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Rock Versus Paper

By: William Bostwick | January 23, 2012

An interview with Philippe Vermès, the Occupy artist of Paris ’68

Screen-printing at the Atelier Populaire, May 1968, photographed by Philippe Vermès.

In may 1968, Philippe Vermès joined the student uprising in Paris that paralyzed

France and nearly brought down the government. He was a painter. Other students threw cobblestones, organized strikes, and burned cars. Vermès made posters. With a few co-revolutionaries, Vermès took over the École des Beaux-Arts’ printing workshop, set up a silk-screening rig, and, on rolls of newsprint donated by striking newspapers, produced thousands of iconic posters: witchlike de Gaulles, menacing cops, defiant workers. Forty-three years later, Vermès and Johan Kugelberg, a New York–based curator and editor, gathered the remarkable output of that pop-up press, the Atelier Populaire, into a book called Beauty Is in the Street (Four Corners Books). The current generation of protesters, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, might have borrowed from the spirit of ’68, but the aesthetic clarity and cohesion of the earlier movement still seem unique. Print talked with Vermès about the artist’s role in revolution and why, though la lutte continue, posters may have been left behind.

“Yes—Occupied factories,” poster from May 28, 1968.

You were a painter, right? How did you get pulled into the student movement in ’68? Yeah, I was a painter. I left Normandy, where I’m from, and came to Paris and the [École Nationale Supérieure des] Beaux-Arts to avoid the draft and the war in Algeria. I worked at the Beaux-Arts for two years, and then I came back with some friends to help with the movement. I was part of a group of painters, the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, where we had exhibits against Vietnam, against Algeria. My role was as an artist; I was happy to do that. But it didn’t happen in one day.

How did you end up occupying the lithography studio at the Beaux-Arts? What was the vibe like there? How did it operate? I met some other protesting students at the Sorbonne, and we were trying to decide—what are we doing? I said, Let’s come to the Beaux-Arts; we can do posters with the lithography equipment there, we can make engravings. And so we did. But it took too much time. We couldn’t produce enough. A friend told me about silk-
screening, which was a new idea. And that way we could make 2,000 posters in one night, sometimes more. You could find them everywhere in France, even in Marseilles. They went out quick, quick, quick. I’d go around Paris in my little Citroën to the newspapers on strike to get paper. We’d have a roll down in the garden and pull it up through the window to print on. It was like being in a factory, working 24 hours a day. We lived there, we slept there. A certain group was trained [in printing] like me. We’d help the others out—people would come in from all over France. We’d screen them to make sure no police came in disguise. There were no pictures allowed, except the ones I took.

Silk-screened posters drying at the Atelier Populaire, May 1968, photograph by Philippe Vermès

“Back to normal,” from June 2, 1968, reprinted June 27.

“They went out quick, quick, quick. I’d go around Paris in my little Citroën to the newspapers on strike to get the paper.”

Did you talk about aesthetics at the beginning or try to come up with a coherent aesthetic strategy? No, not at the beginning. When we were occupying the Beaux-Arts, we’d have a meeting every night at 7 p.m. to decide on a slogan. We said, We have to not be Trotskyites, Situationists, anarchists. We have to get the right slogan that hits people the strongest. We’d vote—20 against, 30 for, or whatever. Then we’d work on it together, change this, change that. And the next day the poster would come back to get approval, and we’d vote again. There was no time for aesthetics. Everything was voted on, collectively. One time, we made a flag, blue, white, and red. And the red overlapped the other colors, and—No, no, no, we said. Because maybe it’s a Communist red. Everyone had to put their ideologies behind them.

Are there certain criteria that you think make a poster, or a slogan, more or less successful? Simplicity. It must be easy to understand. I have one in front of me, with a pill bottle that says, “The Press: Don’t Swallow It.” It’s not good for your health. Look at our posters and you’ll know what’s good. Or the poster with “La Lutte Continue,” with the fist. There’s humor. Lots of humor.

“Spirits are high for a protracted struggle,” from June 1968; and “Beauty is in the street.”

Is it important to keep a sense of humor when you’re protesting? I’d say that’s something this generation of protesters is pretty adept at, though some might think there’s nothing particularly funny about what they’re protesting. We had a lot of fun making these posters. There’s a saying in France, “Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plâit”: Do anything you like in May. But when we had the first general strike on the 13th, all of Paris was surrounded with a barricade. That was very serious. That was not a game. And everyone was taking it seriously—except the government. But humor is also an instrument to help convince people. If you’re too serious, people don’t look at you. Putting posters on the wall, yeah, it was fun.

And beauty? Why’d you choose this poster for the cover, and that line: “Beauty is in the street”? Does beauty have a place in revolution? Beauty was just another way to see the fight. Students weren’t aware of everything, politically. There was fighting, crowds, people trying to understand. But as for that poster—the school had women on one side, men on the other; it was segregated. But here’s a woman in the street, throwing a pavé. It was enticing then because women were seizing control over their bodies, their thinking. Very enticing, even still. In Paris, a few years ago, that poster got the highest price of them all at auction.

Silk screening at the Atelier Populaire, May 1968, photographed by Philippe Vermès.

“May ’68—beginning of a prolonged struggle.”

Does auctioning off the posters—turning them into a commodity, in other words—ruin their effect? Or distort their purpose? They stay a revolutionary tool. We can’t forget that. Some are well known now, but that doesn’t change anything. People came in to the Atelier, they would tell us their story about occupying a factory or something, we would try to find a good slogan, and they’d take the posters under their arms and put them up. No one can take that away.

Where did you find the posters to collect in the book, if they were disseminated so widely and chaotically? Kugelberg had a collection that he bought. I have a collection from the Atelier. Lots of people came to the Atelier and took posters home to collect them. People took them off the walls and kept them. When we left the Beaux-Arts we gave a collection to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Atelier Populaire, May 1968, photographed by Philippe Vermès.

“Beauty was just another way to see the fight.”

People were collecting them even then, in 1968? Yes, they were very popular, but not of commercial value at the time. People would put them up in their homes. Later, one guy got royalties for the poster of the policeman with the shield.

What do you think of political, or pseudo-political, street artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, who are now shown in galleries? I don’t know them, I haven’t heard of them. In France we have Miss Van. She’s now in galleries. She’s represented. And that’s how it works today: You get known in the street and finish in the galleries.

Like you, with this book? Well, no, the posters still have power. They’re in a book, but they’re not in a gallery. They’re still anonymous—that’s the important thing.

“Workers, the struggle continues—form grassroots communities.”

Left: “Free information”; right: “The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts—the Fine Arts students poster the streets,” from the fourth week of June 1968.

Do you think there will be a book like this in another 45 years about the art of Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring? Can there be one, or would it be irrelevant? Now you see people with signs, but they don’t use aesthetics like we did. You can go into the streets and get people together in two minutes on your phone, on Twitter. At that time, posters were the only way we had to communicate. There wasn’t anything else. Today, people aren’t afraid to fight the power, to make something new. They could make posters and send them through their phones. A good poster could go around the world in a few minutes. If it’s good. But we’re not there yet. Who will make them? Where are these people? Maybe on Wall Street, maybe in the Tea Party, but I don’t think so. I think the revolution has to come a little bit further.

**All images courtesy of Four Corners Books.

William Bostwick is a brewer, beekeeper, and writer. He lives in San Francisco. His latest book is Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer.