Une Touche de Rouge

Rothko Foundation Robert Bayer, basel

Whenever Nicky Haslam is introduced on the radio I jump to it, adjusting the tuning and turning up the sound for he always has something fascinating to say to be pondered on later. In youth he was a friend of the great beauty, wit, ambassadress and writer Lady Diana Cooper and I always wait for her to come up in his conversation. The other day was no exception. Mr Haslam talked of Diana Cooper’s mother, the 8th Duchess of Rutland and her singular views on interior decoration. Violet Rutland – “the artistic Duchess” – was an original in all her attitudes. Diana’s memoirs recall how her mother drew and sculpted to professional standard; condemned tomatoes, lemon flavourings, holding hands and being seasick as common; invariably wore the family tiara back to front. When I was a child our old gardener remembered working for the Rutlands at Belvoir Castle and pinching Violet’s behind as she sat sketching in shrubbery, mistaking her rear view for that of an under parlourmaid.

Violet passed on to her daughter this fascinating theory that when you come to furnish a room, it should always be completed with “une touche de rouge”. I couldn’t wait to try out this idea but I soon realised that it was already in effect willy- nilly around the house – the principle works so well that you often seem to achieve it effortlessly and involuntarily, almost instinctively. That splash of red, however small, which brings the rest of the room together, like lipstick completing and signing off a woman’s maquillage. The scarlet cushion dumped down in a decor of blues, pink and ochre; one crimson parrot tulip on the kitchen dresser; a vermilion tooth glass; a bowl filled with nasturtiums. Positioning that touche de rouge is like switching on a light.

Red is the most psychologically, emotionally and culturally loaded of all the colours. It’s probably also the most vibrant violent and varied, with infinite associations and resonances. It inevitably stirs up emotions and reactions. In some languages and societies it is the only colour; the same word is used both for “colour” and for “red”. In Russian, “krasnya” means beautiful as well as red. For the Egyptians it was the personification of the bare burning desert, of chaos, war and evil. Nuns used to be permitted a red pocket hanky as the only spot of colour in their dress: a psychological crutch, an emotional licence implicitly acknowledged by the Rule. It’s the colour of prostitution, a tradition going right back to the early books of the Old Testament; of passion, life, love, victory, blood, danger, birth, help, warning, justice. In the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel, red provides the plot: Davis perversely wears a “gloriously red” gown to the virginally white Olympus Ball, losing her lover and ruining her life in consequence. Even in black and white, such are the mental associations  of the colour – Jezebel the Scarlet Woman – that the device works without reservation. Red is all things to all men: to me it always manifests with something of a shriek. I can’t wear it, makes me look like a corpse.

How can the touche de rouge relate to scent? I think it’s the leaven in the lump, the unexpected touch of genius, thrown in instinctively, which transforms a humdrum formula into a unique  masterpiece. It’s the overdose of vanillin in Shalimar, the barmily exaggerated aldehydes in No 5, the wine lees in Malle’s Une Rose. For Opium, it was the choice of name: now routine, then so outrageous. Historic Caron perfumes are really one massive touche, a spreading stain of crimson baroque surrealism, a disturbing Rothko canvas. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Encens et Bubblegum is an inspired daub of poppy red.

The touche is not grotesque; it may shock but that is not its aim or purpose. Its not a substitute for creative thinking. It’s not the avocado mousse made up with lime jelly and mandarins or that awful dress run up from sirloin steak or Princess Beatrice’s pretzel wedding hat.  Rather the touche de rouge is the catalyst that brings about the Big Bang, the fiery vital spark of creation.

Picture by Robert Bayer, basel.

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