I will confess to be being somewhat of a Ralf Schwieger obsessive; his work enthralls me, overflowing with technical superlatives, yet elegant, serene, coldly arousing and exquisitely formatted. I have blogged on his work before, specifically Fils des Dieu, du Riz et des Agrumes, also for Etat Libre d’Orange, a curious and fabulously textured oddball scent that played with the most delicious steamed rice effect over spices, shiso leaf, coconut, ginger, rose, tonka, leather and amber. A very unorthodox gourmand, it echoes a Pacific Rim take on the Guerlinade of classical vanillic Guerlain compositions such as Shalimar, Jicky and L’Heure Bleue in its complex and surprising drydown. I also discussed his masterful Lipstick Rose for Editions Frédéric Malle and his work at Hermès. I don’t want to spend too much time repeating myself, so if you want to read the earlier piece, please follow the link below.
Now, since I posted that piece back in June 2012 Ralf has been busy with Etat Libre d’Orange and other collaborators. There are two fragrances for Barney’s, one for women with the now sadly departed designer L’Wren Scott and a gent’s one with artist and actor Greg Lauren. He has also created a much-lauded debut scent for Charenton Macerations called Christopher Street, a homage to the boho, sexual vibes of one the world’s most iconic thoroughfares.
2013 saw Ralf construct the aloof and ghostly Iris Nazarena for Aedes de Venustas, the influential niche fragrance boutique in New York, owned by Robert Gerstner and Karl Bradl. It is the second house scent, after Bertrand Duchaufour’s eponymous debut scent, a wonderful smoky chypré for Aedes in 2012. I sampled Iris Nazerena recently and lordy it’s a velvety, alluring marvel. As you inhale, it’s as if the lights go down and you feel warm hands undressing you.
Then there is the discreet and charismatic Vanille Insenseé, made for the hip, slick French house, Atelier Cologne, founded by Sylvie Ganter and Christophe Cervasel in 2011. This I own and adore; vanilla of course but chilled with lime and aloof cedrat, jasmine, amber, oakmoss and vetiver. The mix is sublime, a mixologist’s take on scent; the elements flow and caress with immense subtlety. As you all know by now, I love vanilla but this is a different take on the leathered sheath of dreams. It has milky powder and vast falling softness. I find ice cream in the mix, snow-white, familiar, ivory, moreish, solacing and glorious.
This all brings me to The Afternoon of a Faun, a perfume I have finally added to my collection after fretting about it for months on end. Why.. I’m not entirely sure. The reviews are excellent and people I know and trust have tried it and adored it, telling me just to buy it. It launched with a lot brouhaha as many recent Etat scents have; swathes of PR swirling about, lots of info on Nijinsky, Mallarmé’s poem, Vivian Justin-Bond etc. I remember thinking at the time…oh so much chatter, so much justification for a perfume. So I let the perfumed dust settle and took my time to decide whether or not I really wanted or indeed needed The Afternoon of a Faun in my life.
I returned to Etat at the end of 2013, buying La Fin du Monde, Quentin Bisch’s debut scent for Etienne de Swardt and as a fully-fledged perfumer. I love it’s popcorny, smeared weirdness, the sense of comfort and delicate daring played out over its carefully balanced notes of iris, sesame, ambrette, sandalwood and the smoky trail of faded canon fire.
What I anticipate in the work of Schwieger is difference. Elements that intoxicate, intrigue my senses, hold me fixed to my own skin. Very few perfumers can consistently achieve this, the work rate can be punishing and of course the briefs vary so much from House to House, with endless mods, testing and honing. The juice can be endlessly mediocre. Even great perfumers like Duchaufour, Ellena, Doyen, Menardo and Roucel compromise, resign themselves to market forces and budget controls. It is the harsh reality of modern commercial perfumery. Niche is not exempt however, with celebrated houses such as L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal and Serge Lutens launching dull and unimaginative work, almost as a reaction to mainstream trends, something that artisan scent has traditionally viewed as anathema.
Etat Libre d’Orange has not been exempt either, some of the fragrances have been borderline mundane and overhyped. Archives 69 was dull and painful to wear; a great concept on paper; a celebration of the store, the address, the brand’s iconoclasm, but the scent was suffocated by an uncomfortable incense/camphor symbiosis that drove me nuts. Malaise of the 70’s and Dangerous Complicity just do not work; they smell uneasy, unfinished and throwaway in the drydown. I feel dizzy in them, too much aromachemical frippery.
With The Afternoon of Faun though, I got my heart’s desire, just as I did when I bought Fils de Dieu – a sense of giddy wonder, my skin prickling as the perfume rose to my processing, vertiginous hypothalamus. It contains a narcotic dose of immortelle, one of my fetish notes so I knew to expect aridity, a soft tobacco like effect as immortelle fumes out like that on my skin. But there is so much more, layers beneath layers, a sense of performance and veiled abstractions, notes masquerading as emotions, cause as effect.
The scent is a collaborative one, a union of Etienne de Swardt at Etat Libre d’Orange, the performance artist and avant-gardiste transgender provocateur Mx Justin Vivian Bond and of course Ralf Schwieger. This intoxicating and stimulating formula had a brief from Mx Bond Vself: ‘Sex in the grass in the afternoon with flowers nearby.’ How glorious. How trans.
Reading that, all I can think of is the highly charged and fleshily rendered lovemaking in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film I Am Love between Tilda Swinton's Emma Recchi and her bearded chef lover in his hillside garden, full of chirruping insects and overgrown grass in sticky summer heat. Of course one cannot ignore the literary weight of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem published in 1865. L’Après Midi d’Un Faune, a complex and charged work describing the sensual meanderings of a faun as he wakes from sleep, dreaming of forest nymphs and dryads, wondering if what he sees is reality or Did I love a dream? The language is beautiful, strewn with flowers, skin and emotions. I love the lines:
…Girls sleeping in each other’s arms sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.
Mallarmé’s poem in turn inspired Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a symphonic poem, ten minutes long and first performed in Paris in December 1894. The piece is scored for woodwind mostly, including three flutes (symbolising the faun.. Pan etc), two oboes, two bassoons together with horns, harps, strings and crotales, a chromatically arranged set of small cymbals. I have always found it a tricky piece of tonally compressed music, something I have to concentrate on intensely for the motifs and effects to rise through and envelope the senses. I am no expert on classical music and find this kind of work quite challenging. It was interesting to revisit it in light of the scent however, as the tonal shifts and unexpected flutters of bleakness in the music from the flute duo are echoed to a certain degree in Schwieger’s heady and herbaceous mélange of moss and tempered leather.
The fauvist packaging is based on Léon Bakst’s programme design for Vaslav Nijinsky’s controversial and animalic ballet, his radical and shocking interpretation of Debussy’s music and Mallarmé’s faun-dream. Nijinsky was on a kind of sabbatical from the Ballet Russes and on the lookout for something to play with, to challenge his talent and confront the mores of the era. Despite the avant-garde developments in art and literature and the barely suppressed air of sexual hysteria playing itself out through Art Nouveau and the shock of Bloomsbury, it was still barely seventeen years since the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde, an event which sent shockwaves through the world of the liberal arts and encouraged many talented individuals to flee to more accepting climes.
First performed in Paris in 1912, Nijinsky’s controversial interpretation of Debussy’s music caused uproar and scandal. It was one thing to listen to the oddity and modernity of the music and use one’s imagination to picture classical scenes with fauns and dryads etc. It was another thing altogether to be confronted by Nijinsky’s contemporary deconstructed dance work and overtly sexualized portrayal of the dreaming, wandering rampant faun.
As a performer he was a man intent on breaking rules, not for the sake of them, but the benefit of art, so that things would never be the same again. He wanted to be remembered, revered. This is what true artistry does, shatters, flaunts and then holds up something akin to a mirror, reflecting flaws and distance, a taste of future shock. Innovating is lonely and painful. It is rare to be completely understood or even tolerated in one’s own lifetime.
The ballet used deliberately archaic body language to portray the Mallarmé/Debussy inspirations. Nijinsky in collaboration with maestro Diaghilev and Bakst created a tableau technique, working with a static format inspired by the design of bodies on Greek vases. The dancers had bare feet and the short piece had a strange erotic compelling quality to it unknown before in classical formal dance. Conventional dance movements were abandoned in favour of small, animalic gestures, the body creating tensions and drama from touch, primitive angular rhythms and a sense of raw preening sexuality that both repelled and thrilled those who saw Nijinsky’s performance.
True pivotal art moments like this are actually quite rare. Nijinsky was a creature of immense sensual allure and complexity. Only the impetuous slutty Nureyev has really come close to his raw commanding presence. Very few male dancers are ever really afforded the opportunity to explode and shock, the ballet world is a very feminine one, the boys have strictly defined roles, and the Prima Ballerina is queen. The era of maverick, dirty dancing boys is long gone. The buff swans of today are rather tame and dull in comparison.
It seemed so intriguing to me when I heard Etat Libre d’Orange had commissioned this Ralf Schwieger piece. His work on Fils de Dieu had captivated me, shown me new things, revealed a really impressive steamed rice note, something I had not smelt before. When I go into my Fragrance Study to sniff and play, Fils de Dieu never fails to delight me; I close my eyes in wonder and marvel at its quiet verve and Pacific Rim loveliness. Etat love to play with influences and when it all comes together perfectly it blows the fucking roof off.
Adding Mx Justin Vivian Bond to the sexual olfactory mix is a typically bold Etat move. Mx Bond is a multi-talented transgender performer pushing at the limits and definitions of identity. A self-proclaimed worshipper of radical fairies and gender outlaws, Mx Bond has declared Etat to be a transcent, created for when we make love in the afternoon, on the ground, in the woods, surrounded by flowers, honour(ing) the ancestors who have set us free.
A Mx is new moniker, no Mr, no Mrs or Ms but a fierce and trangressive badge indicating allegiance to the balance of both genders in one body, the eternal fascinating androgyne. The quote above was the brief to Schwieger with no constraints on artistic interpretation or olfactory direction. Few perfumers could handle this weirdness, this raw scream of commission. But Schwieger is an oddball; his work to date has been eccentric and almost deliberately anti-establishment. Even his Hèrmes work, the menacing gourmand Eau des Merveilles with its subversive solar stickiness and saltlick compulsion marked him out as a perfume dissenter, a nose to watch.
So, what of the result? Etienne de Swardt of Etat is a man of scented vision. He sees, smells, and senses things that many of us just can’t imagine. He provokes, it is his mission and manifesto. It is never quite as hard-core as one might imagine, but is still dressed up in the outré, dedicated flamboyancy of perfume drag, glitter, transgression and sexual anarchy. The brand in recent years has drifted a little more into the mainstream I feel, the advertising has more sheen and billboard gloss. The leering innuendo and shock value feels just a little tired to me sometimes.
I go through phases with Etat, loving and leaving it. I always have Charogne, Fils de Dieu, Tom of Finland and Eau de Protection in my collection though, they are my skin-loving, tingling top four. I added La Fin du Monde in December, moreish soft popcorn, sesame, gun cartridge and iris, which I just can’t get enough of it right now. Then a bottle of The Afternoon of a Faun sauntered into my life like a wicked, coy interloper, whispering naughtiness in my jaded ears.
I’m still circling it a little, musing, obsessing over it outlandish effects. It’s on the table in the kitchen, so I notice it all the time right now and can wear it unceasingly with intrigue and joy. Right now it smells druggy, such is its narcotic effect on me. As I mentioned earlier, there is a whacking great immortelle or Helichrysum note flourished through the composition. Rubbed into a lovely hot dry rose, the effect is a sense of swooning darkness, tired flower heads drooping into unknown shadows. I claim a lot of cinnamon from the notes, a very parched and bitter take on a spice I usually run a mile from in scent. It can smell incredibly cheap and potpourri-like if it’s handled with anything approaching clumsiness. But the dryness and odd roasted umber tone in Faun compliments the lurking leather facet nuzzled and warmed by the wise and twisted use of immortelle.
Each time I wear The Afternoon of a Faun I sense something a little different in its landscapes, an oddity in the music of the notes, a shift in the olfactive weather. This is a feature of Schwieger’s work for me; Lipstick Rose, Vanille Insensée, Iris Nazerena and Fils de Dieu all have a certain chameleon reticence about them, they seem to shift and modify minutely each time I wear them, revealing new, modest, perfumed truths.
If I had to try and pinpoint what makes Faun so singular and precious it would be the somewhat deviant binding of moss and leather in the base of the scent. It is perverse genius, elemental and pitched perfectly at skin on the edge of desire. The leather smells slightly flayed and tight, the moss cold and lost in the soft light of a damp winter afternoons.
As Mallarmé’s dazed and priapic faun wanders the sensual corridors of his dreamy mind recalling the nymphs and dryads of his sexy siesta, Schwieger’s explicit scent roams the skin from spice and petal to smoke and hide. The mossy, lichen raunchiness is suggestive of assignations in crushed and rolling bracken, leaves and earth stuck to flushed skin. There is enough jasmine and orris to sweeten the mix, a glow if you will, a blush of finesse and nostalgia.
I love each soft, erotic and quirky stage of this most unorthodox of smells. It’s as if you rise drugged from a crushed and sensual bower, leaf-litter imprinted onto skin, brushing insects from flushed arms and thighs. The air seems awash with flickering memories of something just out of reach. There is a sensation of being watched, the erotic gaze loitering, devouring from behind ancient trees and aromatic bushes layering shuddering frisson to an already dirty and unsettling scent.
As for being a transcent… well who I am to say? The Afternoon of a Faun certainly fetishises the humble Mr Tumnus, and layers idea upon artistic idea. This is what Etat Libre d’Orange do so well, you wear so much more than just mere scent, this cunning mix of faun, transgender queerness, Mallarmé, Nijinsky and cutting edge perfume weirdness makes for balmy and arresting wearing. It is without a doubt one of the most eccentric perfumes in my collections and I am beginning to love it deeply, beyond reason.
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