I am always fascinated by the way writers and other creative artists approach perfume, odours and the sense of smell. I'm intrigued by how they celebrate the olfactory mystery, weaving it into various aspects of their creations. So naturally, when Les Senteurs invited the sensational Italian brand HOMO ELEGANS into the fold I was mightily intrigued and beguiled.
The first three scents in the HOMO ELEGANS sequence are inspired by the complex personalities and creations of three eccentric and tricky twentieth-century individuals. Namely, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo - two painters, one writer. Quite a handful!
I've written about Mann before. His first great novel Buddenbrooks was published in 1904 - and was a huge best-seller in Germany for thirty years until the Hitler regime burned it. In this immense family saga, the sensual smells of good food and sleek grooming take their place in the repetitive rhythms, small hypnotic pleasures and joyous monotony of daily life. HOMO ELEGANS approaches Mann via his much later work, Death in Venice: the stifling emotional atmospherics of the Lido; the fatal entrapment of the Lagoon.
Then, Frida Kahlo and Bacon. The very carnality of Francis Bacon's paintings reeks. He sees the Beast in us all and reveals it without mercy. I was advised to keep away from that bio-pic 'Love Is the Devil', and I heeded warning. Our English master at school used to tell us that Bacon's pictures looked and smelled like reportage of slaughter houses. And those Popes! Velasquez was quite upsetting enough without Bacon imposing his own peculiar vision.
With the Day of the Dead nearly upon us, it seems a perfect time to discover the exciting Paloma Y Raíces, in celebration of Kahlo’s Mexican heritage. Kahlo was a complex individual, and her work draws upon numerous aspects of her identity, including her culture, gender, class, and race. Much of Kahlo, (as anyone who has visited the wonderful exhibition of her work currently on display at the V&A will know), is bizarrely lovely: vivid, weird and mesmerising. The parrots and monkeys and hummingbirds; the surreal humour of "What I saw in the Bath"; and Frida's chthonic pre-Columbian fantasies. But she's not exactly reassuring - and what about works such as "A Few Small Nips"? Kahlo is a multi-faceted and intriguing character, and Paloma Y Raíces reflects this beautifully.
Anyone who is loves the enigma of perfumery will recognise that these three artists offer limited scope for a revolutionary approach to fragrance. Consider the way in which the mainstream media approaches scent. You'll then appreciate how esoteric, and even alien, a subject perfume still is to many people. Only the other day a radio presenter remarked on how difficult it is to talk about scent on air. To me, however, radio presentations and perfume have a lot in common: both are unseen, and their appeal lies principally in the magic of one's own imagination.
So don't take my word for it but come by and try these interesting beauties on our shelves. They are quite extraordinary. And - as you would expect - headstrong, ambisexual, and somewhat wayward. There is an extreme ingenuity and subtlety in the way in which the perfumers have used three very disparate and complex characters and themes to create new life, energy and beauty. Art generating art; artifice breeding artifice.
But if that suggests something sterile and contrived then I am greatly misleading you. One of the key aspects of these three perfumes is their forceful impact; their visceral vivacity and vigour; their originality. All the elements that enthral and disturb in the works of Kahlo, Mann and Bacon are evoked in the scents. A cruel beauty, a beautiful cruelty; fleshy textures and fleshly desire; colour; self-indulgence; pride; confidence and terror.