It’s 22 March 1968 and a group of students are staging an extended sit in. Protesting at conditions in their university, the demonstration is broken up by the authorities who choose to use force. As a result the students grievances turn to more political topics and the demonstrations for which the period would be eventually defined begin to take root first across Paris and then across France.
This is the seed of the demonstrations that would eventually paralyse the French economy and cause political leaders to genuinely fear civil war or revolution. General strikes were already causing major disruption as workers fought for change in a country where many saw as becoming increasingly conservative and authoritarian. The combination of this snowball effect of the student protests and these workers demonstrations would culminate in the events of May 1968.
The context of 1968
Looking back at this period of time, the protests in France can be seen in a wider context. The world must have felt like it was in revolution with movements such as the anti-Vietnam protests in the USA, demonstrations against the Franco dictatorship in Spain and the march of the one hundred thousand in Brazil all happening around the same time. Movements such as the Black Panthers in the USA were also beginning to take root with the period representing a time of movement towards social and political change.
In France, the regime of De Gaulle, a hero following the war, was seen as having become tired, intolerant and lacking in ideas. His views and the views of the De Gaulle government were at odds with the aspirations of a generation who would grow up in a post-war country still trying to come to terms with the raw wounds of the Second World War and so the seeds for revolution were sown.
The Posters of May 1968
The defining images of this period can be seen in the posters which would cover the streets of Paris. Night after night, new posters would be debated and created. The causes would be many and varied with a hard core of student protesters leading the charge. A group calling itself ”L’atelier Populaire‘ had taken over a lithography studio in Paris and there they would design and print hundreds if not thousands of posters which they would paste up all over Paris.
Collected as part of the Lazinc collection, the posters are just a handful of the ones created. All have simplistic images with many accompanied by slogans. The combination of the image and the text easily resonating and perhaps re-enforcing the views of average Parisiens who would become immersed in the revolutionary language surrounding their everyday activity.
“I think Paris 68 was one of the most concerted efforts from a counter culture to really get their message out there” says Steve Lazarides, the owner of the gallery. Simplicity was also key to these messages getting through. The posters are mainly one colour screen prints using block text. They are sometimes crude to look at but they are quick to make with many being able to be produced in a short timescale. There was a sense of urgency to get things done and to take the message to the streets.
Links to Street Art today
The roots of what we might see as the modern street art movement might also be seen in the posters of 1968 and political posters in general. “Political posters influenced at least three of the biggest street artists out there” says Lazarides. “Blek le Rat almost definitely took his images from the rat posters (of the period) and then he went on to inspire Banksy.”
Further afield the likes of Shepherd Fairey in the states would, Lazarides says, be “far more influenced by communist political posters than he would be be graffiti art.” But he adds “it was the same ethos, it was the disenfranchised and the dispossessed using the streets to put their message out.” Today Fairey’s iconic ‘Obey’ image has become a brand in it’s own right whilst his famous stylised image of Barack Obama with the word ‘Hope’ was seen as a pivotal visual reference during his successful election to the White House.
Looking back on the events of May 1968 through the posters now displayed in the Lazinc, a gallery in the heart of Mayfair, it is perhaps a final irony. Created as protest art, by collective and with multiple anonymous authors and artists, these were designed to express rage against an establishment not to be part of it. “None of this was ever meant to be in a gallery” says Lazarides “but I think it just shows the power of the movement that people are still this interested in it.”
Mai 68 Posters from the Revolution was an exhibition showcased at the Lazinc Gallery in Mayfair between 6-12 May 2018. Steve Lazarides was interviewed on 10 May 2018. You can read about the previous exhibition at the gallery, a show from French Artist JR here.