Poesie Perfume

Eclectic and charming adventures in fragrance

Miss, Behave! Niki de Saint Phalle

Joelle Nealy
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Our Miss, Behave! collection is inspired by the kind of women you want on your side, the kind of women you’d like to be. And despite what you didn’t learn in school, there are enough of their stories to fill stacks and stacks of history books. We know you’ll love our muses and their stories as much as we do, so we wanted to share a few here. Niki de Saint Phalle’s had to be one of them, not only because of her fascinating life but because since we serendipitously encountered her work at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, we’ve been in love with its playful approach to the arcane.

With her typical dramatic flair, during the last years of her life Niki de Saint Phalle made her home in a gigantic sculpture of The Empress from the tarot's Major Arcana. The center of her Tarot Garden, her magnum opus located in the Tuscan countryside, The Empress is a huge, heavy breasted figure complete with a mirrored interior which includes a bedroom, living room, and kitchen. Populated with enormous mystical figures made up of undulating lines, found objects, shattered mirrors, and pottery mosaics, the Tarot Garden was described by Saint Phalle as “a sort of joyland where you could have a new kind of life that would just be free.” Her personal route to that kind of freedom would be as circuitous as one of her sculptures.

 The Empress (clockwise from top) exterior, dining room, and door detail

The Empress (clockwise from top) exterior, dining room, and door detail

Saint Phalle was born into an aristocratic French family in 1930 and within months of her birth, her French father lost his wealth when the Great Depression spread to Europe. The family moved to the US, where her mother had been born, leaving their infant daughter behind with her grandparents until she was three. The relationship between Saint Phalle’s parents and their children was marked by a mixture of apathy and what might have then been termed discipline, and today defined as abuse.

When she was old enough for school, her parents settled Saint Phalle into a  tenure at various religious boarding schools where her time was fraught with discord. (She was expelled from one for painting the fig leaves on all of their Grecian marble statues a bright red.) She began a modeling career at 17, and at only 18, she married a childhood friend as a way to escape her family and her father’s sexual abuse, which haunted her mind and her work for the rest of her life. She would spend years exorcising the demons created by her father’s trying to “make her his mistress” when she was 11, by her mother’s coldness and distance, and by the strictures imposed on her in their conventional home and in their world.

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Her marriage to Harry Mathews began happily enough, but with financial challenges when his wealthy family all but disowned him for marrying a Catholic. By all accounts, Saint Phalle was ill-prepared for life as an American housewife, ignoring housekeeping duties that would have fallen to her as a matter of course. The couple soon had two children, who were often as neglected as the other chores, thanks to the couples’ sheer ignorance about childcare.

When Mathews inherited some money, the family moved to Paris, where they fell into a bohemian lifestyle that was the polar opposite of Saint Phalle’s Catholic parents’ strict rules. They mingled with a set of young musicians, writers, and artists, moving frequently to various towns across Europe, while Mathews pursued a literary career. The marriage began to disintegrate, with affairs on both sides, and the strain of it all led Saint Phalle to a suicide attempt, after which she was temporarily institutionalized. In the asylum, she found that art would be her solace and salvation. (If that sounds like an overstatement, consider that both of her younger siblings died by suicide as adults.)

 From top left: wedding to Harry Mathews, with Harry and daughter Laura, Self Portrait 1958, Be My Frankenstein 1964

From top left: wedding to Harry Mathews, with Harry and daughter Laura, Self Portrait 1958, Be My Frankenstein 1964

After her six weeks in the sanatorium, Saint Phalle and Mathews took up their peripatetic lifestyle again, but she had a new focus to sustain her -- her artwork. She was constantly working on collages and paintings, and when they returned to Paris, she took a small studio. There, her work brought her into contact with kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, part of the Nouveau Réalisme group which also included Yves Klein. Tinguely, who was in an open marriage himself, became friends with the couple who were also trying to salvage their relationship by loosening the strictures of traditional marriage. It was to no avail. Saint Phalle realized that she couldn’t fit herself into the role of wife and mother, and that her art had to take precedence for her sanity. In 1960, after twelve years of marriage, she announced to Mathews that she was leaving, and she moved into her Paris studio.

Within months, she began a relationship with Tinguely that would last for the rest of his life; for thirty years, he was a lover, a friend, a co-creator, and (briefly) her second husband. Soon, Saint Phalle took the art world by storm with her shooting paintings, in which she exorcised her feelings by performative events in which she took aim at canvases constructed of plaster, found objects, and bags of paint. When shot, the paint burst and created patterns across the white plaster surface. The sight of the beautiful young woman, often dressed in a body conscious white jumpsuit, aiming a rifle at her representation of the patriarchy drew crowds and reporters in cities across the globe, as did her collaborations with prominent artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

 Clockwise from top middle: in Paris with Jasper Johns 1961, dressed up for filming her shooting painting, shooting painting from her 1960 - 1963 Tirs series, detail from a completed shooting painting. 

Clockwise from top middle: in Paris with Jasper Johns 1961, dressed up for filming her shooting painting, shooting painting from her 1960 - 1963 Tirs series, detail from a completed shooting painting. 

 Clockwise from bottom left: with a group of male artists (Olov Ultvedt, Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, and Jean Tinguely) 1962, Saint Phalle works on a Nana while Tinguely watches 1966, Saint Phalle and Tinguely 1960s, Saint Phalle and Tinguely 1963

Clockwise from bottom left: with a group of male artists (Olov Ultvedt, Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, and Jean Tinguely) 1962, Saint Phalle works on a Nana while Tinguely watches 1966, Saint Phalle and Tinguely 1960s, Saint Phalle and Tinguely 1963

Through the years, Saint Phalle’s work evolved into the fantastic oversized creations for which she is most famous. She and Tinguely often worked on pieces together and shared exhibits, but it was on an equal footing and neither found their identity subsumed into that of the other during their long partnership. Saint Phalle became famous for her Nanas, huge, curvy female figures with brightly painted surfaces. Hon, her multiple room-sized version of the Nana, was installed temporarily in Stockholm in 1966. Museum-goers entered between the legs of the reclining figure to find a cinema and a museum of fake paintings (among other things). Tinguely was instrumental in creating the rebar skeleton that supported Saint Phalle’s vision, as he would be for many other pieces including the Tarot Garden.

 Clockwise from Left: Untitle Nana Fountain Figure 1999, Black Dancing Nana on metal base by Tinguely 1970, Red Nana Vase 1993

Clockwise from Left: Untitle Nana Fountain Figure 1999, Black Dancing Nana on metal base by Tinguely 1970, Red Nana Vase 1993

 Hon sketch and patrons at the installation in the Moderna Museet of Stockholm 1966

Hon sketch and patrons at the installation in the Moderna Museet of Stockholm 1966

In 1955, Saint Phalle had visited Barcelona and encountered the works of Gaudi, which sparked a vision of a huge sculpture garden that wouldn’t be realized until the ‘70s. She wanted to “show that a woman can work on a monumental scale” as she wrote in a letter, but her work didn’t get started until 1974 when she reconnected with an old friend from her modelling days whose aristocratic family gave her the 14 acres of land in Tuscany for the garden. The plan for the Tarot Garden included 22 sculptures of the figures from the Major Arcana, some over sixteen yards tall. Built of concrete poured over a framework made of steel rebar and wire mesh, the figures were then finished with tile, mosaics, quotes, and the whimsical decorative painting style for which Saint Phalle’s Nanas were so famous.  After years of planning, in 1979 construction began, involving a huge team made up of mostly men, to whom Saint Phalle became a den mother of sorts. Tinguely and Swiss artist Rico Weber, who had worked with them on Hon, worked on the rebar structure, and a rotating team of artists and locals were recruited to complete the mammoth project.

 A view of the Tarot Garden and mosaic details

A view of the Tarot Garden and mosaic details

In addition to her work on the project, Saint Phalle was continually raising funds to keep it going. She released a fragrance in a signature bottle and even sold inflatable versions of her Nanas. Although she was criticized for these decisions, nothing was sacred when it came to the completion of her garden. The park was opened to the public in 1998, and work continued until her death in 2002, at the age of 71.  For years, Saint Phalle had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, sometimes so bad she could hardly walk, and her work with the polystyrene she used in her sculptures led to severe lung problems. Saint Phalle sacrificed her marriage, motherhood, and her health to her artistic vision. Today, the figures of the Major Arcana stand as her unique and whimsical monument in the Tuscan countryside, where they are visited by 75,000 people a year.

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TLDR version: Niki de Saint Phalle exorcised her demons into oversized mythical creations whose surfaces covered with mosaics, messages, and found objects transformed childhood fear into childlike freedom.

 

 Ganesh, 1993

Ganesh, 1993

The Empress, the fragrance inspired by Niki de Saint Phalle, highlights notes of bubblegum, lush gardenia, Bulgarian rose, and dragon’s blood incense shattered and soaked in amber honey. Our favorite work of hers is a small sculpture of a Ganesh with a bubblegum pink body and a crown of electric lightbulbs, so it seems fitting that the bubblegum accord should represent the nostalgia and wonder of childhood so prominent in her later works. Shared chemical components with the florals lead the way to a heart of sweet gardenia flower and a fruity pink rose. There is something unabashedly feminine in Saint Phalle’s work and persona -- the curves, the hearts and flowers, the way her Nana sculptures evoke fertility goddesses -- just like the floral heart of this fragrance, which conjures up velvety petals and their intoxicating scent. But there’s more to her work than sweetness and fun! The dragon’s blood incense and deep amber honey evoke the mystical, the elemental. If you’ve ever burned the resin, you know that dragon’s blood is aptly named, bubbling up in the most shocking red while it spreads its rich, spicy scent. In The Empress, we tried to capture an encounter with Saint Phalle’s work, the initial fun and childlike sweetness engaging your attention until you discover that you’re experiencing something deeper, maybe even magical.

If you’d like to learn more about Saint Phalle, don’t miss the epic 2016 New Yorker article, Beautiful Monsters. You can also check out her Tarot Garden site, which features some of her own thoughts about the work, as well as a helpful chronology. Hyperallergic’s coverage of a 2015 Paris exhibit offers further insight into her body of work. There are a few documentaries available on YouTube, which range in quality. Niki de Saint Phalle Introspections and Reflections is an English language documentary; it’s thorough and includes some great quotes and shots of her work, especially outdoor sculptures and kinetic works, but the narration is a bit dull. Even if you don’t speak French, the French language documentary of Saint Phalle and Tinguely is worth watching for its interviews and footage of the couple (some of which is in English). If you’re lucky enough to be a German speaker, there’s a charming German language film with great production values and less of the grainy quality that plagues the older versions. Whether you came here looking for more information about Saint Phalle, or you've just discovered her through our collection, we hope that you'll fall in love with the artist and her work as much as we did.

 

Miss, Behave! Mokarrameh Ghanbari

Joelle Nealy

Last spring we gave you a collection inspired by the kind of women you want on your side, the kind of women you want to be. You loved it, and we loved making it. And that’s why our spring fragrance collection is inspired by 9 women artists. We know you’ll love these muses and their scents just as much as we do, and we’d like to share a few of their stories. Narrowing down the artists to feature in the collection wasn’t easy, but we knew we had to include Mokarrameh Ghanbari. Not only did we fall in love with her work, but the story of how this outsider artist came to painting so late in life, and the personal challenges and cultural hurdles she overcame to pursue her art is so inspiring we had to share it with you.

 Mokarrameh Ghanbari (1928-2005) born Darikandeh, Iran

Mokarrameh Ghanbari (1928-2005) born Darikandeh, Iran

Forced into a marriage at a young age and never given the opportunity for an education, before she became a painter Mokarrameh Ghanbari raised nine children, farmed, and worked variously as a healer, seamstress, and makeup artist. One of three wives, by her own account her marriage was an unhappy one. (Tellingly, she never included her late husband in her paintings.) It was not until she was 64 that Ghanbari took up painting, for which she never received any formal training.

Ghanbari came to painting as a way to express her feelings when her children, concerned for her health, would no longer allow her the farm work and cow herding she enjoyed. In the agrarian Caspian plains of northern Iran where Ghanbari was born and lived, women often have strong attachments to the cows for which they care. The widowed Ghanbari, then in her early sixties, spent her time caring for the cows that she loved and doing farm work, until she became very ill and had to go to Tehran for medical care. While she was sick in bed, her children, who were concerned about her health, sold the cows in order to reduce her workload. But their well-meaning act sent her into a depression. Her first painting was a portrait of one of the cows she missed so much.

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A friend gave her paper and colored pencil to express herself, and Ghanbari immediately began to draw obsessively. For four years, she kept her art a secret out of fear of what her neighbors would think. She was an illiterate farmer and a woman -- what right did she have to put brush to paper? She painted late at night and hid her work if anyone came into her home, lying about the paint on her hands. But her creative spirit would not be suppressed. Her work found its way onto the walls of her home, her stove, and the backs of discarded wallpaper.  When he discovered her new passion, her son brought Ghanbari 50 sheets of paper and she soon covered both sides of them all, making her own paint of natural dyes when she ran out of the store-bought kind.

 Interior of Ghanbari's home and wall detail

Interior of Ghanbari's home and wall detail

At first, her neighbors were shocked and opposed to her newfound creative outlet. Not only was it unheard of for an uneducated farmer to paint, but strict Islam forbids the use of human figures in art. Ghandbari never felt her art conflicted with her faith. When asked about it, she said, “I didn’t go to school and I am not literate so I do not know enough,  and I only looked at a few pages of the Qur’an as an inspiration, but I cannot really read the Qur’an. I don’t lie. I don’t think Islam says that drawing shouldn’t be done. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.”Ghandbari’s paintings, which have been compared with Chagall and look like something out of a colorful dream, are peopled with the stories that she heard told at night, stories from the Quran, the Christian Old Testament and Persian folktales. Marvelous figures peer from every corner of her small home, Adam and Eve, Jesus, and a pair of young Persian lovers mingling freely. Eventually, her fame spread and  the revolutionary guards heard rumors about the paintings. They came to question her, but never stopped her.

 Ghanbari's colorful, dreamlike paintings drew on inspiration from stories she heard.

Ghanbari's colorful, dreamlike paintings drew on inspiration from stories she heard.

Before she  passed away in 2005 at the age of 77, Mokarammeh Ghanbari’s work won over more than just her neighbors. There was an exhibit of her work in the capital of Tehran, a documentary was made about her, and people came from across the globe to meet her. There were rumors of a Hollywood biopic. Mother Mokarrameh, as she was known, has been called “Iran’s own Picasso.” Today, her small house is a museum. And the neighbors paint their own front doors and walls, in her memory and in hopes that future artists will not go unseen.

TLDR version: Not to be stopped by a forced marriage, lack of education, or societal disapproval, Mokarrameh Ghanbari picked up a paintbrush at the age of 64, and never looked back.

Mâdar, the scent inspired by Mokarrameh Ghanbari, features creamy, comforting Basmati rice pudding flavored with orange flower water, saffron, cinnamon. Rice pudding is a comfort food in many cultures, and Iran, where it is called Sheer Bernj, is no exception. There, it is typically spiced and flavored with rose water or orange flower water, and garnished with pistachios. In fact, the Caspian plain where Ghanbari lived is famous for its rice and for its orange farms. The area is on the shores of the Caspian sea, and during the spring the air is redolent of orange blossoms. We like to think that she made this pudding for her nine children, and that when she did, her kitchen smelled just like Mâdar, which is the Persian word for “mother.”

If you’d like to know more about Mokarrameh Ghanbari, there are a limited number of English language resources. Adventure Divas by Holly Morris contains a half chapter about her, which has the benefit of including some of Ghanbari’s own words, as the author actually interviewed her. We were unable to source an English copy of the documentary by Ebrahim Mokhtari, Mokarrameh, Her Memories and Dreams, however there are two shorter videos available on YouTube: Mokarrameh Ghanbari AKA Mother Mokarrameh and Mokarrameh Ghanbari directed by Majid Mahichi. The quality isn’t great, but if you can deal with that, you’ll find a fascinating glimpse of the artist and her work.

A Fantastical Banquet for Shakespeare Fans

Joelle Nealy
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Much Ado About Nothing may be my favorite Shakespearean comedy. For starters, I can’t resist a literary love-hate relationship, and Beatrice and Benedick are the ultimate. Then there’s the wordplay, which is just as much fun today as it was at the turn of the 17th century. True, some of the homonyms are lost in translation because pronunciation has changed, but plenty remain even now. The Complete Much Ado About Nothing: An Annotated Edition of the Shakespeare Play by Donald J. Richardson was a great edition for adding historical context and explaining some of the wordplay that might be missed with a modern reading. But why stop with one reading and miss the chance to nerd out, Shakespeare style?

There are a few film versions worth watching. The classic 1993 film version directed by Kenneth Branagh is still beautiful and captures the sunny Italian countryside in all its glory. Emma Thompson is probably my favorite Beatrice, and the verbal sparring between her character and Kenneth Branagh’s Benedick (Thompson’s then-husband) is as sparkling as their surroundings. This version is basically the ne plus ultra of Shakespeare adaptations featuring flowy costumes, pretty faces, and magnificent Tuscan scenery. No big disappointments, no big surprises.

 The cast of Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version, replete with flowing sleeves and bonus Baby Kate Beckinsale!

The cast of Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version, replete with flowing sleeves and bonus Baby Kate Beckinsale!

 Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick. Sybill Trelawney was hot, y'all.

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick. Sybill Trelawney was hot, y'all.

Joss Whedon’s 2012 version is a unique take. Shot in black and white at his home over the course of a long weekend, with a cast of familiar faces for anyone who is a fan of his other work (Buffy 4EVER!), it channels the manic energy of a classic screwball comedy fueled with plenty of martinis. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick have an effortless chemistry that speaks of a personal history hinted at in the text. Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is a standout, too -- maybe my favorite version of the character, although this is not my favorite version of the play.

 In which Joss Whedon's swimming pool is forever immortalized.

In which Joss Whedon's swimming pool is forever immortalized.

 Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof reunited as Beatrice and Benedick. Be still my heart.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof reunited as Beatrice and Benedick. Be still my heart.

I’ll admit it -- I’m a bit of a purist and find that modern settings often take me out of the story. There are few performers who can insert Shakespearean lines into a contemporary setting while making it seem effortless and unaffected. David Tennant is one of the exceptional few, and it’s his performance as Benedick that anchors the Wyndham Theatre’s 2011 production directed by Josie Rourke. Catherine Tate makes a buoyantly fun Beatrice, too. It’s worth watching for the pairing of Tennant-Tate and for his outstanding performance. Just don’t expect a proper film with great production values -- it’s the filming of a play.

 Rourke's version is set in 1980s Gibraltar. Yes, you read that right.

Rourke's version is set in 1980s Gibraltar. Yes, you read that right.

Getting to see a live production of the play was the true highlight of my Fantastical Banquet endeavor, especially because I got to see it at the American Shakespeare Center in charming  Staunton, VA. American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse is a replica of the Jacobean theatre which burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. But the setting is only part of the magic -- the company also uses Shakespearean staging practices that turn any sense of stodginess you might associate with his plays on its head. The universal lighting, brisk pace, and the way characters come and go from one scene to the next with no break brought an electric energy and sense of fun to the whole production. If you’ve ever wondered why Shakespeare’s works are still performed 400 years later, see one performed at ASC and wonder no more.

 American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse

American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse

If you still haven’t gotten enough of The Bard, and you want to know more about what his plays would have been like back in the day, don’t miss this delightful video about Shakespeare’s original pronunciation vs. received pronunciation. Featuring father and son David and Ben Crystal, respectively a linguist and actor, it unveils the mystery of a many a mismatched rhyme and lost pun by delving into how the words would have been pronounced originally.

 Adorable father-son Shakespeare nerds, Ben and David Crystal. Click through to see them in action.

Adorable father-son Shakespeare nerds, Ben and David Crystal. Click through to see them in action.