Stripped Bare: Photography and Naturism

Villa Noailles, Hyère’s artistic and cultural hub, is perched on the foothills of the ruins of Château d’Hyères. Offering spectacular views over the pastel buildings and terracotta roofs of Vieux Hyères, the art centre is accessible by climbing the winding steps through Parc Bertrand. Taking a step inside this modernist-style building, it welcomes art exhibitions, festivals and workshops throughout the year. A recent photographic exhibition showcased the works of Pierre Audebert, capturing his images of Île du Levant, from 1930-1950.

Île du Levant

Île du Levant, the easternmost of the three îles d’Or lies off the coast of Hyères in the Var department of South-Eastern France. An idyllic coastline, crystal blue waters and 300 days of Mediterranean sunshine a year renders it an ideal location for tourists in search of an escape from the metro-boulot-dodo of la vie quotidienne. The island is also considered the birthplace of nudism in Europe. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is worthwhile to take a retrospective glance at early conceptions of naturism in France.

Inspired by the works of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his focus on human nature, early twentieth century thinkers pioneered the naturist movement with a scientific and medical approach. In France the Durville brothers were the leading medical voices of naturiste cures (sun, water, air). Naturisme was thus a medical concept, which promoted treating the body as an organic whole with the healing effects of the natural world. Interested in increasing public knowledge of the body and human sexuality, periodicals often promoted physical fitness as a means to perfect the active human body.

In the 1920s Drs Durville established a naturist clinic in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, and a small island named Physiopolis was created on the River Seine for Parisians to attend to strive towards physical improvement with natural cures of fresh air and exercise. The brothers began to look for a location with a more reliable climate for those with the means to return to nature for a longer period of time. In 1931 they announced the establishment of Heliopolis on the Île du Levant.

Visitors and inhabitants on Île du Levant had access to land with ocean views which provided a pathway to the Côte d’Azur. In the 1930s the Île du Levant represented a paradise on earth; the very act of nudism offered an escape from clothing, the city and civilisation through a return to the primitive in a liberating getaway. European nudists began practicing nudism on Île du Levant before gaining civil permission, demonstrating their commitment to the naturist movement by risking arrest.

Propaganda and Photography

An interest of photographing nudes within the movement was partly due to curiosity, but official photographs of muscley men and slim women were destined for publication, to promote physical wellbeing and form.  Pierre Audebert photographed Île du Levant in the 1930s and published numerous articles and artwork in the periodical, Naturisme, (clippings on display at the exhibition).  He also published and edited the first tourist guide for the island in 1937 and was a driving force in the publicization and promotion of the island as socially acceptable.  Many of Audebert’s photographs encapsulate the essence of a ‘return to nature’ with images depicting couples posing by trees, swimming in the sea, or lying on the ground mid-conversation.  They often pose candidly, reflecting the natural world through photography.

Postwar Europe

In postwar Europe, Hyères was becoming a choice tourist destination. Desperate to recover from WWII, Hyères municipalities embraced summer tourism with the hope of attracting French and other European travellers through camping, making this large town on the French Riviera an attractive choice for social elite.  In a similar trend, an interest in camping tourism was growing given its elements of escapism and a return to the wild.  French authorities tried to establish more camping resorts on Île du Levant.   

An emerging international nudist subculture created a demand for nude vacations in postwar Europe.  Hyères tolerated and defended European nude tourism as a means of economic development, recognising that Northern European tourists brought foreign currency.  Postwar France became the tourist destination of choice for German, Austrian and Scandinavian Europe nudists.  By the early 1950s France had become the single most important host in the world for nude tourists.

The experience of Île du Levant illustrates the strong demand for nude tourism in postwar Europe. Today, Levant remains a refuge for those seeking a sun-soaked escape and is still a hugely popular nudist resort, accessible by boat from Hyères and le Lavandou. Nudity is strongly encouraged on the island.

The recent exposition at Villa Noailles featuring Audebert’s work was eye-opening and succeeded in providing an insight into a fascinating European subculture.

Vic x

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