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Celebrating Paris, May 1968 with Anthon Beeke’s Naked alphabet

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t all began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other and it gradully became one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution. “In 1938, France had 60,000 university students. In 1961, it had 240,000. By 1968, it had 605,000, as many as Britain, West Germany and Belgium combined” writes The Independent of the times the youth protested against the old. “Despite the overall rise in prosperity, and levels of education, De Gaulle’s France was a quietly oppressive place... Students felt that they were treated like children and herded like cattle into vast “amphis” or amphiteatres to scribble down notes. Factory workers were treated like inferior beings, by bosses and union bosses alike.” In a celebrated, prophetic, but also obtuse, article in Le Monde on 15 March 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté said that France was suffering from a dangerous political malady: “boredom”. Elsewhere, he said, from Spain to the US, students were protesting about wars or fundamental liberties.

“French students are mostly concerned that the girls... should be able to visit the bedrooms of the boys, which is a rather limited conception of human rights” wrote Pierre Viansson-Ponté in his article in Le Monde on 15 March 1968. The sexual revolution was happening in the United States and France had to explode. And it did. “The right of young adults to have sex with one another in their rooms was, indeed, one of the first of the demands of students at Nanterre University, which led directly to the events of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre, led by a 22-year-old, red-haired, French-born German called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, successfully used sexual oppression as a symbol for political and spiritual oppression”.

What better way to remember and explore those times but with a nude aplhabet that remains controversial and intresting almost half a century after its creation. When Anthon Beekes Naked ladies alphabet protested “against the supposedly ‘dehumanising’ and thoroughly ‘indecipherable’ mechanistic alphabets”. The Dutch designer “garnished his critique with a huge dose of irony and created an alphabet consisting entirely of photographed nude girls, which subsequently found its way into the final edition of Avant Garde (no. 14, 1971), edited by Ralph Ginzburg and art directed by Herb Lubalin”. It is thanks to the groundbreaking publication of this New York cult magazine which reproduced the entire ‘Naked ladies alphabet’ in black and white under the title ‘Belles Lettres Photo-Alphabet’ that we are reminded of the importance of typography as an art form.

One of the most elaborate ‘human alphabets’, in terms of its formal quality, Anthon Beeke’s human letterforms were published by De JONG & Co. printers in their experimental ‘Kwadraat’ series in 1970. “His capitals, built entirely out of carefully choreographed ensembles of nude girls (no less than twelve for the ‘M’ and the ‘W’), are a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Wim Crouwel’s experimental ‘new alphabet’, published in the same series some years earlier (1967)” writes Jelle Bouwhuis in Stedelijk Museum Bulletin,(December 2003, p. 30-34). “Beeke’s alphabet is also a meticulous reconstruction of the outlines of classic Roman capitals – the Baskerville Old Face was the inspiration –, including thicks and thins and serifs. although (...) Beeke certainly wanted to celebrate the sensual aspect of classical letters with their subtle curves and roundings and their perfect proportions, his nude alphabet is not explicitly erotic”.

Created by Anthon and Anna Beeke and photographed by Geert Kooiman this Nude alphabet “was published as Quadrat Print fourteen in 1970. The thirty square loose pages were presented in a folder with a blank cover which opened up to three pages with photos of the shoot. Nicely each letter was printed on card stock rather than paper, litho with a 150 screen” adds Past Print.

Type can be erotic but most important is that type is an art form that can and will demand “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!” for all.