P77191 The Month of May in Paris 1968
Lithograph 650 × 550 (25 5/8 × 21 5/8) on wove Arches paper 896 × 629 (35 1/8 × 24 3/4); printed by Arte, Paris and published by Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris and Gallery Pierre Matisse, New York in an edition of 100; artist's proof aside from the edition
Inscribed 'Raymond Mason ‘68’ below image b.r., and ‘a/p 3 The Month of May in Paris’ below image b.l.
Purchased from Marlborough Graphics (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
In conversation with the compiler on 9 December 1988, the artist said that P77191 and a polychrome low-relief of the same subject (‘The Month of May in Paris’, 1968–74, repr. Raymond Mason: Coloured Sculptures, Bronzes and Drawings 1952–1982, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery 1983, p.44) were based very closely on a drawing (whereabouts unknown) made from life, in Paris during the May 1968 student demonstrations. The scene depicted is of the boulevard de Port Royal seen from its junction with the avenue des Gobelins, the boulevard Arago and the boulevard St Marcel in the 13e arrondissement:
It was drawn absolutely on the spot in the middle of the crowd with people milling around. The Paris crowd finds nothing extraordinary or even worth turning their heads to see an artist drawing in the street. I've never had any problem there. The only problem is just having the board and the black Indian ink amongst the people who are moving around.
The very fact that I was living in the Latin Quarter for so many years made it impossible for me to escape a strong reaction to what was going on. I happened to be on the street at the precise moment that the ‘month of May’ broke out. It was a grouping of all the students. They were going to march to the stadium at Charlety and they were all grouped at the Gobelins at the end of the boulevard Port-Royal.
For Mason this May eruption coincided with a period during which he was already intensely involved with the theme of the crowd, which he had explored in countless sculptural and graphic studies before addressing the theme on a large scale in the free-standing bronze sculpture ‘The Crowd’, 1963–8 (repr. Serpentine Gallery exh. cat., 1983, p.33). According to Helen Lessore, Mason's attitude to the crowd distinguished his work from that of Giacometti, for ‘whereas what fascinated Giacometti was the single, solitary figure, for Mason it was - and is - the crowd: the crowd itself, the sense of multitude and the actual movement of the crowd’ (A Partial Testament, 1986, p.168). Mason has explained his interest in the dramatic massing of the crowd which he found ‘fascinating like a procession of clouds, the ocean waves, the diabolical dance of flames, a crowd by its human significance, transcends all these to attain its drama’ (Serpentine Gallery exh. cat., 1983, p.33). This attitude is reflected in P77191 in which individual figures are simply massed in with little attention to detail or individuality. This is typical of Mason's crowd drawings and of his drawing style in general which is characterised by a swift and impressionistic technique. It also characterises most of his low relief works but largely for technical reasons. In conversation with the compiler Mason explained, ‘I don't think you can give such a detailed corrosive quality to low relief as to high relief. It would leave the plane of low relief. It would destroy the idiom’. When, in 1968, Mason made the low relief in plaster of ‘The Month of May in Paris’, the figures were therefore generalised and radically so, when compared to the highly individualised protagonists in his richly contrasting polychrome tableau of the following year, ‘The Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, 28 February 1969’, 1969–71 (repr. ibid., p.21). The comparison suggests that P77191 was made at the beginning of a transitional period in his work. The early period, aside from ‘The Crowd’, was dominated by low relief works in plaster and bronze, exploring city scenes and anonymous figures. The later period is marked by works in high relief, using epoxy resin and acrylic paint to maximise the amount of detail and human character. The change was partly prompted by experiments with epoxy resin which allowed him to bring painting to sculpture but also by the evolution of a new kind of subject matter: ‘Since finishing “The Crowd”, I have been concerned with the human theme, and specifically with the doings of humble folk, les petites gens. What's difficult in this age of declining belief is to find a theme that will interest and speak out to the general public, to everybody’ (ibid., p.9). This new subject matter he found especially in real life events witnessed at first-hand or vividly experienced at second-hand.
Although occurring within this transitional period, the 1968 street demonstrations did not provide Mason with subject matter capable of visual narrative and human caricature. According to the artist, the real subject of the ‘The Month of May in Paris’ was youth itself:
This was the only occasion on which I dealt specifically with Youth. May 1968 was essentially a question of youth. It had no effect whatsoever, in fact, on the other side of the river [where] people didn't even know it was going on and the general public for whom I sculpt and to whom I talk have got nothing to do with May 1968 at all. It was an explosion of joy. The entire latin Quarter was uniquely occupied with people.
The youthfulness of the crowd and the absence of older faces greatly reduced the opportunities for caricature and mimicry because young people have ‘nothing grotesque about them and nothing to caricature’. In 1974 he had the plaster relief ‘The Month of May in Paris’ cast in epoxy resin. Finding the result unpleasant, ‘like a pile of shaving soap more than anything else’, he decided to colour the surface and in the process gave several figures added features which age them as much as individualise them.
The composition of P77191 and of the later relief is dominated by the swelling form of a plane tree in full leaf. In making the drawing of the scene Mason simply drew what he saw. When shortly afterwards he made the low relief of the same subject he came to see the tree as ‘sprouting out of the head of the foremost protagonist like a though of liberty’. He believes this image was appropriate to its time. In a letter to the compiler dated 6 July 1990, he wrote, ‘There was a great deal of very simple idealism going in those days and even respectable and very serious Collège de France professors were capable of thinking the same sort of thing: Liberty, a new world, and so on. There's also the link with the May tree and Pagan and Medieval associations.’
The symbolism of trees has an extensive history in pagan and religious iconography and is central to the mythology of most cultures. According to Marina Warner (‘Signs of the Fifth Element’ in The Tree of Life, exh. cat., South Bank Centre 1989), trees are usually associated with fertility and creativity and often with wisdom and knowledge. In France in the late eighteenth century, the Jacobin revolutionaries adopted and extended the tradition of the maypole, symbolic of renewed life, spring and resurrection, in the symbol and ceremony of the ‘Liberty Tree’.
For Mason the streets and gardens of Paris are characterised above all by their plane trees and would be ‘unrecognisable’ without them. He recalls that ‘ever since my first hours in Paris over forty years ago, I have been fascinated by the peeling bark of the plane tree’. He has also spoken of their architectural qualities and the ‘out-shooting forms of the tree which have attracted me as a sculptor’ (letter to the compiler dated 6 July 1990). Mason's first sculptural exploration of the tree theme was with ‘Idyll’, 1955 (repr. Raymond Mason: Sculptures and Drawings, exh. cat., Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery 1989, p.21), depicting the Luxembourg Gardens, and continued in several low reliefs and in the ‘winter skeletons’ of ‘The Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, 28 February 1969’, 1969–71.
More recently, the themes of the tree and the surging crowd have come together again in a large polychrome work entitled ‘Latin Quarter’, 1987–9 (repr. Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition, Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries exh. cat., 1990, p.99). This sculpture was not intended to recall specifically the occasion which inspired P 77191 but rather to celebrate the ‘forty years I have witnessed the march and counter-march of Paris students on the magical inclined plane of the Boul’ Mich" (ibid., p.98). The composition is dominated by the plane tree trunk which rises from the foreground to fan over the group of demonstrators. The crowd, painted in detail, is clearly young and lively. Echoing the inspiration he derived from witnessing events in 1968, Mason reflects on the crowd of the 1980s: ‘however grave the nature of the demonstration, it is invariably accompanied by the exhilaration of sharing a common cause. In fact the sub-title of my work could be simply youth.’ (ibid.)
This entry has been approved by the artist.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996