“You have a feeling with art like you have a feeling with perfume. You just use your feelings and you know.” A thoughtful response from Mélanie Mugnier, Director of Nicom International Galerie Olfactive in Grasse, when I asked how she and her husband, Greg Routier, selected the artists who exhibited in this derelict jailhouse in June, 2018.
I first met Mélanie in Milan at the annual niche perfume expo, Esxence. She was recruiting brands to exhibit at the inaugural niche perfume fair in Grasse: Galerie Olfactive. I was immediately interested in the prospect of the fair—the fact that it was held in legendary Grasse, would feature niche perfume brands and art, and was taking place in an old prison that hasn’t been inhabited for several decades. I’ve seen art shows in old jails before—oddly the architecture of a prison lends itself quite nicely to an exhibition space. Each artist and niche perfume brand can exhibit in an individual cell, offering unique presentation opportunities from an artistic perspective. I pictured chipped plaster walls, creepy abandoned spaces, and rusty bars on doors and windows, and I was not disappointed.
Green foliage alive with flowers and insects was cascading down the central balcony foyer creating the experience of entering the ancient ruins of an Amazon jungle.
Upon entering I was immediately drawn to a closed cell, curious what might be revealed through the viewing hole, and I was delighted when I got an eyeful of a flawlessly-sculpted butt. Arson is a Grasse-based artist who works with fiberglass. Most of his sculptures are larger than life classical poses highlighting the human butt—fortunately without any olfactive element.
On the top floor, overtaking three cells was artist duo K&T (Kathy Canis & Thomas Sappe), who exhibited their project called, Eye Nose You, which was about love and desire, and completely conceived around perfume. The peepholes were centered in small face-sized wood sculptures hung at eyelevel. Each box housed a photograph of a different person, specifically of an intimate area of their body where they usually spray perfume—the crook of the neck, behind the ear, in the back of the knees, or between the legs. The artists asked the subject to give a sample of their perfume—something they would wear when they are meeting their lover. These perfumes were infused in small wooden dowels that were situated below the nose as you gaze at the photograph, so that the viewer may garner a more complete essence of their lover, rather than simply just looking at an image.
At Galerie Olfactive, not all the exhibited art used scent, and not all of the perfume brands used art, but one of the niche perfumery cells caught my attention. Atelier Des Ors flawlessly integrated their brand into a jail cell to feature their newest release, the White Collection, which takes inspiration from “the search for happiness.” The theme is inspired by the Vienna Secession art movement—an anti-conservative, pro-art movement—but specifically takes inspiration from Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Freize (1902), after Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824), after Friedrich Shiller’s poem, Ode to Joy (1785). Atelier Des Ors now have added a further sensory contribution to this rich lineage—they say perfumery is the 8th art. Klimt’s frieze is constructed in three parts, as is the perfume line. Atelier Des Ors perfumer Marie Salamagne carefully constructed all the three perfumes: Nuda Veritas, Crépuscule Des Âmes, and Choeur Des Anges. The climax of the triptych, in my opinion, like the frieze, and like the symphony, is the third scent— Choeur Des Anges—which is an orange and carrot seed sensory explosion that, like the symphony is loud, harmonious, and joyous.
The jailhouse included three floors of about 50 prison cells exhibiting niche perfume and art, but there was a second location across the street, Palais de Congrès (City Hall) that hosted perfume schools, consultancy agencies, raw materials producers, and more. Architecturally, this large space contrasted the jail cells with features such as wide windows and balconies overlooking the vast Grasse region. Argeville, an international perfume and flavor manufacturing lab, took one such stately room and presented fragrances and candles designed by their in-house perfumers, natural raw materials, and flavors—all culminating in an airy installation designed by 1st mood design consultancy firm. Sandra Dziad, director of 1st mood, explained that the smelling bulbs are modified lab beakers with the necks chopped off so that you can stick your nose into the bulb and smell the folded paper that has been infused with each fragrance. I liked that they repurposed an aspect of the distillation process to create this surreal Magritte-esque smelling situation.
In another part of Palais de Congrès Nez La Revue Olfactive Magazine presented their magazines and books alongside a smelling station of perfumes from the Auparfum subscription Box and IFF Speed Smelling box. Adjacent from Nez was the table of L’Osmothèque, the International Conservatory of Perfumes, where visitors are welcome to smell rare and discontinued perfumes. The floor below had tables of each of Grasse’s famous perfumery schools, a fantastic lunch spot, and a lecture hall.
There was a very interesting lecture program; a highlight was a presentation by Michel Roudnitska, who spoke about the legacy of his father Ed Roudnitska (who created Diorissimo) and the Roudnitska garden and estate where the perfume lab Art et Parfum is located. Roudnitska also spoke about his own artwork; he started out as a photographer and balanced visual compositions like his father balanced perfume compositions. Michel eventually designed entire multi-sensorial ballets that featured his photographs, animations, and fragrances that were disseminated during the performances. Quintessence (1996), a ballet about the history of perfume, featured a fragrance that eventually became the perfume Noir Epices for Frederic Malle.
I was excited to learn about Michel Roudnitska’s art and perfume practice, so I jumped at an invitation to pile into perfumer Thierry Bernard’s sports car and go to the legendary Roudnitska property along with Sarah Colton, François Hénin, and Clément Hautmaitre. The tour of the garden included descriptions such as, ‘Here’s the bed of Lily of the Valley that inspired Diorissimo,’ it seemed like every living thing in the garden was planted with olfactory purpose.
To be amongst friends in the community was the best way to experience Grasse’s rich legacy. Nicom International Galerie Olfactive was an exceptional feat of adaptive reuse of architectural space combined with an exciting synergy of art and olfaction positioned in the motherland of the art of perfume.