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France May 68: the art of revolution

By Alison Hird

Political posters with slogans like "It's forbidden to forbid" or "Under the paving stones, the beach" were a driving force in the May 68 Paris uprisings. The vast majority were designed and printed at Paris's Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts school) by the Atelier Populaire collective. Fifty years on, the school is showing that art work at the Images en Lutte exhibition.

This exhibition on the visual culture of the far left from 1968 to 1974 includes posters, painting, sculptures, films, photos, tracts. It begins with the major demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and ends in 1974 following the coup d'Etat in Chile and the dissolution of the Maoist Proletarian Left party in France.

But, while it is still unclear whether there will be any official recognition of the 50th anniversary of massive protests and strikes that nearly brought down President Charles de Gaulle and his government, it's the political art work done by the Atelier populaire that's grabbing headlines.

From 5 May to 28 June, students and teachers from l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts worked day and night producing posters to further the cause of seven million striking workers.

Posters with slogans like "Your boss needs you, you don't need him", "Run comrade, the old world is behind you" and "Barricades close the street but open the way" were plastered on university walls, factories and shops.

Police at the Beaux-Arts, Beaux-Arts on the streets, one of the few posters with the Atelier populaire stamp ©Coll. des Beaux-Arts de Paris

The art work is "the product of a political struggle but it's also participating in the struggle itself", says art historian and curator Eric de Chessay.

"They used the studios to produce posters for the revolution. People actually thought that revolution was not for tomorrow, that it was immediate and that the whole power would be completely defeated."

Poing levé, by l'Atelier Populaire ©Coll. des Beaux-Arts de Paris

Many posters protested against General Charles de Gaulle "showing him as a dictator, aligning him with [Francisco] Franco or [Antonio de Oliveira] Salazar or Petros Markaris, the dictators of Spain, Portugal and Greece," de Chessay explains. "His hand raised as if he were a fascist leader."

Public broadcasting (ORTF) was banned from filming the Paris protests for fear they would encourage others, so many posters denounced the state of the press as a mouthpiece for the government.

This poster warned the press is poisonous and people shouldn't "swallow" what they read ©Coll. des Beaux-Arts de Paris

And, because the strike action was not being relayed by the official press, factory workers relied on the Atelier populaire to fill in the gap.

One recurring image is of the factory shed, with its chimney transformed into a clenched fist. De Chessay says it's far more complex that it looks.

"The shed factory with the fist is combining diverse sources so you have the typical factory of early 20th century with the sheds which is coming from the Front Populaire [Popular Front] 1936 imagery and you have the clenched fist which is a typical image of the Communist Party. But the way it’s drawn here is more reminiscent of what’s happening in the image of the Maoist movement."

The factory shed became a leitmotiv in many of the Atelier's posters RFI/HIRD

Anonymous, collective artwork

While some famous young artists living in Paris at the time (Eduardo Arroyo, Julio Le Parc...) contributed to the Atelier and French artists like Martial Raysse returned from abroad to paint, the artwork was not signed.

"The whole production is both anonymous and collective," says de Chessay.

"It’s a collective creation in the sense that someone would draw an image, sometimes would devise a slogan to go with it and sometimes the slogan was provided by someone else."

The final result was presented to a committee for validation each evening.

Slogan on poster showing Daniel Cohn-Bendit was changed from "we're all Jewish and German" to "We're all undesirables" ©Coll. des Beaux-Arts de Paris

The most famous and telling example of this collaboration, according to de Chessay, is the poster showing anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit who led the student movement in Nanterre in March 68.

It was submitted by Bernard Rancillac and shows Cohn-Bendit as shot by photographer Gilles Caron.

Cohn-Bendit was German-born and Jewish, which led the far right and Communist Party leader Georges Marchais to use his origins to attack him, which in turn inspired demonstrators to reply with chants of "We're all Jewish and German".

But after the interior ministry declared Cohn-Bendit "undesirable in France", the committee subsituted "We're all undesirables" for the original slogan.

Not all images made the final cut and the exhibition shows of those the committee turned down.

"Some of those rejected are visually very satisfying," says de Chessay, "but all of those [dealing with the art world] were rejected because the strikes were not primarily for the artists. The artists were at the service of the revolution."

Poster showing the back of De Gaulle's head, rejected by the Atelier's central committee ©Coll. des Beaux-Arts de Paris

Home-made art

The 600 or so political posters on show were all produced on site so you won't find the infamous "Beauty is in the street" poster. It wasn't the work of the Atelier populaire. But that pales into insignificance given this rare opportunity to look at art created on the premises.

"The exhibition is 20 metres from where these posters were produced," says de Chessay. "It’s a place where general meetings of the strikers were taking place in the exhibition rooms."

And the link between l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts and leftist protest goes further. In 1974 feminist and gay rights movements held their weekly meetings there, and like the Atelier populaire in June 68 "were also expelled by the police".

The exhibition includes photographs by and of gay and women's rights activists such as transvestite performance artist Michael Journiac. One photo, from his series 24 Hours in the life of an ordinary woman shows him in drag, his thumb transformed into a penis.

"It's been forgotten that this art was made in a very politicised environment," says de Chessay. "Journiac was also a Maoist militant at one point, he wrote several articles about Maoist thought. So there’s a deep connection in France between these movements."

The MLF (women's liberation movement) founded in 1970 also had its weekly meetings at the Beaux-Arts. And the Aids activist group Act Up still meets there.

"A lot of people have not realised that when they look at Robert Campillo's movie about Act Up in Paris 120 Beats per Minute that the meetings are actually taking place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts."

The clash of images

"Les Justes" by Maoist artist Pierre Buraglio, member of Atelier Populaire, with Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh and Lenine RFI/HIRD

The exhibition also highlights the very different ideological positions within the far left at the time, depending on whether you leaned toward the anarchist, Maoist or Situationist camp.

"There is no supreme authority, neither God, nor Castro, nor Mao" (anonymous) questions Maoist ideology and... Buraglio's oeuvre RFI/HIRD

The slogan "I have something to say, but I don't know what" gives a good sense of the diversity - or confusion - that reigned at the time.

  • Images en lutte, la culture visuelle de l'extrême gauche en France (1968-74), Palais des Beaux-Arts, 13 quai Malaquais, Paris 6e, runs through to 20 May 2018.

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