Summer 2011

On the barricades

Beauty Is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising

Edited by Johan Kugelberg and Philippe Vermès; designed by Pierre Le Hors, Four Corners Books, £25, $40

The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. … To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to display them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.

These are the paradoxical words that front this comprehensive document of posters from the mass demonstrations in Paris in May 1968. The editors have assembled an incredible breadth of posters, photographs and texts from the Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop), creating a work that immerses the reader in the process through which spontaneous design and production were used to document, illustrate and instigate this unique political movement.

Philippe Vermès, then an art student, describes in his preface how he and his fellow artistes engagés set up their revolutionary silkscreen printing workshop in the occupied Ecole National Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Here the posters that typified the aesthetic of the uprising were designed and produced, shaped collectively through processes of consensus. Diverse workers and students came to have their designs discussed and realised: ‘There were general assemblies daily, and discussions could be tumultuous among the groups represented ... Everyone respected the general principle of anonymity concerning the poster’s designer and writer,’ Vermès explains.

Photographs taken by Vermès document the production process, taking us back to the pre-digital age where thousands of screenprints hung fresh from pegs; products of epic labour and coffee-fuelled nights, their messages ready to be plastered across any waiting surface. But the posters themselves are the centre of it all. Faithfully reproduced in their bold primary colours, they exude the outrage felt by a wide span of French society at the stagnation of the entrenched Gaullist regime. They comment on the freedom of the press, the injustice of colonial power, the status of immigrant workers. They represent a historical moment when design was melded to politics in the heat of the revolutionary assembly, producing a fresh and invigorating political poetics.

The main selection is accompanied by a pictorial index, translations, a bibliography, and a supplement containing 411 additional posters, reproduced in miniature with translations. These touch on topics as broad as the Shah of Iran’s residence in Paris, the Mexico Olympics and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, further demonstrating the breadth of social awareness inherent in the Atelier Populaire.

The aesthetic is motley yet the designs are united by their simplicity and efficacy, illustrating complex messages with an admirable economy of word and image.Above all, they are implicitly shaped by a raw sense of urgency and a wild faith in the possibility of social change.

First published in Eye no. 80 vol. 20 2011

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.