‘Beauty Is in the Street’ features 1968 Paris protest posters

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Time magazine called 2011 the year of the protester, so inevitably comparisons have been drawn to another period of civil unrest — the ‘60s. In particular, the May 1968 uprising in Paris against the French government could be viewed as a precursor to the recent Occupy movement that started on Wall Street and spread around the country.

During the Paris protests, a group of artists, Atelier Populaire (popular workshop), created posters that were vital in spreading the call to unite workers and students — a function that would be taken over for Occupy by social media such as Facebook and Twitter.


More than 200 images of this protest art, along with firsthand accounts of the clashes, have been published in ‘Beauty Is in the Street’ (Four Corners Books, $40).

The uprising began as a small student demonstration at University of Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris protesting overcrowding and inequality. Inspired by the civil rights movement in America and growing anti-Vietnam War sentiment in Europe, the turmoil quickly snowballed into more than 10 million workers striking, the near ouster of President Charles de Gaulle and the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival. Atelier Populaire grew out of the art school, École des Beaux Arts, where members of the faculty and students were among the strikers. ‘They occupied the printing studios and converted them into the uprising’s very own propaganda machine,’ said editor Johan Kugelberg. ‘Many of the resulting posters have become icons of political design.’

Slogans accompanied the bold single-color designs. One poster, ‘Sois Jeune et Tais Toi’ (Be Young and Shut Up), shows a dark, shadowy figure holding his hand over a student’s mouth. Another, ‘Ser-T-Il Chomeur’ (Will He be Unemployed?), is of a wide-eyed baby in blue.

The artists soon realized that the lithography method took too long, and they switched to silk screening, often printing 2,000 posters at a stretch.

The striking daily newspapers donated throwaway leftovers of newsprint. General assemblies were held daily to vote on the posters, whose design remained anonymous.

‘The idea was to keep the effort collective to avoid bourgeois values,’ writes Atelier Populaire co-founder Philippe Vermès in the book’s essay. ‘The postings took place under the cover of night. Parisians would wake up to see the issues at hand.’

Although a large exhibit was staged in 2008 showcasing the posters at the Hayward Gallery in London, the Atelier Populaire has refused to put them up for sale.

From the group’s 1968 mission statement: ‘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 centers of conflict ... 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.’


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— Liesl Bradner

Images: nous sommes le pouvoir (we are the power) and sois jeune et tais toi (be young and shut up)/Atelier Populaire, 1968. Silk-screening at the Atelier Populaire, May 1968. Photo: Philippe Vermès.