Spotlight on France

50 years on, Louvre, Nanterre Uni revisit spirit of May '68

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France's May 1968 student protests kicked off in Nanterre University, west of Paris. In the first of a series of events to mark this 50th anniversary, the university commissioned street artists to "tattoo" its campus walls with artworks inspired by chefs d'oeuvres from the Louvre museum.

Venus de Milo revisited by artist Kouka at Nanterre University
Venus de Milo revisited by artist Kouka at Nanterre University © Université de Nanterre

Back in March '68, students at Nanterre staged sit-ins and chanted slogans like "C'est interdit d'interdire!" (It's forbidden to forbid).

Fifty years on students are still chanting but it's a theatre performance as part of the Nuit des Idées (Night of ideas) event, organised by the Institut Français in some 100 towns around the world on 25 January.

The poses they strike are not of unruly hordes throwing paving stones at riot police but suggestive of works of art like Eugène's Delacroix's painting of Liberty Leading the People which commemorated France's July Revolution of 1830.

The original is in the Louvre and inspired the wall art done on campus by artist C215.

Liberty guiding the people revisited by C215
Liberty guiding the people revisited by C215 ©Université de Nanterre

C215 is one of the eight artists commissioned by the Louvre and Nanterre as part of the Beneath the street, art - the Louvre programme: a tongue-in-cheek reference to the May '68 slogan "Beneath the paving stones, the beach!"

Artists could use any medium they liked - spray paint, rollers, collage - but the source of inspiration had to be from the Louvre.

"The idea is to explain that street artists are the descendants, the spiritual sons of the big artists of the Louvre," says Cyril Gouyette head of the Louvre's education department.

The project aimed to get artworks to travel outside the gallery's walls in a process of democratisation echoing the spirit of '68.

"Many street artists [...] want to make some democratisation of art because they know that many people don’t dare to cross the threshold of the museum," Gouyette explains. "They want to give them opportunities to know the big artworks conserved there. That was the spirit of '68 - the democratisation of art - and to say 'La beauté est dans la rue', Beauty is in the street."

Venus de Milo revisited by Kouka
Venus de Milo revisited by Kouka © Université de Nanterre

Franco-Congolese street artist Kouka has worked on that notion of beauty. It took him four days, paint-roller in hand, to produce the 250m² black-and-white fresco inspired by the head of the ancient Greek sculpture, the Venus de Milo.

Although the sculpture is now attributed to Alexandros of Antioch, Kouka was drawn to the fact there was "mystery around it" for a long time.

"Nobody really knows who did it, so it’s kind of street art," he says. "When you see street art many people know the artworks but don’t know about the artist, so there was a kind of link."

Writing Russian author Fiodor Dostoyevsky's "Beauty will save the world" on the wall served as another link.

"It was written on the wall in May '68 and I like this sentence because it's very positive in a context which was a bit difficult," the artist says.

One of the two artworks by Madame, inspired by Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Le fils ingrat and Le fils puni.
One of the two artworks by Madame, inspired by Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Le fils ingrat and Le fils puni. ©Lionel Belluteau

Madame, the only female artist on show, has adorned the campus walls with two collages inspired by French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Le fils ingrat (Ungrateful son) and Le fils puni (Punished son). The result is full of reverie, and foliage.

"It’s about the relationships between dads and sons," she says. "And I try to make something more sensitive and less theatrical."

She doesn't feel a huge connection with May '68 but recognises some common points.

"I don’t feel political but just we’ve got in common the fact of doing something, writing something outside of the intimate circle," she says. "It's a type of contestation [protest] but in a different way."

The Death of Abel by Jean-Baptiste Stouf inspired artist Roti
The Death of Abel by Jean-Baptiste Stouf inspired artist Roti © Université de Nanterre

Sculptor and graffiti artist Pierre Amir Sassone, alias Roti, chose a small marble sculpture, the Death of Abel, by Jean-Baptiste Stouf.

"Since the age of 17 I go [to the Louvre] every two or three weeks just to draw this sculpture showing Abel giving his last breath because I'm amazed by the way the last moments of his life were perfectly represented as something truly alive," he says.

While the original sculpture shows Cain's victim sprawled full-length on the ground, Roti chose to spray paint his version of Abel's cusped hand on the campus wall.

Abel expirant par Jean-Baptiste STOUF, 1785
Abel expirant par Jean-Baptiste STOUF, 1785 © Le Louvre

Roti works in marble, didn't go to art school and identifies with the artist as manual labourer.

"When you're a worker, for example a stone-carver, the brain of a corporation is the extension of the hand," he explains. "And I wanted to show how hands could produce intelligence."

"There is an idea of being from the proletarian classes but not being a dumb guy watching TV every night. And it’s my case and I know a lot of people like me. But from the academic world, the brain world, it’s not seen like that."

As for Kouka, his "graffiti bandit" side can connect to '68.

"When I used to do graffiti, it was not really art, it was more like politics, because it’s forbidden to write on the walls. So it was a political act to do it. For me it refers very much to May '68."

No commemoration

Nanterre in 1968 was a hotbed of student activism, pushing for social change both within and outside the university walls. Nanterre in 2018 wants to show it's still connected to "the tradition of defending social progress, fighting against discrimination and affirming freedoms", says Jean-François Balaudé, head of Nanterre.

But there was no question of a tribute or commemoration.

"It's very sensitive to revisit that period. We didn't want to commemorate."

Challenging artists who're used to working in a very contemporary way to reinterpret chefs d'oeuvresfrom the Louvre appealed to Balaudé.

"We know art thrives off constraint so we hoped bringing street art and works from the Louvre closer together could produce something spectacular, ironic, poetic. It seems to have worked," he adds.

The artworks now belong to the campus; they'll have to weather the elements and perhaps confront the odd spray can.

"I think we'll see the principle that generally operates in the streets, operating here," he says. "That's to say respect for the work of street artists, and art in general, will mean these pieces will protect themselves. I hope so."

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