It's easy enough to smell Niki de Saint Phalle's perfume without thinking of the woman behind it; easier, no doubt, than trying to wear No.5 without thinking of Coco Chanel. Taken at face value, de Saint Phalle is a grassy green chypre, falling somewhere between Givenchy III, YSL Y, and Jean-Louis Scherrer. It lands on the dry side, and feels far more herbal than its peers. It's the youngest of that group as well. You can talk about the fragrance, even about how challenging it can be, without knowing anything about its namesake. But there's a reason it's been a cult favorite since its release in 1982, and much of that has to do with the way it successfully embodies the contradictions, conflicts and quirkiness of the woman behind it, an individual just as fascinating as Coco Chanel.
Her father was French; her mother American. She was born in France but raised primarily in the United States. Until the stock market crash, the family had been wealthy. She began her career as a fashion model, but had been painting as early as her teens, when she was kicked out of school for painting the building's trademark iron fig leaves bright red. She married her childhood friend, composer-then-writer Harry Mathews. They'd met when she was thirteen. He was fourteen. Along with poets James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashberry, Mathews founded the literary journal Locus Solus. It didn't last long, but was to many writers, apparently, what the Velvet Underground has been to musicians. It certainly brought a steady stream of literary and artistic figures, many of them pop, experimental, and/or Avant-garde, into the young couple's life.
In a 2008 interview about the ten years he spent living with Niki, Mathews said that their attraction to each other had a lot to do with similar backgrounds. Both came from "genteel, moderately well-to-do families who subscribed...to the tenets of upper-class New York WASP society." Both were "artistically inclined, oversensitive, overtly rebellious romantics." Niki was modeling for Vogue and Elle magazines, but was troubled mentally, "devising one ingenious method of suicide after another." Ultimately, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was institutionalized and underwent shock treatment. It was barbarous, according to Mathews, but it helped her. She started making collages around that time out of stones, twigs and other items she found on the grounds around the clinic. She also resumed painting. As she gave up modeling and her acting studies to become an artist, Mathews abandoned music for writing. There were rumors about Mathews, allegations he was involved with the CIA. Later, he wrote a book which simultaneously denied and confirmed the idea.
I remember seeing a lot of Niki's work as a child, but I can't think where I might have run into it. The point is, her painting and sculptures have a distinctive look, instantly recognizable, a look she would later incorporate into the fragrance's packaging and sensibility. Her exposure to the work of Antoni Gaudi, specifically his broken tile mosaic park benches and sculptures in Barcelona's Parque Guell, was crucial to her artistic development. Unlike Gaudi's sculptures, her work tended to make more use of found objects, and she didn't often fit them together following the symmetrical logic he did (He didn't always follow symmetrical logic either, judging by the dripping, trippy facades of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, also in Barcelona). Later, she would admire the work of artists such as Paul Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, de Kooning, and Rauschenberg, all of whose influence could be felt in some way or another in her own evolving sensibility. At the same time, her work is completely individual in its overall effect.
She eventually moved on to large scale sculptures of women, part Botero, part Sunday comic strip; these were massive, doughy iron figures painted in bright, bold colors and geometrically patterned shapes. In 1978, after another serious illness, she laid the foundation for The Tarot Garden, a sculptural installation celebrating female creativity and strength, peopled by her figures. The installation became the focus of her life, and she spent the next ten years creating this garden. Her long term dedication to the project made it clear that Gaudi had been not just an artistic influence but a kindred soul as well; like her, Gaudi spent years constructing Parque Guell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral. As with de Saint Phalle, his sanity and health were sometimes compromised, if not always dictated, by the efforts these passionate commitments required.
It was to help fund the Garden that de Saint Phalle created her fragrance several years later. The notes are listed as follows: artemisia, mint, peach, bergamot, carnation, patchouli, orris, jasmine, ylang-ylang, cedar, rose, leather, sandalwood, amber, musk, and oakmoss. People have discussed Niki de Saint Phalle as an early example of the celebrity (in this case a well-known artist) fragrance. I think of this particular perfume more as performance art, a way of taking an artistic sensibility into the headspace of others; another sort of art installation. Many people talk about the patchouli, too, though I've never been particularly conscious of it. More than anything, I smell soft peach, artemisia, oakmoss, and an usually employed ylang ylang. Niki de Saint Phalle smells more old fashioned to me than other green chypres I love. There's a melancholy to it that I've never smelled in those, as well. I'm sure many regard this more simply as a floral chypre, but it's always struck me as a quintessential grassy green chypre, though, again, there's nothing exactly like it.
It's closest to Bandit, I think, in many ways. It has that ashen smokiness to it. Unlike Bandit, where the presiding feeling is more mercenary, Niki de Saint Phalle is smoky in a far more subdued way, like the memory of smoke lingering on someone's clothes, or the aroma left on furniture once the smoker has left the room. That probably contributes to the forlorn quality for me. Though strong, de Saint Phalle feels soft and muted. Smelling Bandit, I sense perfumer Germaine Cellier's daring audacity, as if the perfume were an assault on the silliness of polite society; unexpected, strange, and remorseless. Saint Phalle is filled with a sense of regret--of people gone and things you can't change or get back. It reflects a mind which views things uniquely but at a price. It's a lot subtler.
Knowing more about Niki's past, I see the bottle's design in a new way. How interesting that it features a painted snake intertwined with its unpainted metallic twin. That iconic sculptural detail now reminds me of her attempts to integrate color and art into her life and the lives of others, and the challenges involved, mainly in the form of institutionalized resistance and mental duress. I love the story of Niki painting the uncolored iron fig leaves of her school, an artistic vandalism which strikes me as a more playful version of Cellier's bolder anarchic streak. The fig leaves, painted and unpainted, grew together and became snakes for the bottle's cap, a symbol of tenuous unity, precariously balanced tensions.
I have two bottles of Niki de Saint Phalle. I'm giving one away. This one ounce bottle of edt concentration is from the eighties. It is boxed but unwrapped. The bottle is full and has only been sprayed three times; once for this review. I'll draw a name from the comments on Monday. To be eligible, you must have commented on our blog before. Please leave your comment here to be considered.