Purple Magazine
— S/S 2015 issue 23

Ile du Levant, Ile du Titan

photography by OLIVIER AMSELLEM

Co-edited and published by the villa Noailles and Archibooks + Sautereau Éditeur, October 2014


Heliopolis (City of the Sun), the first community in the world devoted to public nudism, was built in 1930 on a tiny portion of LE LEVANT, a military island off the Côte d’Azur. It has remained unchanged since the ’70s, with no cars, only 10 hotels, 85 villas, a nature reserve, and one beach where clothing is actually prohibited. No further construction is allowed. Olivier Amsellem vacationed there a few times, shooting every facet of this hedonistic utopia.

Like the shadow of a bird, the Île du Levant forms an eight-kilometer-long crack upon maps, displaying a strange spiral outline on its right wing that, when seen from above, appears to have been redacted with white spots. On one side lies the resort of Héliopolis, with the concentric sinuosity of its layout and its more or less developed 200 plots; on the other, a military base, crossed by several tracks between crude buildings, living quarters, three lakes, a lighthouse, and a decommissioned semaphore. This ultra-secret missile test center occupies nine-tenths of the island.

The partitioning is recent. It was only in 1959 that the army definitively enclosed within fences and barbed wire this land that was granted by the state. Before, one could roam freely, taking this village among the arbutus trees at the heart of Héliopolis as a starting point. It was founded in 1931 by the doctors André and Gaston Durville. The longevity of this pioneering naturist resort is as unique as the lifestyle it promotes, characterized by the collective adoption of nudity during familiar, leisure, or sporting activities, in commune with nature; it still sets the standard. As early as 1939, Match presented “this land where one must live naked in order to not draw attention” and portrayed artisans and shopkeepers, seasonal residents, and occasional visitors wandering around the village wearing thongs. In his book Memories for Tomorrow, Jean-Louis Barrault — just like Madeleine Renaud — yearns for the early days of his first visits in 1936: “The whole island to ourselves. The army hadn’t arrived yet, and we could live! When embraced with desire, we only had to step a couple of meters away in order to commune in the thickets. We savored our youth.” This division has grown over the years. On the military side, few recent constructions are visible except for the living quarters, several administration buildings, and machine rooms adorned with satellite dishes. Whereas on the civilian side are bungalows, villas, and patios, with distinct architectural successes, and also, according to a phrase from a newspaper in 1947: an “architecture of artisans, shopkeepers, and public officials,” which even today is not without appeal. On the one side, a Mediterranean vegetation of pine trees, arbutus, heath, and maquis, and on the other, a jumble of lush gardens with exotic and diverse varieties. “Mars and Venus have made fine bedfellows,” wrote Jean-Albert Foëx in La Revue Naturiste Internationale (The International Naturist Review), as it portrayed the 1959 season, when some expected the worst. And if the gods of Levant have always slept apart, it is nonetheless under their auspices that a uniquely human, social, economic, urban, and natural landscape reality has grown: on one side of the Île du Levant, the delights of the seaside, underwater voyages, Arcadian romantic tolerance, and the freedom to live naked; and on the other side, the Île du Titan of engineers and technicians, research and prototype testing, and secrecy.

Olivier Amsellem is not the first photographer to have recorded the Île du Levant, the most photographed of the Îles d’Or (Golden Isles). In the 1950s, Robert Charroux, Ervin Marton, and Serge de Sazo turned Levant into an island populated with a “host of pretty girls wearing flowers and shells: like Gauguinesque Tahitians” — to borrow a phrase from that time. Later, in 1968, Elliott Erwitt offered a more distant, even cruel, gaze upon these Levantine bodies. Olivier Amsellem has uncovered the off-season’s empty isolation, when the cicadas stop singing from November until May, when the deserted landscape becomes truly itself beneath a sky that is hazy or washed blue by the mistral. Through the rigor of a frontal perspective, which he has adopted from the history of painting (Jan van Goyen, Caspar David Friedrich, Eugène Boudin, Marc Rothko) and photography (Walker Evans, Josef Koudelka), Olivier Amsellem has extracted from the island’s beauty a subtle, incisive, picturesque imagery that expresses a certain melancholy. It is one of the most singular and accurate choices for an island that may also be inhabited with one of the most bracing pleasures. But that is another story.

“Héliopolis, in accordance with the spirit of its founders, must not be a town or a village, nor an agglomeration of houses or luxury villas, but a simple, rustic estate where lovers of fresh air and sun may come, within the calm of a beautiful natural environment, to rest and spend simple and wholesome holidays, for the sake of better health.”

Doctors Gaston & André Durville, founders of Héliopolis, 1932


[Table of contents]

S/S 2015 issue 23

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS






purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple TRAVEL

purple SEX


purple TRAVEL

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


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