Icons of May 68

May 68 anniversary magazine covers

They painted slogans in the streets such as “sous les pavés la plage” and “soyez realiste demandez l’impossible.” Some carried Chairman Mao’s red book others took inspiration from Guy Debord’s  “La Société du Spectacle.”  Change was blown’ in the wind in May 1968 as students and workers took to the streets with demonstrations, massive general strikes and occupying universities and factories. For many “soixante huit” remains a major French reference point. And as Alain Geismar —one of the leaders of the time— later pointed out, the movement succeeded “as a social revolution, not as a political one.”

For the fiftieth anniversary of May 68 the National Library of France is exhibiting “Icones de Mai 68, Les Images ont une historie.” The exhibition revisits news photographs taken then with a special emphasis on two photos that became world famous: Gilles Caron’s photo of Daniel Cohn-Bendit with a mocking smile facing a police officer and Jean-Pierre Rey’s photo of Caroline de Benderm (English model and actress) on the shoulders of Jean-Jacques Lebel (French artist and poet). The photo became known as “Marianne of 68” because of its likeness to Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People.”

The exhibition considers how with a passage of time and media usage these two images became emblematic of the events. Every ten years since 68 French media does anniversary stories using the two photos adding to the patina. But it is not just because the pictures have been seen a lot they are icons. Both photos have metaphoric qualities transcending the journalistic. “Icons of May 68” is both a story of how two pictures became famous and a look at some rarely seen and very interesting photos that didn’t.

Icons de Mai 68, Les images ont une histoire, to August 26, 2018, BNF, Francois-Mitterrand, Paris 13e