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Rendez-Vous! is one of the most fascinating and sensual perfumes in recent years, a collaboration between Master Perfumer and olfactive mischief maker Antoine Lie and French photographer Sonia Sieff, daughter of the legendary JeanLoup Sieff.

JeanLoup Sieff is a name that conjures up intensely precise monochromatic photography that spans the 50’s through to the 90’s. There are only a handful of photographers in fashion and fame whose work is truly epochal, capturing the quintessence of an era and talent. Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, Mert & Marcus, Liebowitz, Man Ray, Paolo Roversi, Jurgen Teller, Avedon, Gordon Parks, Helmut Newton, Tim Walker, Ming Smith, Steichan, Glen Luchford, Herb Ritts, Corinne Day, Miles Aldridge, Ellen von Unsworth, Erwin Olaf and Peter Lindbergh to name a few. The eclecticism of their work blurs the line between art, commerce and sexuality, presenting with beauty and strangeness allied to personal visions. Taking photographs is a relatively simple thing, especially in this cluttered, warped age of smart technology. We all carry smartphones now. But to capture something unique with insight and originality is infinitely harder. 

Sonia Sieff has the pedigree and talent for her work to be her own. Her use of light suffused skin and a sense of erotic enigma has allowed her to explore the nude in contemplative serenity. Her book Les Françaises (Rizzoli 2017) is a collection of exquisitely lit and staged portraits of female nudes. Paris, Normandy, La Champagne gardens, women caught in eccentric glimpses, as if their very nudity is a form of clothing, worn with insouciance and charm. Sonia has an ability to capture a sense of undressed privacy while empowering the female form. Her work feels very French, very Parisian, yet also universal, no voyeurism or kink, just the bodies of women who seem comfortable and illuminated by Sieff’s awareness of skin and illumination. 

Rendez-vous! is her latest collection, this time it is the male form presented in 115 images that has preoccupied her, with an intriguing gaze on the male nude photographed in atmospheric poses that we might normally associate with the female nude. The Greeks treated the male body with an obsessive pursuit of perfection, all ratios, beauty and coded desires. Women were barely seen, not deemed worthy of art and statuary in the same way emperors, athletes and androgynous boys. All the sculptors were male and from then, and to a certain extent, even now there is a sense of unease at female depictions of naked men. 

It is a damning indictment of male artistic control. Women could perhaps paint delicate watercolours of flowers, press dried blooms, practice embroidery and tapestry, decoupage, knit and make clothes, pastimes to do at home or visiting other women, nothing that involved the (male) perceived dangers of life classes and women thinking they might have the same skills and talent as their male contemporaries. 

The image that still shocks now is the painting Judith Beheading Holofernes by the female baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who followed her painter father into the profession. She was raped by a painter called Agostino Tassi. Her father took Tassi to court after he reneged on his promise to marry Artemisia. It is incomprehensible to us that this talented wronged woman was tortured with thumbscrews in court to ensure the veracity of her claims. Tassi was banished (he had other awful charges hanging over him), and Artemisia was exposed and trolled about her ordeal.

It is no surprise that Judith’s story captured the painter’s imagination. What is surprising is the startling Caravaggio-esque violence of blood and shadows, a blade glinting as Judith removes the head, Holofernes’ arterial crimson juice exploding from his neck and the grotesque grimace of horror on his face. There are disturbing glimmers of satisfaction in this grand guignol depiction of decapitation, Holofernes a symbol of all men, viscerally executed for crimes against all women. It is impossible not to be shocked and astonished by Artemisia’s painting; a story of a woman betrayed and the sanguineous revenge.  

Sonia worked on male nudes early in her career and now returns to them with a sympathetic and knowing eye. The result is sexy, charismatic and sensuous. There is an intriguing vibe of invited voyeurism, the men and their lovely various bodies beckoning us to share, if only for a moment, the space they occupy so we might languidly admire their allure. 

For Sieff, it is not a case of feminising her subjects but photographing them in artistic ways that play with gender portrayal. These are not sport power poses, men engrossed in office deals, running and sweating, gym bods and the often overly aggressive and off-putting desire to perpetuate stereotypes. Sonia presents up with her vision of the male nude that suggests privacy and acceptance of vulnerability. The men and their displayed flesh may be extremely eye-catching but never to the point of macho look-at-me dullness. It is more a case of “observe me through this female lens.” 

Despite a lot of whinging and criticism of social media like X, (probably warranted), Instagram, Threads etc, they are all very image focussed, trying to catch our eye as we scroll on buses, in cabs, bed and out walking, social mirrors judging and fixing our fears in time. Psychologically hiding behind filters, lies and unattainable standards, which we seem incapable of resisting. The real world is just too ragged, poor, scary and boring for many people so self-aggrandisement and misdirection abound. 

Lacerating scrutiny of our bodies, flesh and form can be triggering. Mirror mirror on the wall becomes a harrowing ritual. Many artists use Instagram to showcase work, seeing it as worthwhile exposure and linking accounts to more personal websites, stores and other info. An online gallery if you like. The problem is veracity. Social media is really a prison, you are bound to the images and personas you present. It is also very addictive, the tweaking, filtering and placements make it increasingly difficult to recognise oneself. Psychology has disturbing field days with ideas of body dysmorphia, imposter syndrome, eating disorders and pornography. People spend hours claiming they are influencers, but their reality is a kind of self-promoted absence, and they rarely touch the real world. It is tawdry fame, awkward, unreal and yearned for, despite warnings and awareness of dangers. 

Art has had to deal with all this face on, reluctantly and often uncomfortably, throwing an artisan hat into the ring. Interestingly, now that people are slowly realising it is the quality of one’s followers rather than the number that is important, artists are finding like-minded folk and the community is growing. The craft and creative drive matter. It is an antidote to the altered gloss and wannabee appetite for easy fast exposure. 

Photography of course uses an enormous canon of processes and techniques across digital and analogue styles. But it is the eyes behind the camera that uses discernment and perception to capture something they believe is important. What makes an image memorable is quite elusive. There are some iconic photographs from all ages: records of rural life, exploration, war, fashion, portraiture, aerial, architecture, astrophotography, nature and sports. It is a photographer’s innate response to their world that channels a client’s want.

Sonia’s book Rendez-Vous! is about the male nude in all its strangeness, sensuality and coyness. She has avoided any awkwardness that sometimes presents in nude portraiture, yes there is the hidden body, skin tucked into landscapes, rooms where the nudes are a natural part of the tableau, the surfaces of skin treated by the light like stones, sea, cloth and landscapes. Her subjects are at ease, their nakedness is natural and accepted. This relationship between model and photographer is sacrosanct, trust allows exposure of self and we in turn are free to explore bodies that have allowed themselves to be caught in time. 

Perfume too concerns itself with skin, the osmosis of fragrance materials and flesh is required to produce what we think of as perfumery. The different ways people wear scent is endlessly fascinating, as weaponry, protection, comfort, seduction, conquering and exploration. There are so many permutations of scent, and the nostalgic force of aroma has been well documented, odours triggering memories via the stimulation of the limbic system, a part of the brain plugged directly into recollection and recall. 

We have all been thrown back to somewhere or someone via a sudden rush of perfume or odour. A 1950’s Dior scent, the ozonic ubiquity of CK1, cigar smoke, frankincense, Lynx body sprays, suntan lotion, sea breezes, tar, aircraft fuel, each one of us has an olfactive library in us, waiting to be tapped into. 

Sonia has collaborated with Antoine Lie, one of the most inventive and intriguing perfumers at work today. He is prolific without ever compromising his quixotic work. Like many freelance noses, he still creates work for high street brands but is renowned for his maverick olfactive visions for smaller, more experimental and artistic brands. There is nothing heteronormative about this side of his work, nothing is taboo, ideas are flayed, concepts exalted in pursuit of singularity. His breakthrough scent was the infamous Secretions Magnifiques, a conceptual tour de force created for Etat Libre d’Orange, Etienne de Swardtz’s daring and endlessly fascinating house. 

Secretions Magnifiques is known as the perfume of 4S; Sueur, Salive, Sang et Sperme. (Sweat, Saliva, Blood and Sperm). Launched in 2006, it is one of the most unique and controversial perfumes ever released, truly a scent of obsessive desire and loathing. A queasy adrenaline accord, milk, blood, iodized algae float coldly with coconut milk, creamy sandalwood, opoponax and the rooty, hung scent of iris. It is not a comfortable perfume, but why should it be? Antoine created a handful of classics for ELdO including Rien, Eau de Protection, Tom of Finland and Daphne, 8 88. and Girl for Comme des Garçons. Aphalie for Cire Trudon, Latex ± for Uermi, Red+MA for Blood Concept and all the superb ERIS Parfums as well as collections for Les Indémodables and Les Abstraits. 

Antoine is not only a master perfumer and one of the few noses that can truly be considered an artist. His independent, leftfield perfumes clothe the skin in unique material and precision blending. He never uses anything without flesh and mind intent,  and Rendez-Vous! is a powerfully intimate exposition of his work.

While there are subtle references to his unique oeuvre, Rendez-Vous! smells neoteric and erotic. It is essentially a portrait of a metallic iris; rhizome, stigma, anthers, signals, falls and petals. The initial violent overture of powder and musks smells of shattered flowers and twisted metal. The beautiful flacon is a deep burgundy colour, but the perfume is one pale bruise blues and mauve, albeit tinted with the rust red of dried blood. 

The most unusual note mentioned in Rendez-Vous! is gunpowder, an effect that has been used a few times in other perfumes like Ching Shih by Marisa Zappas, Fin du Monde by Etat Libre d’Orange, the sadly discontinued Amour Nocturne by L’Artisan Parfumeur and 1805 Tonnere by Beaufort. There is often a mingling of olfactive imaginings, the smell of gunpowder and gun smoke, which are different, but we tend to think of them as one and the same, a bitter-fumed mix of steely black pepper, singed charcoal, sometimes a whiff of brimstone, white steam and an undertone of sour green. 

In Rendez-Vous! Antoine has used its associations and effects to act like a hearth fire in a blood red room filled with peonies, poached rhubarb and the romantic skin-dust bloom of orris. The gunpowder is less of a note than a mood, something to push at our memory larder and then work its magic throughout the composition. Everyone will interpret it differently. 

Rhubarb has been used to add a succulent blush and tartness to Rendez-Vous! There is juiciness and an odour profile that smells of acidic strawberry, sugared saffron and rainbows. It counterpoints the lingering sky traces of fireworks implied by the gunpowder. There is an extraordinary Chinese artist called Cai Guang-Ching who has been obsessed with gunpowder throughout his career, using it to smut paper, scorch fabric and most famously to write or paint in the sky with a monochrome palette. He has used colour, but it is the choreographed explosion of inky stars fading into smeared smoke that has made his work so compelling. His displays leave lingering sulphuric traces hanging in the air. 

Sonia Sieff wanted a perfume for women that could be worn by men. This isn’t the same as unisex or shared scents that always aim for modernism but continually result in dull platitudes. All perfumes are for all people is another angle, but this too has its problems, there are scents that obviously seem feminine and others more masculine. Commercial houses and the masstige market struggle without gendered targeting. Many talk the talk, but behind the scenes, industrial briefs will be anything but rigidly guided and demographic led.

So, a perfume for women that men would wear. It is a bold statement that could come across as glib and yet another marketing trope, but it doesn’t. It suggests a sensual appropriation, something feminine that a man might covet, secretly or otherwise. As the male nudes in Rendez-Vous! present a female gaze, Sonia has avoided anything overly theatrical. Yes there is abstraction but then the perfume reflects this too, an ache, admiration at the baring of male bodies in ways that women have been seen..  

Sonia and Antoine have created something ambiguous and daring but not at the expense of the male bodies being photographed. It is a thin line between thoughtful art and uncomfortable pretension. Rendez-Vous! is a hugely alluring and secretive perfume, smouldering with enigma and materials that rise and fall like piqued desire. It is difficult to think of anything else like it except perhaps buried in the DNA of Antoine’s work to date. He is asking us to rethink how materials, both natural and cyborg, function as veils of protection and intimate rapture. Sonia Sieff gives us beauty and yearning, an opportunity to gaze and consider the masculine form, while Antoine mirrors and augments the viewing with a perfect perfume that floods the senses with craven flame.

Alex Musgrave

May 2024  

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