Friday, January 10, 2014

Belle Haleine: A Breath of Fresh Air


Marcel Duchamp’s readymade piece entitled “Belle Haleine” remains humorously enigmatic, a layered cultural critique that allows for multiple readings.  Elements of the absurd, irony and visual puns run rampant in this piece.  It is a puzzle and a puzzlement executed with the deft moves of a master chess player.  Much has been written about this piece in an attempt to parse the words of its author, Rrose Selavy, Duchamp’s alter ego, but nothing from the point of view of the “perfume” itself.


The original version of Belle Haleine was created in 1921, six years after Duchamp arrived in the United States and settled in New York. Duchamp used a perfume bottle and box made by Rigaud for a perfume named “Un Air Embaumé” that was launched in 1915, the same year Duchamp left Paris.  “Un Air Embaumé” means “A Perfumed Air”, but the word embaumé could also be read as “An Embalmed Air”.  In French, the letter “R” is pronounced “air”, so the Rigaud perfume could also be read as “Un R Embaumé”, a reference to the house whose embossed letter remained on the gold label Duchamp reworked. 


Given the “cryptic” nature of this word play and seeing that the Rigaud perfume bottle was housed in a coffin-shaped box which Duchamp lined with satin, perhaps the intention was, in part, to point out a connection between perfume and death through the ancient use of aromatics as embalming materials.  Alternatively, Duchamp may have critiqued the bourgeois practice of housing art in museums that seemed more like morgues than places for living work.  

Like the R. Mutt Fountain of 1917 (another pseudonym that features an R), it was revolutionary to create art from a throw-away object created for mass consumption.  As with perfume, this art was similarly disposable and ephemeral.

Rigaud’s “Un Air Embaumé” is referenced by the name Duchamp ascribed to his perfume, “Belle Haleine” meaning lovely breath (a perfumed air, even) and a play on words with “Belle Helene”, the dessert.  Since the bottle was presented without perfume, perhaps it was meant only to contain the perfumed/embalmed air of one’s breath, as ironically lovely as the pear dessert itself, or as deathly stern as the old-fashioned cameo portrait of Rrose Sélavy on its label. 

Duchamp painted the bottle green, the color of poison or worse, bad breath.  Furthermore, Belle Haleine is an “Eau de Voilette”, loosely translated as veiled water.  

Perhaps donning a small veil was a way to mask foul breath?  An obvious wordplay on Eau de Toilette  (traditionally used for personal care and even oral hygiene), another veil of meaning is revealed when “Eau de” is read as “Ode”, an ode to the small veil which distances the wearer from others.  

Clearly poking fun at Rigaud’s maudlin advertising imagery, Duchamp was telling a visual “rigole” or inside joke by punning on the perfume, its contents, its brand and the people who would wear or “consume” it.

Belle Haleine was created by the house of RS (obviously standing for Rrose Sélavy).  But the R is printed backwards which almost resembles an A if you squint and if you sound out the RS you get “Arse”.  Furthermore, the label is shaded so that it resembles a bloated form.  “Belle Haleine”, when spoken quickly turns into Baleine or whale, the source of ambergris and “Voilette” sounds like violette, favorite scents of the old fashioned, puffed up, self-important, New York society ladies.  To reinforce this connection, the borders of the label resemble the cross-section of a whale cutting through its blubber.  The original Beaux Arts style label by Rigaud sits politely inside its embossed glass fronds, but Duchamp’s label crudely pushes itself out, a perfume bottle within a perfume bottle.  The focus is the image of Rrose Sélavy revealing masculine features, especially an Adam’s apple that is highlighted by the camera’s black and white chiaroscuro and a pearl choker.

Duchamp used the Rrose Sélavy pseudonym in other instances and had different portraits taken by Man Ray, perhaps intending to develop this persona. So much has been written about his use of the double R in Rrose which he first used to sign a cryptic pun published in Francis Picabia’s Dada magazine 391.  Perhaps the embossed label on the perfume box offers a clue since it retains the capital “R” of the Rigaud emblem.  For one, rose is practically synonymous with perfume.  Could this extra letter be the perfumed/embalmed R?  R. rose Selavy?  Air-rose Selavy?  Eros, c’est la vie?  Rrrrrrrose, c’est la vie (warbled like Edith Piaff)?  The original Rigaud bottle was painted a rose pink which Duchamp changed to green.  Too bad for Rigaud, that’s life.

By 1921 Rigaud had already branched out to New York, but continued to list Paris on their labels since it was the place where their perfumes were made.  Duchamp, however, printed both cities on his Belle Haleine label, alluding to his own connections as well as to the new economics of exchange.  

The American public was probably quite familiar with Rigaud, a brand that competed with Coty who took America by storm only a decade earlier.  Rigaud’s sentimental (no pun intended) marketing must have seemed outdated to the flapper generation hungry for a modern, avant garde approach in all areas of society.  

This was the opportunity Coco Chanel seized when she created her abstract floral No. 5 in 1921.  

Lucien Lelong was the first perfume house to co-opt surrealist imagery in its marketing campaigns, borrowing from Andre Breton, Magritte and de Chirico.  Duchamp was aware of this avant garde environment in Paris as compared to the backwards looking society of New York.

There are several articles written about an alternative reading of Belle Haleine as being connected to Belle Greene, a Manhattan socialite and JP Morgan librarian who offered Duchamp his first job in the United States, only to fire him unceremoniously six weeks later.  Certainly, the name and color of the perfume bottle are persuasive arguments, but I wonder if Duchamp was so petty as to immortalize this relatively minor affront six years later, unless it was emblematic of a putrid society, the smell of which he intended to reveal, one that was in need of a breath of fresh air.  In addition, the completed Belle Haleine project was presented in 1965, well after Belle Greene died in 1950.   

Duchamp’s Belle Haleine perfume bottle contained only air, but as a perfumer I can’t help but wonder what fragrance he would have created to complement this project?  What would it have smelled like?  What notes would it have included? The open ended nature of Duchamp’s work makes it tempting for a perfumer to interpret a fragrance for Belle Haleine. But then again, one would have to live up to the ironic brilliance of the piece.  Anything less would be a rigole.

*Lucy Raubertas of Indieperfumes wrote with elegant prose about Duchamp's Belle Haleine in her 2006 blog post,The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, Perfume and Art where she mused about Art, Perfume and the loss of Beauty.   

*For a discussion about possible connections between Belle Greene and Belle Haleine, please see article by Bonnie Jean Garner, "Duchamp Bottles Belle Greene:  Just Desserts for His Canning".

*Review of Belle Haleine 2011 exhibit at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin by Hal Foster, "A Rrose in Berlin", Artforum, April 2011.

ADDENDUM:
I was able to smell a recreation of “Un Air Embaumé” at a presentation by Christophe Laudamiel of historical perfumes from the Osmotheque collection hosted by the Institute for Art and Olfaction on January 22, 2014.  Although Laudamiel did not present this particular fragrance in his talk, focusing instead on key historical perfumes, it was curious that it was even included in the kit assembled by the Osmotheque, since it is relatively obscure.  Like several perfumes popular at the time such as Jicky, Emeraude and l’Heure Bleue, Un Air Embaume, has a strong violet note.  However, it also has an herbal accord that gives it a medicinal quality reminiscent of violet breath fresheners.  Could Duchamp have been perfume savvy enough to have zero’ed in on a fragrance that not only provided a ripe opportunity for a visual pun, but one that included the olfactory dimension?  The clues certainly point in that direction.




Friday, November 22, 2013

Perfumer or Perfumista



(Posted 11-22-13 on Facebook Fragrance Friends, a forum on Facebook dedicated to fragrance enthusiasts, as part of a series coordinated by owner Charlotte Scheuer to highlight perfumers and bloggers in the group.)


Perfumer or perfumista? That is the question.

I love perfume: odors that are composed by nature or the human hand.
  
I love smelling and am grateful for having arrived at a fully conscious awareness of my nose as the sense that guides my life.

I love to create.  With my hands, my head, my heart and my nose.  As a trained architect I transferred the desire to create from the visible realm to the invisible.  A perfume is a construct nonetheless.

Creating perfume is the time I set aside to explore the olfactory world and to be alone.  As a perfumer I enjoy freedoms I could never experience as an architect.  A perfume does not have to respect laws of gravity, or many other laws, for that matter.  
It can be pure expression.  
Pure poetry.  
Pure art.  
Pure.

I wear perfume.  A lot.  All the time.  If I’m not enjoying the work of others, I’m evaluating my own, studying historical precedents (I have a vintage perfume collection mainly for this purpose) or essences in my organ.  Because I use my body to help me with my work, I eschew scented detergents, skincare or anything that could interfere with what I am wearing.

Creating perfume is at once a guilty pleasure and a profound struggle.  I can’t believe I get to work with such immediate beauty and then I embark on a journey into the unknown filled with unexpected twists and turns, frustrating attempts and unresolved solutions. Discipline helps focus the exploration and imagination allows me to recombine accords so I can resolve a concept.  I know a perfume is completed when it is seamless. 

I never approach the design of a perfume from the same perspective.  Sometimes I build from the ground up, at times from the top down, or laterally, diagonally, spiraling . . . I like to experiment.  I imagine smells first and sketch out initial concepts.  I then blend accords that explore different facets.  Gradually refining my direction, clarifying my intention.  Sometimes an accord blended years ago will fall into place.  I’ve learned to expect and welcome the unexpected.

I’m constantly thinking about my work.  While driving my girls to school, brushing my teeth or cooking a meal (seldom following a recipe, relying instead on my nose).  I’m alway engaged and never bored.  I have sketchbooks everywhere so I can jot down notes; while stopped at a red light, waiting outside a classroom or in the kitchen.  Some of these notes get expanded into articles I post on my Architecture of Perfume blog and others are developed into projects.  Unconscious dreamwork is also part of my process, so I always apply a scent before going to sleep.  Any excuse, right?! 

About 10 years ago I started with just a few essences and gradually built my library into the 300+ organ I have today.  I purchased as many samples as I could in order to study, memorize, and blend in dilution.  I’ve stuck with naturals because I feel an intense connection to them. I work with plants, extracting them for my skincare and my perfumes, so it stands to reason that I would want to combine their essences to make perfume. They are damned hard to work with, but ever so gratifying when they finally decide to play nice.  

I’ve considered expanding into synthetically derived aroma chemicals, if only to educate my nose and add dimension to my knowledge. But I’m still on the fence about using them, as I tend to work with materials I love intuitively.  Synthetics are abstract and can be so persistent in a blend, but I can also see how they can lend nuance or clarify structure.  The Institute for Art and Olfaction hosts monthly open blending nights, so that might be a way for me to explore synthetics while supporting my community.
Speaking of which, community is vital to my work.  Not only have I made amazing friends this past year, but I’ve seen how important it is to support others, which is why I created FRAGments, an indie/artisan perfume event that brings together perfumers, perfume lovers and perfume.  I also frequent Scent Bar, often marvelling at how fragrance allows total strangers the freedom to smell each other, taboo in any other context!

The online community has been very rewarding.  Not only do I vicariously experience every SOTD in my inbox, but I scroll through threads, participating whenever I can.  I subscribe to a gazillion blogs, read any book that comes my way and generally immerse myself as much as possible.  It never feels too much or burdensome.  And there’s always room for another viewpoint, another insight, another perfume.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Persia, Poetry and Perfume



Although 34 years have passed, the roses in this garden still bloom.
Read the article on Cafleurebon by clicking the link below.

Persia, Poetry and Perfume: My Journey Home

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

FRAGments in LA: Crucible of Ideas


Last September, Parfums Lalun was launched at the LA Artisan Fragrance Salon, an event that gave me the opportunity to present my work to the public.  After years of work and study in my “ivory tower” I embraced the opportunity to meet other perfumers and members of the perfume community.  Upon returning home from my second Salon in San Francisco (end of March ’13), I realized there was a healthy audience of sophisticated enthusiasts, but no venue that lived up to the quality of work I had experienced at the two Salons.  Since artisan/indie perfumes have such limited distribution, I felt an event that highlighted the work as art was necessary.  The idea for FRAGments was born intuitively and quickly materialized within two months of its inception.  

An amalgam of “fragrance” (frag is also slang for fragrance) and “movement”, FRAGments was conceived as a way to present the work of emerging and independent artists using scent as their medium.  It also represented a cultural shift towards a new awareness of perfume-as-art and projects related to olfaction.  As a metaphor, it evoked the image of capillaries moving away from arteries, of individuals fragmenting from the mainstream.  

The first FRAGments was intended to be an introduction to the perfume-as-art genre.  The perfumers selected represented a cross-section of work by established perfumers as well as those just launching.  Curated as a collective, each perfume artist was asked to present up to five items from their collection.  (Future events will include voices of perfumers who have not yet launched, but who have an interesting body of work.) 
FRAGments display unit mockup

Such an event would also be a form of resistance against the connection between perfumery and commerce where perfume collections are referred to as “brands” instead of “art”.  Unlike the typical trade show, this event would spotlight the collective artistry of the perfumes rather than brand identity.  For this reason, display units were designed to house each perfumer’s work.  A uniform module conceived as a fragment of a whole, a simple “C” type extrusion with a top shelf for testers, a vertical surface for an image and a bottom shelf to display bottles and packaging.  The units could be positioned in a variety of ways and would read as a common denominator within any given context.  It was important to fabricate these units by hand so that the overall philosophy of the event would remain intact.  It was also important for the event to be independently produced, reflecting the voices of the participants.
Santa Monica Blvd 1950-2011, courtesy urbandiachrony.wordpress.com

It’s probably no coincidence the context for FRAGments turned out to be Los Angeles, a scrappy city that sprawls into a scruffy landscape concealing a complex and quixotic nature.  It may be the end of the line for some but an open road for others, especially artists.  Unlike Paris or NY, Los Angeles is not a commercial hub for perfume, but rather a crucible of ideas.  Evidence to support this includes the recently formed IAO (Institute for Art and Olfaction) whose mission it is to create “an environment that encourages new exploration of the olfactive arts”. Saskia Wilson-Brown, IAO’s founder, recognized this potential and graciously accepted my request to moderate a discussion with the perfumers, the most controversial topic being the definition of independent vs. artisan perfumer . . . to be continued . . . 
MorYork Gallery

MorYork Gallery was chosen as the event location because Clare Graham’s work visually embodied the spirit of the diverse group of perfumers selected, who create unique, multi-faceted and experimental olfactory art.  I approached Clare with the idea of a perfume-as-art event and he graciously offered his space. In doing so, he not only invited us to inhabit his gallery and intertwine our work with his, but helped validate our effort through his support. 
Roxana Villa
Persephnie Lea

Scented Sculpture
The perfumers selected for the event were mostly from the West Coast: Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Local perfumers included Roxana Villa, Persephenie Lea, Sherri Sebastian and myself who maintain a strict handmade ethos in our search for an authentic voice. Roxana draws inspiration from the arts and crafts movement as well as from the natural beauty of her surroundings and her illustration background to create a series of botanical gems.  Persephenie has an established line of fragrance and skincare but chose to present an experimental art piece related to her work as a perfumer: a beeswax painting infused with jatamansi (spikenard) paired with a handmade box of perfume curios.  I presented a sculpture made with felted marino wool that invited one to touch and sniff (wool attracts odor molecules).  Sherri, a professional perfumer, took an innovative direction with her line of gel-based natural fragrances.
Sherri Sebastian
Zelda by Shelley Waddington
Moving up the coast to San Francisco, Yosh Han, Mik Moi, Lisa Fong, Heather Kauffman, Laurie Stern and Shelley Waddington presented their eclectic offerings. The California coast is never far from Shelley’s lush perfume interpretations and Zelda (which she launched that day) was no exception. Laurie’s intricate perfumes captured the charm of the Victorian language of flowers, but from a contemporary point of view.  Lisa’s slow blends were intellectual and visceral; I loved her description of creating natural perfumes to be like “carving marble”.   Heather and Mik recently launched their lines and both embraced a modern aesthetic; with Nouvelle Vague references by Heather and a socially conscious approach by Mik.  Yosh unveiled her new line of fragrances called TimeLine.  As I sampled them I let out an involuntary grunt only to find out the name of the fragrance was “Caveman”. I then sniffed my way through the history of humanity which ended with Dystopia in the year 77778.
Laurie Stern

Lisa Fong
Heather Kauffman

Mik Moi

Yosh Hann



David Falsberg
Further north the Seattle contingent included David Falsberg, Christi Meshell, Nikki Sherritt-Smith, and Meredith Smith who exhibited fiercely individual expressions. David’s hyper-real blends included Skin Graft, a perfume about his experience with Steven Johnson’s syndrome.  With it’s antiseptic Band Aid accord it served as a reminder that life encompasses everything from dis-ease to the beauty of survival.  Christi’s naturals simply pumped up the jam, they were so dynamic and vivacious.  The “Rebel” in Nikki’s botanical perfume line name belied her approach to perfumery; compositions driven by her own artistic vision.  Meredith gave everyone a taste of her indie fragrances some of which are inspired by popular rock’n’roll themes.  It should be noted that she also owns a shop that carries the work of other artisan perfumers!
Christi Meshell


Nikki Sherritt-Smith

Meredith Smith




JK DeLapp
Ayala Moriel
That leaves us with JK DeLapp (San Diego, CA), Ayala Moriel (Vancouver, BC), Amanda Feeley (Ames, IA) and Dawn Spencer-Hurwitz (Denver, CO).  JK, a Chinese medicine practitioner, launched his line of rich natural oil blends inspired by the 9,000 year old tradition of his profession.  He also shared some rare examples of high grade aloeswood from his collection.  Ayala had to jump through some international hoops so that we could experience her emotionally charged perfumes which brought forth tears, smiles and memories.  Amanda, who composes “music for the nose” included her “Lumberjack Man”, a fragrance that added levity to the day.  Dawn introduced us to her painterly method of layering scents with a subtle hand, her five perfumes being just the tip of the iceberg from her molten talent.
Amanda Feeley and the Lumberjack Man


Dawn Spenser Hurwitz


FRAGments was a great opportunity to build community and create a recognizable forum for people to meet and exchange ideas in person.  This was probably the most important aspect for me since it gave me the chance to meet and work with others.  It’s important to acknowledge other community builders who inspired me like Yosh Han who instigated the Artisan Fragrance Salon series and created a dynamic Facebook community called Aroma Village, Ayala Moriel who put together an amazing tea party the day before the San Francisco Salon and Persephenie Lea who hosted a number of meet-the-perfumer events I attended several years ago in her Edinburgh Street studio in Los Angeles.  It was wonderful to have their presence and support at FRAGments.
Maggie at Persephenie's event featuring Laurie Stern

Pantheon
Finally, pairing the event with the summer solstice allowed the longest day of the year to be celebrated in a space where the changing light could be enjoyed while socializing and sampling fragrances in a relaxed atmosphere.  At times reminiscent of the Pantheon, shafts of light would pierce the darkness and Clare’s artwork would form a rich tableau vivant of illuminated artifacts framing the perfumers.  It was also quite warm in the space, a reminder of what summer feels like with just enough volatility for the perfumes to bloom.  With so much inspiring work it was hard to forget the olfactory realm is our last frontier.  Historically under-appreciated and underutilized, we are finally witnessing a surge of interest in this area.  This has resulted in record breaking perfume launches, scientific studies and artistic explorations.  The good news is:  this is just the beginning and LA is positioned to be its creative epicenter.

“You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
break on through to the other side.”  The Doors


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beyond the Veil


Vintage Chanel Flacon


When one thinks of perfume, instinctively commercial brands come to mind.  However, the perfume world has changed dramatically the last few years facilitated by social media sites that have made it possible for enthusiasts to exchange ideas directly and create virtual communities.  It is here that one can gain exposure to other types of perfumes such as niche, natural, experimental, conceptual, vintage or art fragrances.  It is here that one can meet and converse not only with fellow perfumistas, but with bloggers, critics, writers, sellers, buyers, aromatic producers, manufacturers, historians, curators and even perfumers.  Because of this connectivity it is now possible to stay on top of things regardless of where one lives.  The fragrance world is no longer a centralized hegemony, but an individualized paradigm within the context of a raw democracy.
Image courtesy Sheila Eggenberger
It was through this venue that I was able to meet Sheila Eggenberger, read her Quantum Demonology novel and take part in the DevilScent project as a blogger.  It was this context where Sheila met Ellen Covey, a perfumer (owner of Olympic Orchards) and partner in crime.  Since Ellen started the DevilScent project with Sheila her Dev variations are not just interpretations of the Devil’s fragrance but four archetypal aspects of that entity.  Together they are the perfume equivalent of the character Sheila Eggenberger created.  Dark, bitter, rich, spicy, earthy, fiery and cognac smooth. They can be experienced as stand alone fragrances, form a transition from one state to another or be layered for a devilish rush. 
Papier Mache and Lacquer Bodhidharma
Dev 1 and 4, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end share a note that I can only describe as lacquer.  An opulent dark lacquer adding luster to the surface of rich wood and fine art.  From the moment I smelled these perfumes I had a flashback to when I would accompany my parents to the bazaar in Tehran where they would take their antique furniture to be refinished.  
"Bazaar" Image Courtesy Hamzeh Karbasi

The workshop was medieval at best, a dark, crepuscular space with furniture piled haphazardly, cans of lacquer and shellac, waxes, oils and stained rags strewn about.  There was a haze of wood dust and cigarette smoke that never seemed to settle down.  The walls were damp with patches of swelling plaster and yellowed paint.  A skylight punctuated the end of the space where a crouched figure worked, the odor of his sweat a reminder of the heat outside.  Mingled together was the smell of wood; fresh, aromatic and exotic.  
Giant Arborvitae Image Courtesy NW Aromatics
But Dev 1 and 4 also reminded me of something else which I finally identified when I recently pulled out samples of Nootka and Giant Arborvitae I purchased from a Canadian company that produces these oils sustainably from leftover sawdust.  It is rare to find an essential oil that has longevity, lift and sillage, but Giant Arborvitae is just such a gem.  True to its name though, it is a giant that can squelch practically everything in its path and is very difficult to tame.  The beauty of Dev 1 and 4 are that Ellen Covey has not tried to tame the giant, recognizing instead, the power of this aromatic and has paired it with other strong notes to create an untamed fragrance that unleashes memory and desire. 
Image Courtesy thelooksee.com
Giant Arborvitae (Thuja plicata) is a wild and ancient tree, a cypress native to North America and intrinsic to the lives of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.  All parts of the tree were used to create canoes, housing, clothing, baskets, fishing poles, utensils and totem poles.  Arborvitae means “tree of life” and specimens can live for hundreds of years.  Using the oil from this tree can certainly invoke its spirit (benevolent or mischievous) which comes to life on the skin.
Image Courtesy "lk"
Dev 2 and 3 are bridge fragrances that swing in different directions.  Dev 2 has a sweet sexiness in its depth.  But Dev 3 is crazy spicy and takes me down yet another memory lane to the same bazaar where my mother would buy her medicinal herbs and culinary spices.  This was a very different space, that of a peaceful and somewhat rotund Hajji who sat behind his counter surrounded by jars, amphorae and baskets of herbs.  He would dutifully mete out the contents of a vessel onto a scale using brass weights for balance and then pack everything in brown paper bags and calculate the cost with a well-worn abacus.  
I asked my mother to try Dev 3 and tell me what it brought to mind.  She immediately remembered the spice shop and its smells as well as the woody lacquer note.  How Ellen could have created fragrances that bring to mind the same distant memories for my mother and myself is amazing.  Such is the skill of a talented perfumer who can harness the mystery of fragrance.  
Prepared Piano
Ellen Covey’s Dev quartet are not easy fragrances with mass appeal like most commercial perfumes marketed today (witness Justin Bieber). The Dev series are conceptual explorations along the lines of a John Cage composition for the prepared piano.  Working with a difficult aromatic is analogous to rigging up an instrument so that the sounds produced are no longer familiar but new and evocative.  Once the ear grows accustomed to this new terrain, it’s hard to go back to the familiar, classically composed instrument.  Similarly, once the nose grows accustomed to unconventional scents, it’s hard to wear a classically composed fragrance the same way.  Conceptual explorations cause a shift to occur, a change of perspective, a door to open onto an unknown space.  
Marcel Duchamp "door"
Conceptual perfumery can hardly be considered a fragrance category (yet), let alone one intended for commercial success, there are so few perfumers who have gone out on that limb, but it is an exciting area of exploration that has the potential to push the boundaries of the medium.  Thanks to the online community, there also seems to be an interest in perfumes that buck convention.  Hopefully, the day will come when our collective perfume horizons will be expanded beyond the veil that stands between fragrance and art.
Elenore Abbott