Thursday, December 2, 2010

Niki de Saint Phalle: Review and Bottle Giveaway


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.


30 comments:

elizabeth said...

If it's really like Bandit, it's right up my alley. Please enter me into the drawing, and thanks!

Ines said...

Thank you for the introduction, I didn't know anything about her before.
And I would love to enter for a bottle. :)

womo531 said...

That is quite an interesting review, didn't really know all these things about her!

rose said...

I love her work since I was a kid and learned years later the difficult and heartbreaking story behind. It's always amazing to see the creation that can be the result of such a biography. Makes you embrace your own struggles in life! I love especially her fountain with Tinguely in Paris..

Isa said...

I don't know how it smells, but I have read that there are lots of cedarwood on it, and I love cedar!

Please, enter me in the drawing. I would be very happy if I could try this perfume :)

Thank you!

Smedley said...

Hi Brian-
I've commented before that this blog is one of my favorites. I stop by daily to see if something has been written. The past few days have been a bonanza!

Your writing is insightful,erudite and often snarkily pithy. I like it.
Of all things I appreciate about the writing on ISTIA, one of the best aspects is that you and Abigail are HONEST about what you write. I don't always agree, but more often than not, I do.

Your essay about Niki de Saint Phalle is very informative. It shows how art is a very personal expression of an individual's psyche, and how that creative outlet is determined by place, time and experience. I think you've made a good case for the idea that perfume is art, and a natural extension of an artist's ability.

Thanks again for some great writing. And......I'd love to be entered in the drawing.

queen_cupcake said...

I've long been curious about this fragrance, knowing it to be a sort of cult favorite. Thanks for writing about Niki--I've wondered who she was.

Olga said...

This sounds like a delightful perfume and although I've never smelled it before I'd love the opportunity to try. Thank you and please enter me in the drawing! =)

Kathryn said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I never would have guessed the back story from the perfume, but now you've written it, it makes perfect sense.

I have just a little of the extrait and it's something I wear when I'm feeling a bit foggy and need to sort things out. There's a note in it (marigold?) that just seems to cut through the fog and establish clarity. It's such an interesting, unusual perfume. It reminds me that there are always new ways to think about things.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Wow, how have I never heard of this person before? Maybe I have (I've read some Harry Mathews) but didn't look into her story, so it didn't stick. That era/scene fascinates me -- as a writer, most of my friends are other writers. I'd like to be hobnobbing with artists and models and the self-loathing rich.

kjanicki said...

Oh WOW. I love Bandit; I'm dying to try this. And the bakground info you gave was so interesting. Please enter me.

tarleisio said...

Oh my goodness, this must be Blast From the Past Appreciation Week, because I wore Niki de Saint Phalle back in the Eighties, when I wore a lot of audacious, unusual, and sometimes divisive perfumes. (I still do, but now, they're harder to find!)

What I remember of NdSP is precisely that grassy-green, smoky tension you describe so beautifully, which I think was one of the reasons I loved it to begin with - it was far more and never less than the sum of its parts!

Thank you for this walk down memory lane, Brian - and for your blog as well! I'd love (and you knew that!) to be entered in the draw! And Ii can highly recommend the Tarot Garden - just as the sculptor herself, it's a place like no other I've seen.

Angela Cox said...

Thanks for that Brian ,after you mentioned Isabella Blow and her constant suicide attempts I read about another tortured soul. I have chronic anxiety and depression but have never attempted suicide.
I can't imagine that her "celebrity" had some soap powder company wizz out a nasty cheap perfume to sucker in fans .As I live in the U.K I hope not to be entered in the competition ( I mean that ) I think I would look at the bottle and feel troubled but I will try and smell it some time.

Bloody Frida said...

Oh I love Niki and am a big fan; please enter me in the draw. Thanks Brian!

Kathleen said...

Wow, a new one for me. Enter me in, for sure. I'll be ordering a sample though, regardless!

Gator Grad said...

I'd never heard of her (and don't know this frag), but I recently built a new perfume cabinet and thought how lovely (and crazy) that bottle would look in there next to Chanel. Then I googled her and saw this crazy thing: http://www.dailyartfixx.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Niki-de-Saint-Phalle-Tarot-Garden.jpg -- which makes that frag bottle look incredibly conservative in comparison! Please enter me!

Karin said...

Wow! Thanks for offering the draw! I'd love to try this. Never tried Bandit either. So many scents, so little time. But I love trying new scents and appreciate so many different styles and iterations. Perfume is life! :-)

Ankica said...

Everything has a story. With our without name :)
Tnx for chance to win this :)

Fernando said...

Interesting post. I particularly like the fact that Saint Phalle added a sculptural touch to the bottle. And the perfume sounds like something my daughter-in-law would love.

Dain said...

Please consider me too! : )

Miss Lidia Grierson said...

Please include me in the draw - if I'm not too late...

Ann N. said...

Hello Brian, thank you for this lovely walk down Memory Lane. I wore Niki in the '80s and adored it because it was unlike anything else out at the time (perhaps it was the marigold, I'm not sure). I knew some of her background but your post offered a more complete picture of her. I would love to wear this again, and in doing so, will celebrate her unusual life. Thank you so much.

Ann N. said...

Also, would you please include me in the draw? Many thanks!!

pyramus said...

I think I've commented here before.

A friend used to wear nothing but Niki de Saint Phalle in the eighties; it had been a gift from a boyfriend, and I think it was more the bottle which attracted her than the scent itself. I haven't smelled it in years and years (I seem to recall a certain soapiness near the top), but I bet it still smells great: I've always been a mad fan of chypres.

sunnlitt said...

Thank you so much for the interesting story.
Any fragrance that is described as a grassy green chypre catches my attention.
I would love to be entered in the Giveaway.

brian said...

Thanks, everyone! Drawing's now closed. I'll be conducting this ultra-scientific procedure later today and will get back to you with news of the lucky lad or lass.

Pyramus, I've tried to email you before. Would love to ask you something if you have a chance. Can you email me? brnvncnt@gmail.com.

brian said...

The winner is....Ann N.

Ann, congratulations. Please contact me with your mailing info.

I wish I had bottles for everyone. Thanks for reading us and for piping in. We get a lot out of hearing from you.

theperfumechronicles said...

I realize that I am probably late for the draw. Very rarely... but it happens... people ask me about this perfume and I've never tried it. At least now, I can give them an idea of what is smells like.
Normand

Patty said...

Damn, probably too late for the drawing, but thanks for the great post. What an interesting story! I smelled this back in the 80s, way before my perfumista days, and couldn't appreciate it (although I loved the snakes). Now that my nose has developed and refined, I am falling in love with chypres. When I re-tested Niki, I said, "that's for me!".

*jen said...

Ooh, ooh! I won a sample of this at one point and really love it. A vintage bottle would make me happy dance!!!


*Jen