When beauty came to the streets of Paris

A new book catalogues the posters created during the May 68 protests in Paris, introduced by an artist who was at the heart of the movement

An old French saying, “Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît” (In the month of May, do whatever you like), captures the fun and frolic of that time of year but ‘May 68′, as it was branded, broke from those carefree clichés. The 60s were serious, emblematic times for many of us who strolled into them in our mid-20s. Economic issues and political strife plunged everybody – university students and factory workers, office employees and company executives, truck drivers and garbage collectors, teachers and social workers – willingly or not into the volcanic magma of social upheaval.

Curiosity led me to the first student gatherings in the amphitheatre of Censier University, in the 5th arrondissement, a short walk from the Latin Quarter and the venerable Sorbonne. I wanted to join in, be a part of a growing student movement launched by protesting student unions led by Dany Cohn-Bendit, Le Mouve-ment du 22 Mars. It was at those noisy turbulent meetings that we decided with the Comité des grèves des Beaux Arts to occupy the painting and lithography ateliers.

On May 14, we printed in the lithography room the first poster of May 68, ‘Usines, Universités, Union’ (‘Factories, Universities, Union’) to express in a nutshell the determination to connect students and workers. This was followed by another lithograph entitled ‘L’art au service du peuple’ (‘Art at the service of the people’). Factories, too, were occupied at that point, and the production of posters was an obvious choice to express the power of protest of our collective union.

The lithography process that used stone took too long, though. We needed another method of multiple printing. Guy de Rougement and Eric Seydoux, two artists and silkscreeners, volunteered their know-how and equipment to us – young artists, high school and university students and workers – so the second floor of the Beaux Arts was transformed into a silkscreening workshop. They showed us how to use photography within the process as well. The change in technique made a huge difference as we could dramatically increase the number of posters printed in one night. We could do 2,000 at a stretch, and we learned quickly how to use the scraper on the framed silkscreen, how to clean it, and use it again for another poster. We learned stencilling as well. We worked day and night in shifts. People brought in food and hot coffee and helped whenever they could. Anybody and everyone – students, factory workers, office employees, transporters, media people, mailmen, fishermen – could bring ideas and work on the actual silkscreening.

There were general assemblies daily, and discussions could be tumultuous among the groups represented who vied for votes for their poster choice. We no longer called ourselves École des Beaux Arts; we signed our posters Atelier Populaire des Beaux Arts, or Atelier Populaire, and stuck one on the atelier door that read ‘Atelier Populaire: oui, Atelier Bourgeois: non’.

Striking newspapers and printing shops contributed paper and ink and specialised silkscreen stores provided materials at low cost. I remember clearly, driving my tomato-red Citroën 2CV from les Beaux Arts in the 6th arrondissement, crossing Le Pont du Carousel and racing to the rues Réaumur and Quatre-Septembre to get more paper from striking dailies. I would rush back with my precious supply of the throwaway leftovers of long rolls of newsprint paper. We’d set up a stand to unroll the paper in the director’s garden on the ground floor, and hoist the paper up through the second floor window where it was stretched under the framed silkscreen, printed, and then pulled back into the garden to dry outdoors.

The posting took place under the cover of night. Parisians would wake up the following morning and see the issues at hand. The posters, as common as popcorn, were everywhere for everyone. The posters were also picked up by strikers at the Atelier and distributed to their fellow workers. It was a dangerous business. Loud demonstrations had been severely repressed by nervous CRS squads.

We feared a police bust at the Atelier Populaire, and they did finally come on June 27 and shut down the Atelier. There was no resistance; we took our paper, our ink, and our press with us and walked out. The police had expected to seize a big printing press; they didn’t realise that we had carried out our tools for poster-making with us! The poster entitled ‘La Police s’affiche aux Beaux Arts, Les Beaux Arts affichent dans la rue’ (‘The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts – the Fine Arts students poster the streets’) was the immediate riposte of the Atelier Populaire and represented its continuing resistance.

The Atelier Populaire was a working space for ordinary people whose popular voice could be heard loud and clear, graphically, visually throughout the streets of Paris and around the occupied factories. Simple, direct, striking. The posters were created to capture popular imagination and awareness. It’d be different now if we ran the same scenario through current times. Twitter and Facebook and cellphones didn’t exist in May 68.

This is an extract from the essay by Philippe Vermès, co-founder of the Atelier Populaire, as featured in Beauty is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May 68 Paris Uprising, Johan Kugelberg with Philippe Vermès (eds); Four Corners Books; £25. fourcornersbooks.co.uk


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