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Oppède: The Utopian Dream Created by Artists in the South of France


This small French town for a time became a utopian refuge for a group of artists.

The illusion of utopia is not dead. On the contrary, every now and again people emerge whom, in synchronicity with each other, meet to dream collectively, not as a desirable but impossible idea, but as a tangible reality.

This is the case of Oppède, a city in the south of France (between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence) that for several years was the scene for a project between architects and artists that sought to rebuild the city but not only in a spatial sense, but also in its social fabric. In 1940, with the city abandoned and destroyed as a result of the war, a group of friends arrived in town with the firm intention of putting into practice their dreams of collectivism. Architecture students Georges Brodovitch, Florent Margaritis and Jean Auproux, fashion designer Jeanne Violet, painters Albert Rémy and his partner Yliane joined the six inhabitants of the city that remained and began the arduous task of reconstructing and restoring.

For several months, students, artists and locals cooperated to make the buildings inhabitable that had been destroyed by fighting in the area. Other architects fleeing city life, anxious about the situation, soon joined them. Over time a rhythm of work emerged almost naturally with well-defined schedules: arise at 5am, eat at 5:30, 13:00 and 19:00, without delays, to take advantage of the few hours of daylight available during the winter.

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The adverse circumstances were no hindrance to the enthusiasm of those involved, however, and neither was the immense difficulty of the task. In addition to the initial group, other famous participants joined them or participated briefly in the commune: Antoine and Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, the sculptors François Stahly and Etienne-Martin, the painters Zelman and Jacques Hérold, the writer Arthur Adamov and even Marcel Duchamp, who attended a masked ball in honor of Jeanne Violet, who got married during that period in Oppède.

In addition to the restoration of the city, the artists also managed to beautify it with frescoes and sculptures. But it is also true that many of their projects remained as ideas on the drawing board, or as simply words in debates they had. They had thought, for example, of establishing a network of a ‘fair economy’ avant la lettre, because although at that time the concept did not exist, the collective was close to developing it and even consolidate it, placing Oppède at the epicenter of such system.

Toward 1942, the collective enthusiasm began to wane, eroded by the invasion of German troops in the area and also the lack of resources that, in many ways, they were never capable of self-generating. The group dispersed but, as Sophie Cachon says in Télérama, the remnant of the adventure was an “infallible friendship,” perhaps the minimum but essential element, at any time, to once again dream about the possibility of a utopia.

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