Posters From The 1968 Paris Uprising
Written by Mark Vallen, May 2001 ©
posters of the Paris 1968 uprising comprise some of the most brilliant
graphic works ever to have been associated with a social movement.
Politics aside, from a design standpoint they are second to none.
The artworks were not superfluous decorations meant to beautify
office walls - instead they took center stage on the streets in
provoking awareness and action. Amazingly enough, the posters
were all anonymous
creations, the result of collaborations between idealistic students
and striking workers. To this day not a single artist has
been credited for the provocative artworks.
the Paris of 68, pent-up frustration over poverty, unemployment,
the conservative government of Charles de Gaulle, and opposition
to the Vietnam war, gave rise to a mass movement for sweeping
social change. In the month of May, workers and students took
to the streets in an unprecedented wave of strikes, walkouts and
demonstrations. By May 18th, 10 million workers were on
strike and all factories and universities were occupied. During
those days of turmoil the Atelier Populare (Popular Workshop)
was formed. The faculty and student body of Paris' main art school,
the Ecole des Beaux Arts, were on strike, and a number of the
students met spontaneously in the printmaking department to produce
the very first street posters of the revolt.
at the occupied University
May 16th, art students, painters from outside the university,
and striking workers decided to permanently occupy the art school
in order to produce posters that would "Give concrete support
to the great movement of the workers on strike who are occupying
their factories in defiance of the Gaullist government."
posters of the Atelier
were designed and printed anonymously and were distributed for
free. They were seen on barricades, carried in demonstrations,
and were plastered on walls all over France. Their bold and confrontational
messages were extremely influential and still resonate in our
own time. The handful of brilliant poster designs presented here
embody the very essence of activist art, and represent just a
fraction of the enormous output of the Popular Workshop.
poster titled, Light Wages- Heavy Tanks, quipped that the
workers slave to create the weapons that will ultimately be used
against them. A primary demand of the striking workers was equitable
pay, but many worried about the very nature of work under capitalism.
A great part of the Paris uprising was a rebellion against the
trap of "alienated labor," and the student movement especially
contributed to the notion that work must be something more than
mere drudgery carried out for a miserable paycheck.
caption announces that this is a portrait of A Youth Disturbed
Too Often By The Future. This is perhaps the most famous Paris
68 poster. Here we see a person's head completely covered in bandages.
We can't ascertain the victim's race or gender, but we can plainly
see that they have been brutalized. The eyes are whirlpools of
pain and anguish, over the mouth is placed a large safety pin.
What does this image tell us? Is it merely the image of a person
abused by the authorities, or is it a prophesy of collective retreat
into apathy and cowardice? Is the safety pin there to hold the
bandages in place, or was it placed there to hold the person's
tongue in place? Whatever the interpretation, the image continues
to resonate in our times.
the French riot police attacked the occupied universities and
workplaces, the rebellion turned violent. The initial police onslaughts
were so heavy handed that many joined the strikers in order to
protest police brutality. The poster at left was the artistic
response to the savage police assaults, and the chilling untitled
image appeared on city walls all over Paris.
heart of the worker's struggle was brilliantly conveyed by this
image. The poster calls for a militant plan of action in opposition
to corporate control, and exhorts workers to seize their workplaces
with the slogan, Yes To Occupied Factories! Here a factory
building has been cleverly reduced to an immediately recognizable
abstraction, the factory's chimney serving as the third letter
in the word "yes". A companion poster exists that shows
a bosses cigar as the smoking chimney. That poster, emblazoned
with the word "no," is
a clear rejection of a workplace not under direct worker's
and students viewed with suspicion the minor concessions and compromises
granted by the conservative government. Such reforms were seen
as an attempt to buy off the uncommitted, and those who entered
into talks with the conservative government were viewed as "class
collaborationist" traitors ready to sell out the strikers for
personal gain. This poster titled, Reforms - Chloroform,
warns the viewer not to accept reforms meant to weaken the people's
poster titled, Return to Normal, describes the twin diseases
of complacency and apathy. Since it was widely felt by striking
students and workers that their paralyzing strikes should continue
until the conservative government fell, this image mocked those
who sought a quick end to the strikes and a restoration of "business
as usual." Like
many of the best Paris '68 posters, the message resonates in the
present and continues to comment on those who refuse to participate
in anything except consumerism.
Cohn-Bendit was a radical young leader in the Paris revolt. His
provocative ideas and proclamations struck a chord amongst the
young. Bendit was denounced by the conservative press as a "Jew,
a German, and an undesirable." People were stunned by the apparent
anti-Semitism of the attacks upon Cohn-Bendit, and the immediate
artistic response was this poster. Soon there were millions in
the streets chanting the slogan found on the poster - "We
Are All Undesirables!"
violent repression launched by the government turned the streets
of Paris into a raging battleground. Students and workers responded
to police raids by tearing up cobblestone streets and building
barricades to keep the authorities out of "liberated areas." Large
parts of Paris fell under the temporary control of striking students
and workers. Huge street battles ensued between police and the
citizenry for control of the zones. This poster titled, Order
Reigns, informed the public that the state was restoring
order by breaking the bones of students and workers.
humor often found its way into the posters of Paris 68. In this
example titled No To The Bureaucracy, a pyramid of spectacle
wearing bureaucrats becomes the symbol of everything that is wrong
in modern society. Not only is the mass composed of those who
have lost their individuality, they are ranked in a hierarchy
title of this poster is Free Press. The simplicity, directness,
and clarity of mind displayed in the Paris '68 posters often can
take one's breath away. While this poster's visual style is primitive
at best, its message is extremely sophisticated. On one hand the
poster conveys the idea that the press is controlled by the police,
the authorities, the state, and nothing but the police version
of reality rolls off the newspaper presses. On the other hand,
the poster is telling us that a truly free press squashes police
state lies and government fabrications.
is owned and operated by Mark Vallen © All text by Mark Vallen
primary source for my essay was, "Atelier Populaire © 1969 by
Usine-Universite-Union." This was a soft-cover book produced
by the Atelier Populaire and published by Dobson Books Ltd of
London in 1969. Compiling almost 200 silkscreen posters and
associated diatribes into a large format book (11 inches x 16
inches), the images were printed one to a page, with poster
captions printed in English, French, Spanish, and German. The
Atelier Populaire collective published the book with the intent,
not of making a profit, but of spreading their revolutionary
ideas. The artworks and direct quotes from the Popular Workshop
found in my article were taken from the book.