the writer and activist Tariq Ali once said that 1968 was the year when “politics and culture were united”.
And the uprising in France in May 1968 produced no more iconic images than the silkscreened posters that were flyposted across the city.
A new book celebrates the creativity and solidarity that came out of the uprising.
Students, workers and artists who occupied the Sorbonne University in Paris founded the Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop) collective in that tumultuous year.
People taking part in the French events found expression for the new ideas that emerged as their rebellion washed away the muck of ages.
When they first reprinted some of the posters in book form in 1969, the introduction warned, “This book should not be taken as the final outcome of an experience, but as an inducement for finding, through contact with the masses, new levels of action both on the cultural and political plane.”
Now an exceptional new book, Beauty is in the Street, combines a comprehensive reproduction of hundreds of posters with photos of the barricades and the graffiti that appeared around colleges and occupied factories.
It also reproduces leaflets and articles from the period.
For ten years, Charles de Gaulle had ruled France with political authoritarianism and economic austerity.
The uprising was sparked when police attacked student protests. The students fought back, pushing the hated riot police out of the university district.
Their actions inspired millions of workers to strike and occupy for their own demands. The peak of the uprising was a general strike of ten million workers.
Virtually every major factory in France was occupied. But though the industrial proletariat was at the heart of the movement, the effects spread far beyond.
Footballers and dancers at the Folies Bergères were involved in occupations. There were rumours of discontent and mutiny in the police and armed forces.
Again and again the posters here call for unity between students and workers and the breaking down of barriers.
During May and June, action committees were set up throughout France to coordinate activities and organise supplies.
Starting from a strike in the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, workers took over the running of the city.
They set up roadblocks on the main roads and issued travel permits and petrol coupons.
Women set up committees to organise food supplies, and bought directly from the peasants in the surrounding countryside, undercutting the big grocery shops.
At first the general uprising threw the ruling class off its guard, but before long it regrouped and exploited the relative conservatism of the union leaders to re-establish “normal” life.
But the French workers had proved that no capitalist power can consider itself immune from revolution.
No decorative purposes
Atelier Populaire produced a book featuring many of their posters in 1969. The introduction said, “The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories.
'To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture, or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest, is to impair both their function and their effect.
'This is why Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.”
‘Anybody and everyone could bring in ideas’
Philippe Vermès, co-founder of the Atelier Populaire, recalls how the workshop was set up after the first student demonstrations:
“It was at those noisy, turbulent meetings that I got a sense of the extent of the student unrest, and it was there, too, that I met fellow painters from La Jeune Peinture who, like myself, wanted to participate. But how?
We decided with the Comité des Grèves [strike committee] des Beaux Arts to occupy the painting and lithography ateliers [workshops].
On May 14, we printed in the lithography room the first poster of May ‘68, ‘Usines, Universites, 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.
We worked day and night in shifts. People brought in food, hot coffee and helped whenever they could.
Anybody and everyone—students, factory workers, office employees, transporters, media people, mailmen, fishermen—could bring in ideas and work on the actual silkscreening.”
Beauty is in the Street, edited by Johan Kugelberg with Philippe Vermès, Four Corners Books, £25.
All the images and the two extended quotes are taken from the book