist West, the concept of wrapping originated in his consciousness from the very beginning of his artistic practice. It is connected to his encounter with the village and peasant life and also later, in his teenage years, to the suppression of social forms by the Communist ideology. Additionally, it can be associated with the class and geographical mobility that has accompanied his art throughout the years. Christo’s refusal to return to his home country is a result of two related conditions, his trauma of the communist regime in Bulgaria and his displacement from his Bulgarian roots due to his emigration to the West. Christo’s national identity is obsolete; he’s neither Bulgarian, nor French, nor American, but the act of wrapping, which in his latest works has been reduced to the use of textile for his projects (referring us back to his father’s preoccupation with textile industry), is a sign of his Bulgarian origins. In all of his interviews the artist insists that his art is a “scream for freedom.” However, Slavoj Žižek in his psychoanalytical book on totalitarianism determined the term “freedom” as follows: “Freedom is ultimately nothing but the space opened up by the traumatic encounter, the space to be filled in by its contingent/inadequate symbolizations/translations.”Slavoj Žižek, Did somebody say totalitarianism: Five interventions in the (mis)use of a notion ( New York: Verso, 2001), 58.

Christo’s freedom is the freedom from communist oppression and his national belonging. However, this liberation is connected to the traumatic experience of capitalism and the feeling of displacement, which he has first encountered in the West. Therefore, every wrapped up object/project that he has created with or without the collaboration of Jeanne-Claude is a symbolization of this traumatic memory. Thus, rather than as an international artistic hero, we can see Christo as a victim of communism and in exile from it. The fact that he rejects his national identity is an example of this trauma, and his projects can be construed as post-modernist, post-communist monuments –obsessive memories, which took different shapes through the years, but always remaining connected to the idea of boundaries (social and political) and their mobility.

Nia Tabakova is a recent graduate from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. While doing her MA course ‘Postmodernism and Postcommunism in Europe and Beyond’ she became interested in the problem of the political and cultural division between the East and the West. The following essay is an extract from a longer manuscript entitled Utopia and Memory: Christo Before Jeanne-Claude (1935-1963), which investigates Christo’s art in relation to his emigration from communist Bulgaria to the West.

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