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Parfums de Chine

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Those visiting France this year may be interested in an exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. Parfums de Chine takes a look at the culture of perfume in the time of the ancient emperors and the inventive ways the Chinese found to perfume themselves without having pure alcohol to hand.

As well as the usual grease based unguents for skin and hair, they would fumigate themselves by draping their clothes over a bamboo frame, like a small tent with an incense burner underneath. Another risky way to perfume the body was to swallow it. Perfumed pastilles would be taken every day and the odour would slowly infiltrate the body until, it is said, after fifty days the perfume could be smelled through the persons clothing.

Just as we have room sprays for our houses so the Chinese burned incense; different types for different occasions: holy incense for the temple and home altar, incense for meditation, perfume for study, perfumes for social gatherings, perfume was even burnt at business meetings.

The culture of incense still exists in the far east today and the museum shows a fascinating video of the zen like ritual that goes into the preparation and use of meditation incense. The powdered incense, once mixed and aged in a finely decorated box is painstakingly laid out in the form of a dragon. A glowing ember is applied to the tail and the offering is complete once the head has been consumed.

Many antique censers and vases for incense tools are on display, even complete votive sets which include matching candlesticks. There is also an incense burner the size of a football that came from a Buddhist temple. The amount of smoke it gave off must have been truly eye watering.

Not all the exhibits are antiques though, there are audiovisual displays where videos can be seen describing how Chinese scrolls were used to retrieve ancient perfume recipes. These have been recreated by François Demachy who talks about how he had to adapt and interpret them for use with modern materials (subtitles in English).

Of most interest to the contemporary perfume lover will be the five bornes parfumées - Perfume Posts which display an elementary chart of the plants used and at the push of a button release a stream of perfumed air. Four of them are ancient recipes, varying mixtures of dark woody spicy (and oud) bases, some of them with lighter floral themes, and the last one is Demachy's interpretation of the final scent - a hair pommade, this time including synthetics and realised as a modern fine perfume. A comparison between the two is enlightening.

Entry is €11 and €9 for children and the exhibition runs until 26th August 2018.

Updated 3rd June 2018 at 09:22 AM by Wild Gardener



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