Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A strange Virgin and her signature perfume

I cannot remember where and when I first met her, this strange Virgin with child surrounded by angels, but I do come across her in different scenarios, often entirely unexpected. The last time I saw her, as part of an installation on screen and not in person as she had been on loan to Madrid, was at the Dries van Noten Inspirations exhibition in Paris (which I hereby also highly recommend). She has always been a muse to artists and designers  and the late Alexander McQueen used her as an inspiration for his last, unfinished, collection.  It's not surprising, just look at her:

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and child surrounded by angels, around 1452, image via wikipedia

Painted by the French artist Jean Fouquet in the 1450's, it is a piece of art that most people describe as surprisingly modern and of disturbing beauty. Her alien paleness, emphasized by the high hairline, is part of the beauty ideal of the time and even the unnatural breasts, poking out under her armpits like perfectly shaped marble balls, can be seen in many virgin and child paintings. It's the colour and texture composition that I find so striking, and if you will, modern about this Madonna. Her white figure is set against a group of angels in red and blue, arranged in a strange Tessellation style pattern reminding of H.W.Escher. Mastering the art of perspective was still a bit hit and miss in the early Renaissance, but this doesn't look like it was done due to lack of skill, it's a very deliberate effect. Despite them forming a background pattern, the chubby little angels are very three dimensional, especially the red ones.  And, ever so slightly disturbing: they are covered in a glossy texture that is not dissimilar to latex. In contrast to the naughty cherubim the virgin has almost no real texture, Fouquet didn't render her skin very differently from the folds of her cape, making her appear like an alabaster statue in her own painting, highlighting her otherworldly-ness. A lot of the paintings startling allure is probably due to the mixture of realistic (baby Jesus and the virgin's face) and iconic (her figure and costume) elements and it's certainly a great example of a dualism in style in early Northern Renaissance art. Also not untypical for the time, she is depicted as a Queen more than a  mother and art historians are now pretty certain that Fouquet used Agnes Sorel, favourite mistress of King Charles VII of France as his inspiration and model. Being regarded as the most beautiful woman of her time, he certainly did her honour. 

And because I love the painting and the myth that surrounds her I now try to find a perfume that best captures this 15th century virginal pop art queen. My first idea is Alexander McQueen's violet number MyQueen,  for the connection mentioned above. It has the edge I'm looking for and a sharp hairspray weirdness at some point during the wear, but it's altogether a bit too one dimensional. I went back to the Relique d'Amour from Oriza and a few other incense-strong perfumes  to see if that would work for her, but they either lacked the modern/alien aspect I was looking for or were too   masculine. Serge Lutens' La Vierge en Fer, an interesting Lily, is, while certainly more modern, too sweet and innocent. It's interesting how, when searching for a specific scent, the name, the packaging, the whole brand identity suddenly becomes such an integral part of it. This virgin's perfume has to be daring, a bit alien, cold but sensual and definitely modern, futuristic even.  A little bit sweetness is fine and incense and lilies would be perfect. And the brand has to be daring too. Bold. And preferably French. Don't ask me why, it just has. 

Perfume brands don't get much bolder than Etat libre d'Orange, and even their logo goes terribly well with my chosen artwork. But I'm not all that familiar with their scents apart from a few exceptions, and was also in need of some more ideas. It was my perfume friend Nick who helped me out here. I gave him a few hints about the nature of the fragrance I was looking for and he made two suggestions: Comme des Garcons 2011 EdP, to which I will come back later,  and for the land of Orange he named Charogne

Charogne had featured in a "skanky scents" Perfume Lovers London event held by the very same Nick not too long ago, and I remember liking it a lot. On the right side of wearable, with some weird sensual undertones, a bit rubbery. When I test it now in connection with the artwork seeks perfume quest it behaves even better than expected. A strong lily, jasmine accord is combined with a leather/rubber note, incense and a lot of creamy and not overly sweet vanilla. I can for the life of me not see why anyone would find this offensive. It's daring, I admit, but a lot of the provocation comes from the name. And even that doesn't hold when you look into the inspiration for it:

 Beaudelaire's poem Une Charogne 

The perfume evokes the beauty of decay. And when you see flowers in their very last stages before they wilt and wither away completely, you understand the intent. However, as much as I love the perfume - particularly how  the lily is partnered with the rubber  - it's not quite right for the virgin. It embraces and celebrates the cycle of life and death, and in doing so it's all too human and grounded to our bodily ways. 

So I go back to Nick's first choice, the Comme des Garcons 2011. The one in the wonky, melted pear shaped bottle that won't stand up. And at first sniff I know that this is it. This is the scent that the painting should give off, the virgin's signature perfume.
Ingredient lists can be very boring reads, but this one certainly isn't: Industrial glue and brown scotch tape, aldehydes, saffron, styrax, lilac and rubber? I assume there is also a long list of fluffy and nice smelling things which didn't make it into the press material because they are just...well, boring, but there has to be a reason why this actually smells so great. I get a lot of aldehydes and yes, they are paired with an industrial note I can't really identify, but then comes a spicy freshness and the soft lilac. It has all the elements that I wanted for the Virgin, it's sharp, cold, sweet, alien, futuristic, plasticky, intriguing and intoxicating. And, most importantly, it defines beauty  in an unfashionable and unconventional way. 

Where to see:
You can visit The Virgin surrounded by angels at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp


  1. The only thing I like about this paintings is its colors - I wouldn't have guessed it was from the 15th century. Ok, one more - I like the way the artist painted the dress. And I kind of see the Escher's reference. Other than that... I agree, it's disturbing but I wouldn't use the word "beauty" anywhere in the vicinity of its description. Probably one should have a proper education (or at least extensive exposure to the art) to appreciate the ugliness of everything depicted as a beauty - I clearly don't have it.

    1. Dear Undina, I do not appreciate uglyness, quite the contrary, but it doesn't have to be pretty to be beauttiful in my eyes. In fact, I find extreme prettyness often very ugly, in art and in perfume. And as always, there is no need to be in agreement...

    2. Not that I want to insist on arguing but I'm really curious so I'll ask.

      I understand how in other areas of life something might be beautiful without being pleasing to the eye, for example, wonderful/smart/kind/etc. person might be perceived as beautiful even if his/her face isn't pretty. Or some clever design - even if it lacks symmetry and proportion - might be seen as beautiful. Or an act. Or poetry. But how can be considered beautiful a painting that isn't "pretty"? Maybe if it was depicting some heroic act or other subject that calls for that reaction on its own. But a static picture without actual story behind it... It can be interesting, important, masterful and many other adjectives - but how can it be beautiful? Can you try to explain what makes you feel that way about this particular picture. Is it the topic? The mastery? Something else?


    3. First of all, she is beautiful to me. She, the woman on the canvas. Strange, but beautiful.
      But I assume that doesn't really go far enough to answer your question. On one hand you can say Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder, and therefore end the discussion, on the other, there are libraries filled with theories about the nature of beauty. So let me try to explain how it is for me, personally:
      You did say yourself that a design and a composition can be beautiful...for me this painting, or any artwork, is an object that I approach just like a design object, minus the functionality, obviously, but that is another matter. So for me, the composition of this particular painting is beautiful. It stops me in my tracks, it surprises me, it raises questions, it pleases my eyes because it captivates me and I want to figure out why that is. I find it clever, if you will, how a 15th century painter created this effect of ultra modernity.
      In your first comment you ask whether one has to have a special education in art history to appreciate paintings in this way and while I think it's not really the case, it certainly helps if you look at art a lot and be open minded about it. Do you love music? Because I know that people who are really into classical music often describe it the same way...it can be moving, clever, disturbing, innovative, groundbreaking, pleasing...anything, really, but if they love a pice they probably say they find it beautiful.
      Did that help you to understand my way of thinking in any way?

  2. I find the features and proportions of the faces ugly, but the overall effect of the painting - the shapes and colours and textures - beautiful in an offbeat, arresting way. And if I didn't know better, I would say that that Virgin has had a boob job.

    1. She certainly has no gravity problems, quite the opposite.