Art and protest at the Beinecke

The new exhibition “Postwar Avant-Garde and the Culture of Protest 1945 to 1968 and Beyond” opened at the Beinecke Library on Oct. 6.
The new exhibition “Postwar Avant-Garde and the Culture of Protest 1945 to 1968 and Beyond” opened at the Beinecke Library on Oct. 6. Photo by Lauren Motzkin.

To the right of the security desk at the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, a black and white poster screams “Fin de L’Universitaire.” But it’s not the end of Yale that the print is advocating; it is an artifact of the 1968 student protests in France, the culmination of nearly two decades of avant-garde intellectualism.

The poster is a part of “Postwar Avant-Garde and the Culture of Protest 1945 to 1968 and Beyond,” an exhibition that opened at the Beinecke on Oct. 6. The exhibition, curated by Kevin Repp and Timothy Young, chronicles the convoluted and fragmented trajectory of European Avant-Garde thinking after World War II.

The term “avant-garde” originally referred to the front lines on the battlefield, said French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel, who teaches a class called “Modernism & the Avant-Garde.”

“In esthetics, it commonly refers to forms of experiment that put into question the status of art itself and the institutions that ratify value,” he said in an e-mail. “For radical avant-gardistes new art should help us see the world differently; it should prompt us to change the world, or our role in it,” he wrote.

Over 30 prints and posters from the post-war period hang on the central column of the Beinecke. More than half of them are from 1968 — the year of widespread student protests in Europe that crystallized the intellectual foment of post-war years. The words “Vive la revolution pasione” are emblazoned on a poster with an image of what resembles Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Nearby, a red, black and cream print of students trampling a police officer advocates “le pouvoir du peuple.”

These are not posters for college dorm rooms.

Young explained that many of the acquisitions for the exhibit are from book dealers across Europe.

“It’s funny because people would always say, ‘These posters are going to end up in a cold dusty library some day.’ We are so lucky to have found them,” he said.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into two parts and organized chronologically. The ground floor contains artifacts recording the intellectual struggle from the liberation of Nazi-occupied Paris to the student protests of 1968. The mezzanine level displays a collection from the 1970s, a decade that was heavily influenced by the revolutionary fervor of the late 60s.

While every display case contains several magazines, prints, pamphlets and manuscripts, Repp said the exhibition barely scratches the surface of the full collection.

“We tried to balance really important archival-type material with lots of eye-candy,” he said. “We could have stuffed the cases.”

In one case, an extremely rare full set of the original mimeographed bulletin “Potlatch,” an underground publication of the Lettrist movement, is on display across from a “Museum in a Box,” a container of small objects like a spoon, a lampshade, matches and a ping pong ball all decorated with strange symbols. Young said the accidentally discovered the “Museum” at a book dealer in Paris.

The northern display case contains one of the most important works in the exhibition: the original manuscript of Guy Debord’s “La Societe du Spectacle,” a manifesto of the Situationist movement first published in 1967. The three quadrille notebooks, on loan from Debord’s widow Alice Becker-Ho, are covered in the blue and black scribbles, notes and arrows of Debord’s own hand.

“The most eye-catching pieces aren’t necessarily the most important,” Repp said of the acquisition.

The mezzanine level is full of “eye-catching” pieces that were a testament to 1970s movements that kept the spirit of revolt alive, even after most students had returned to the classroom.

Technicolor copies of English counter-culture magazine “Oz” feature controversial images like a bright pink Mona Lisa who says, “Love me. I’m an ugly failure,” and a policeman pig holding the widely censored, semi-pornographic “School Kids Issue.” Nearby display cases contain original Barbarella cartoons, copies of “Suck,” Europe’s first sex paper, as well as anarchist publications.

“There was a co-opting of pop culture by these different groups for their own use, this sense of a possibility for change even if the students went back to the universities,” Young said, “They built on the momentum of 1968.”

The exhibition’s opening event will take place on Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. Becker-Ho and Jacqueline de Jong, an artist and former editor of the early 1960s magazine “Situationist Times” will both attend the event and present talks on the exhibition.

“Postwar Avant-Garde & the Culture of Protest” will be open until Dec. 19.

Comments

  • Anon.

    Well done!
    This captures it perfectly :)