Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Gentleman and the Lady

When I sit in my little office I look at a wall of souvenirs. Postcards, labels, business cards, little notes, photos of cats and people, tickets and other oddities which I find interesting. One of the items is a postcard from an art exhibition I visited in Paris last October, showing "Box seats at the theatre, The Gentleman and the Lady", by Swiss painter and print maker Felix Vallotton

Although not really his most famous work, it was the image the curators of the Paris exhibition had chosen to advertise the exhibition all over Paris, and it attracted me to go and see it. I had no real idea what to expect other than seeing the work of a late 19th, early 20th century's painter of mediocre fame. The exhibition held a vast amount of artworks, varying from slightly surreal and beautifully stylised landscapes to portraits, nudes of debatable quality, fantastic black and white wood prints, horrendous illustrations of classical and biblical themes and a few absolutely astonishing paintings of genre scenes, often showing couples. I walked around being surprised that one man had managed to create art with such difference in quality and craftsmanship. His wood prints in particular were outstanding, and he has obviously been very influential for Aubrey Beardsley. And on the other hand he produced some truly awful female nudes that make you wonder if some adolescent wannabe painter had been temporarily given the reign over the canvas. But whenever the women in his art have their clothes on they are interesting and as a spectator I want to know more about them and their story. 
A particularly weird nude from Vallotton
Example of Vallotton's wood cuts

Box Seats at the theatre, the Gentleman and the Lady by Felix Vallotton, 1909

The decision to chose The Gentleman and the Lady as the icon of the exhibition was clearly an inspired one, and having since spent 4 months with the image in front of me, it hasn't lost any of its enigmatic power, despite it's somewhat shoddy technical finesse.  What is the story behind this couple surrounded by darkness, he in hiding, almost trying not to be seen and she looking forlorn and lonely, overshadowed by her enormous hat. The balcony belongs to the theatre or the opera, but wherever they are, he seems to be watching her, not anything on stage. They are very much in a public space, yet obscured by darkness. However glamourous and joyous the perfomance might be, it doesn't reach up to the Box seats. There is a lot of sadness in this painting and a weird dangerous undertone is humming in the background. Is she a "kept" woman and he married to another? What is she thinking? What perfume might she wear? Something he bought for her? To answer that last question in a lazy sort of way I could just go back in perfume history and chose one of the early Guerlains, or a Penhaligon,  but I'm not really familiar with vintage scents, and I'm sure there will be a contemporary fragrance out there that feels right for her. 

I think it should be something with a hint of powdery, old fashioned toiletries. But as she is the dominant figure in the painting, her scent will also have a strong attitude. Something that announces its presence, but not giving away all its secrets all at once, and then only to the person coming close enough to smell it on skin. Hm...
Lipstick Rose from Frederic Malle comes to mind. As does Moulin Rouge from Histoires de Parfums. It's been a while since I had last smelled Lipstick Rose, so today I made a detour to Liberty to get - not a sample - but a sealed piece of paper. ( I know they have samples, they know they have samples, but we sort of both pretend they don't exist. Does my head in, but is another story...) So back home with LR both on paper and on skin I have to say that although it fits the criteria of "old fashioned make up" it is far to bright and happy go lucky in colour. The memories condensed in this fragrance are happy ones and  the painting is gloomy, its hues subdued and earthy.  My other idea fairs much better. From the start Moulin Rouge is actually a bit "muffig". This neat German word describes a variety of slightly unpleasant smells, ranging from damp to stale. Moulin Rouge is a bit rank, but not too much, just on the right side of  "times gone by". It feels alltogether like a scent that has captured something that has disappeared. If you think of the Nicole Kidman Moulin Rouge of the musical/movie with its plush colours and overbearing decor you are in the right place but wrong time for this perfume. This Moulin Rouge is a bit haunted, the carpets and velvet curtains are fading and the music has long long gone. But the Histoires de Parfums creation is much better than I make it sound. After about an hour I do get powdery sweetness, and warmth, a bit waxy, with some dryness that, for me, speaks of the empty stage and a dusty red curtain that will never be lifted again. It's a lovely scent that stays close to skin, with hints of red roses and pale iris, but ultimately this theatre backstage smell is not mine. It is, however, a fantastic time machine sort of fragrance, and from now on the perfume I imagine the sad Lady in Vallotton's painting to be wearing whenever I look at her.

This is in a way, the second artwork meets perfume post on this blog, and I am planning to make that an irregular feature. Because I don't really think of these posts as proper reviews, more like inspiried musings, I will not do  a Where and How to wear for those. Just doesn't feel right. But if the artwork speaks to you, you might also like my chosen perfume.  

And now: Off  to Thailand.


Monday, 10 February 2014


When I reviewed Jardins d'Armide from Oriza L.Legrand the other week I mentioned that I really would like to see the house move from the recreation of historic fragrances to telling "old"  stories with a contemporary twist. And then chance will have it and I find someone else who is doing exactly that. Three weeks ago I attended a perfume event at Bloom perfumery in Spitalfields, where Carlos Huber, the founder of Arquiste perfumes presented and explained his fragrance line. Unfortunately I managed to arrive a whopping 30 minutes late (thank you number 78 bus, thank you apple maps, thank you stupid no sense of orientation brain) which was a real shame because not only did Carlos explain  a lot  about the  inspirations behind scents but  he also gave us the opportunity to have a sniff at the single ingredients he used. I entered the shop just in time to hear him talking about Aleksandr, the perfume inspired by the rather tragic story of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. It is told in notes of:
Violet leaves
Fir balm
Smelling the violet leaves was a bit of a revelation - no sweetness, no pastell colour, but a strong earthy green with quite some punch. Not unpleasant, but a bit in your face. Carlos explained that he used that particular note for the earthyness but also because it does have that old fashioned powdery perfume element. Perfumes did smell of violets at that time. The next note, vodka, or alcohol in general makes a lot of sense in terms of telling the story of a Russian poet of the 19th century, but this particular poison is famed for its non-smelling properties. On my little paper strip I detected just a hint of fizzy freshness, more like a vodka/champagne cocktail than the pure thing. 
And then the dominant note, the leather. The essence we smelled was of the finest quality boot leather. Not a feminine suede glove, but polished black riding boots. I am a bit of a sucker for 19th century men's costumes. High boots over tight trousers, what's not to like?
The final note, the fir balm, hinting at a forest touched by a misty morning fog, (the perfect time for a duel?) was again a bit of a surprise. Strong enough to put me off if the final creation would have too much of it.  

After the presentation, when we all mingled and tested the perfumes in detail, I tried Aleksandr on skin. To my great surprise it didn't turn out to be testosterone driven at all.  The violet leaves that were so completely green on paper suddenly smelled more like the petals; sweet and fragile. If you have ever been to a perfumista gathering, you will know that even the most reserved people suddenly feel compelled to smell the lower arms and wrists of someone who just happens to stand next to them and in this case my fellow perfume lovers all expressed a certain surprise at how Aleksandr had developed on my skin.

My drawing for Aleksandr by Arquiste

For me and on me it's a melancholic, leather based fragrance with a very, very soft heart. It's one of those leathers that can go both ways (in terms of gender) and 360 degrees in terms of aspect. And I love it for that. What I like about all the Arquiste fragrances I have tested is that you can detect a unique quirkyness. It's nice to read up on the stories but the perfumes do work entirely on their own merits. Whether you involve yourself in the history or not is up to you and this, for me, marks the difference to some of the perfumes of  the house of Oriza. 
It always helps if the creator/editor of a perfume house is enthusiastic about his/her work, charming and handsome. Carlos Huber is all of that and I wish him and his line all sorts of good luck. Well deserved.

How and where to wear:

St.Petersburg, National library of Russia, with gay pride