Beauty is in the Street

The May '68 uprisings in Paris were notable for the artistry of the poster campaign which came out of the Atelier Populaire. A new book celebrates them
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What with the central role the internet has played in orchestrating protests both here, in the Middle East and other European countries of late, it is worth remembering that before such mediums existed extensive protests were coordinated using only paper and ink and word of mouth to advertise them.

Before Twitter and Facebook provided that window into the consciousness of a ready made audience of thousands, would-be activists needed to work a little bit harder to grab people’s attention. The beautiful posters which came out of the Atelier Populaire (popular workshop) in support of the May ’68 uprisings in Paris are a wonderful reminder of this and a collection of the best can be seen in a new book, Beauty is in the Street.

The fabulous collection of colourful screen prints, the most iconic of which can be seen above, is the fruit of years of rummaging through flea markets, persuading other collectors to lend them and a degree of “delightful detective work” by the book’s editor Johan Kugelberg.

When the wildcat general workers strikes paralysed the French capital in May 1968 it was in large part thanks to the role played by artists and art students who set up subversive poster factories such as the one in the lithographic department of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The posters were colourful, spontaneous and produced rapidly bearing witty and, now often ubiquitous, slogans like ‘We are the power’, ‘Be young and shut up’, and ‘They’re poisoning you!’

“The posters are truly ephemeral and were rarely saved,” Kugelberg said. “It was actually frowned upon by the students and activists to save them.” Which, of course, made Kugelberg’s job as a collector all the more difficult. But with the help of an Atelier Populaire founder Philippe Vermés, he managed to track down a big enough body of work to stage an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London three years ago to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the uprisings.

He decided to stage the exhibition having noticed that the “beauty and immediate communicative tone of the posters” was little known about outside of France and rarely documented. In both the book and the exhibition the iconic posters are accompanied by rare photographs of the students who made them and documentary images of the rallies.

“One of the most powerful ideas that resonates from Paris ’68 is the solidarity among the protesters which repeatedly transcended whatever societal strata a person could be pigeon-holed into,” he says.

In the book’s foreword, Vermés quotes an old French motto: “Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait” which means “In the month of May, do whatever you like”. He writes, “[That saying] captures the fun and frolic of that time of year but May ’68, as it was branded, broke like a maverick from those carefree clichés. The 60s were serious, emblematic times for many of us who strolled into them in our mid-20s.”

But has the internet removed the need for this playful form of art protest? “Twitter and the internet have killed them,” Kugelberg says. “But they still necessary because grassroots activism which is visible as we pass through our everyday lives has much more potency than something you choose to view or click on screen.”

Beauty is in the Street, edited by Johan Kugelberg with Philippe Vermès, Hardback, 272 pages, 279 X 229mm ISBN 978-0-9561928-3-7 Published: May 2011 (UK), October 2011 (USA) UK £25, USA $40 See: