Monday, July 31, 2006

Art in perfumery part deux: post-modernism?

In my previous post I elaborated on what constitutes art in perfumery and what criteria must apply for it to be defined as such. Some perfume lines were scrutinised in order to decide whether they deserve the term or not. Considering that some perfumes are in some degree artistically conceived and not merely as a means of generating income for the conglomerates that so often produce the majority of perfume today, the next question would be what style and period of art do they belong to and if post-modernism features in there.
Takashi Murakami Super Dob

According to certain theorists all art can roughly be divided into two extremes: classicism and baroque, styles antithetical to one another and with the consistent habit of succeeding one another through the passing of time.
Nota bene that it is of paramount importance for our purposes further on, though, to differentiate those terms clearly. I do not refer only to their standard definitions regularly used. I use them in a broader artistic sense. Thus by classicism we can not only define the ancient greek and roman art, nor the 18th century genre that mimicked some of those attributes, nor still the things that are generally viewed as “classics” by the layman.
Even within ancient greek art (which one would label classic, without thinking twice about it) the two extremes are inherent; the golden century of Pericles that provided such masterpieces as Diadoumenos was swiftly followed just another century after that by the equally exquisite Hellenistic baroque with Laokoon and the Snakes. Surely these two examples cannot be lumped into the same stylistic technique or aim of the artist. One is calm and sure of itself, relying on perfect harmony and rules. The other is full of expressive agony, imbalance and agitation.

In J.K.Huysman’s English translation of his famous book A rebours/Against the grain (Albert & Charles Boni), Havelock Ellis notes in the introduction that classicism is the subjection of detail to the form, the parts subordinated to the whole; while baroque/decadence is the antithesis of that; the glory of the detail above the whole, the homogenous in Spencerian phraseology becoming heterogeneous. Therefore classicism precedes baroque and can also be considered more “correct” as it has its roots into functionality. (the aim is served by the technique and not the other way around). He goes on to give examples from architecture and literature ( early Gothic is classic, late Gothic is decadent, Hume and Gibbon are classic, Emerson and Carlyle decadent)

I couldn’t agree more, even though I am personally drawn to baroque.
Baroque exalts segmentation over the whole, striving for the virtues of individuality. It tries to make beauty out of imbalance and feeling out of clash. Romanticism is baroque. German expressionism is baroque.

In that respect perfumery can also be seen through this lens; series of classical perfumes in contrast to baroque ones.
Classical perfumes are those that have a smooth balance of notes to serve an idea behind them that unifies the whole into one precise image, one specific aim. In my mind such perfumes are Allure by Chanel or Femme by Rochas. They give out a very balanced precise message. Every chord is serving that message: “like me” for Allure; “ravage me” for Femme. The nuances are there to serve the general purpose, no matter what that latter is.

In contrast there are other perfumes that follow a baroque sensibility, focusing on detail: Bal a Versailles, Angelique Encens, Tubereuse Criminelle are orchestrated in segmented glory in order to make us appreciate every evolving stage and hint at various different messages along the way. Although two of those are considered “classics”, this does not by any means refer to the term already discussed, but rather to their endurance to the passing of trends.

To make this issue contemporary and relevant and not an art history lesson, I have pondered on the art movements of the 20th century from post-impressionism to fauves to cubism to Dada, from modern and post-modern to pop art to Damien Hirst. Again the succession of classical style to baroque continues. Perfumery did not have so many phases as the visual arts, but it did have its fluctuations in style which does not mean they are clearly divided always into “pockets” of style. From the revolutionary modern phase of the late 19th century that produced Jicky and on to the roaring 20’s with their Guerlain Shalimar and Caron Tabac Blond to the 50’s with their lighter aldehydics and feminine chypres, to the 70’s with their emancipated scents or hippy-ish oils, to the opulence of the 80’s and on to the sparseness of the 90’s and full circle to the baroque gourmands of recent years.

However it was a comment by a poster on MUA, named Rhian, who got me into thinking that if the great perfume classics are those created before the 1930’s (the period of modernism in art and also the basis of most revolutionary setting of rules for modern perfumery) what exactly personifies the olfactory post-modernism?
Rhian reminded me of Louis Sass, who in his book Madness and Modernism elaborated on the shared disjunctive narratives, surreal images, and incoherence of both post-modern art and schizophrenia, which is intriguing to say the least.
I personally disagree with John Cage's maxim:
"Emotions do not interest me. Emotions have long been known to be dangerous.
You must free yourself of your likes and dislikes."

In my opinion perfumery is deeply rooted to the physical, being a transportation of the senses, so any cerebral interpretation has to go through this aspect still; we react very viscerally to smell, even though we may *think* about the specific stimulus in a certain way. So yes, in that regard perfumery as a whole could be viewed as an antidote to the mind frame of post-modernism.

"Postmodernist fiction is defined by its temporal disorder, its disregard of
linear narrative, its mingling of fictional forms and its experiments with
according to Barry Lewis referring to Kazuo Ishiguro.

The notion that in order to create a post modern perfume one would have to break down the traditional techniques and shatter every well-received knowledge of the masters of the field in order to create something truly baroque to its core is so difficult to come by, though; since modernism is a classical stylistic means, like we agreed, it would follow that post-modernism should embrace the extreme baroque. Thus I cannot for the life of me get beyond two -or three, at gun point- lines that truly produce such a post-modern product. One of them is Serge Lutens for Les Salons du Palais Royal, who is deeply baroque in the most contemporary way in my mind. The mentholated opening that segues into creamy floral is a very post-modern idea. Ditto the warm ashes in conjunction with cool lavender.
The other line is pushing the envelope even more. It’s Comme des Garcons. If there is truly a post-modernist perfume they (and I refer to Rei Kawakubo by “they”) have certainly been the ones producing it.
From the cloning of dust on a lit lamp to burnt rubber to wash drying in the wind and from the Synthetic series to the Incense series to the Guerilla scents they have succeeded to churn out so many innovative and anti-perfume scents that they have earned the laurels of the rather unwearable but oh-so-revered post-modern perfume. Brava! The case for schizophrenia is not far behind.

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