“Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg”

Pub date April 1, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

REVIEW While most Americans equate 1968 as the ground zero of political tumult in Chicago, New York City, and throughout the South, the revolutions that spread across Europe that year were of equal historical importance. Largely a reaction to the political asphyxiation of post–World War II policy and a much larger rejection of the feudal monarchist, industrial-capitalist, and communist regimes that had subjugated the masses for many years, the continent was suddenly positioned at the precipice of deconstruction. To paraphrase a Nietzsche epigram that appeared in spray paint frequently that year, Europe was discovering "the chaos inside to give birth to a dancing star."

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum’s "Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg" relives and reveals this spirit through the incredible work of former Le nouvel observateur photographer Serge Hambourg. Capturing the protests that began in the suburbs of Paris in March of that year and quickly spread throughout the country by May, Hambourg’s lens centers on the students, artists, and anarchists who swept up and down the Left Bank.

Some of Hambourg’s photographs capture an air of comedy: one shows the very photogenic Nanterre student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit shouting down the superannuated Surrealist poet Louis Aragon before a delighted crowd. Other photos — such as the image of a gas grenade shown in close-up before being thrown into a crowd — convey how quickly the protests degenerated into violence. As with the Parisian nouvelle vague auteurs, Hambourg redefines the city’s streetscapes from the singular moments of Eugène Atget or Henri Cartier-Bresson as a kinetic intersection of bodies and machines — everything in the process of becoming. As the protests wound down and the Gaullists regained control, the photos depict a city picked clean of its history — a Pyrrhic victory for the government.

PROTEST IN PARIS 1968: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SERGE HAMBOURG Through June 1. Wed., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–7 p.m. UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $4–$8 (free first Thurs). (510) 642-0808, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu