Friday, July 7, 2006

An essay on art in perfumery

The issue of what constitutes art and what does not has been on my mind for years. Being an historian and having a degree in History of Art as well is no help though, because one would be amazed at the diversity of opinion in such circles as to what exactly would be the deciding factor. As perfumery might be considered an art form by us perfume fanatics, I wanted to discuss what exactly would define it as such and pose some questions.
I was reading an interview of painter and sculptor Fernando Botero -probably South America's greatest living artist today- given to Thanasis Lalas on Vima magazine the other day, which inspired this post.

Botero went on to give 9 suggestions to young artists which pretty much define the meaning of art to me. I roughly translate the suggestions and put my personal comment/explanation in parenthesis. Here they are:

1. Choose the right influence (meaning: the best ones! Get to know that
great masters and get influenced in a constructive way)
2. Art should
give some pleasure
(he elaborates by saying he is old school in those
matters and doesn't think that you need a PhD to appreciate art, it just
"clicks" and makes you feel)
3. Develop your own sensibilities (ergo
develop a theoretical thesis about art and its meaning)
4. Abide by your
(develop a personal style)
5. Be a rebel
(innovation, what else?)
6. Look upon your work as if it is someone
(objectivity is of paramount importance)
7. We all make
(he goes on to elaborate that an artwork's main mistake is to have
nothing to say in the first place, which is indeed much to the chagrin of a
modern art appreciator)
8. Success is never complete (personal
growth is tantamount to evolving in one’s style)
9. Art can be greater
than life
(What a great line!!)

In that maxim I see a very nice summing up of what art is really all about (to me at least). It should make a point, it should have something to convey, it should innovate and not rely in its self-importance, it should be evolving and growing, making the artist as well as the audience grow with it.
I think it applies not only to sculpture and painting, but to music, literature, theater, you name it! Hence I thought about perfumery, which although does have a commercial aim (since the product of the creation is to be commercialized through marketing, advertising and sales) it does retain an artistic vision, much in the same way that a designer kitchen appliance designed by Phillip Stark can stand on its own as a modern day art piece (an “artefact” of a certain lifestyle, I’m afraid)
So a thing can have an aesthetic value as well as a commercial one, in that it can provide pleasure and to the degree that it does not break any other rule, it can be sold and bought.

JaeLynn (alias), a prolific writer and a poster on some of the fora I frequent said to me this great line and I quote:

“But then you start getting into the Frankfurt Schoolers versus
Jenkins/Hills/et al, which is a darned fine row if I do say so myself. What
constitutes "art" and are there divisions of high/middle/low? To put it
fragrantly, is there (Frankfurt) or is there not (Jenkins gang) a quantitative
and qualitative difference between a Lutens or Malle perfume and a Comptoir Sud
or Britney Spears perfume? “

What could we say to that? What exactly differentiates a Serge Lutens and a Frederic Malle from a Comptoir Sud Pacifique or Britney Spears perfume, if there is indeed a differentiation?

Surely when one approaches the different lines there is some snobbism inherent, especially among those who are just budding into perfume niches, because, let’s face it, the persona of the celebrity promoting the perfume with his/her name on has an uncanny way of entering our subconscious in more ways than one, alternatively influencing us into giving the perfume bonus points or inherent flaws, depending on our perception of Ms. Spears or any other eponymous celebrity or designer for that matter. Because many designers are capitalising on their name too in order to sustain their couture houses which would only crumble to the ground if left to the moguls clients only (after all how many are those and how many gowns could they wear in a given season?).

Lump in that category too overpriced exercises in trends, like sickly foody smells in a hundred different variations imaginable or oils that purportedly have a secret recipe and are all the rage among the famous. They are nothing special appearing as something that could be. Perhaps their art lies in clever marketing, but maybe that is a science after all?
Only blind testing would provide objective data in that stratum and we know this is a utopia for most of us when testing those particular scents.
Nevertheless, the one salient characteristic of most commercial perfumes is their ability to appeal and be pleasant across the boards for initiated and uninitiated alike. By that I do not mean that they are great, fabulous, wonderful or anything along those lines, because despite their pleasantness they often fail to make one genuinely interested and involved, leading to the launch of another new one that will in its turn become obsolete after the 5-year-time frame that modern day perfumes work within. They are perhaps too boring and forgettable to compel us to renew our purchase, so we become serial monogamists: using the new scent until the juice finishes and then on to another. They do smell inoffensive and “nice” though and sometimes being composed by the same noses who make other niche compositions with often comparable ingredients might beg the question why they aren’t considered art as well, per dictum number 2 discussed already.

The Frederic Malle line, on the other hand, started with an artistic reference point from the start as perpetuated by their motto perfumes without compromise: Malle gave the chance to top perfumers to create something they really wanted with the best materials available given no commercial restraints and he, like an editor, would promote it and distribute it for them. Hence the peculiar and sometimes bold nature of such animals as the lush, bombastic baroque Fleur de Cassie by Dominique Ropion or the pungent, bitter minimalism of Bigarade Concentreé by Jean Claude Ellena. In correlating this to the criteria we talked about in the beginning, the Malle line displays no specific homogenous “style” but rather the individual style of his artists who may indeed “abide by their convictions”. However among perfume loving circles I have come across many people who although they like and condone the concept have not found themselves in love with a single one in the line, at least not enough to buy a full bottle of it (what is affectionately termed as being “full bottle worthy” ).

Serge Lutens didn’t begin with such a concept, however there is a definite vision behind his creations with sidekick nose Chris Sheldrake: evoking the rich tradition of the Arabian world, however interpreted in a completely modern way with modern materials and procedures. The results are not erratic as with the Malle line because the collaboration of those two individuals in the line (with the exception of Maurice Roucel on Iris Silver Mist and Pierre Bourdon on Feminité du bois) has ensured coherence of style which however has the disadvantage of not always hitting the right spot. Hence the passionate feelings most Lutens scents arouse in perfume appreciation fans, whether their remarks are mostly positive (Chergui, Fleurs d’oranger) or mostly negative (Miel de bois, Gris Clair). The amount of pleasure one derives is subject to one’s personal associations and memories, as is with the majority of scents, however there is no denying that these are perfumes constructed as an exercise in pleasure recalling an opulence and sultriness of a modern odalisque that is active in an urban territory.

In their elitist mentality though (which in my humble opinion hides a snickering marketing angle too) they go on and produce such shocking segments such as the mentholated top note of Tubereuse Criminelle and the urine-like sweetness of Miel du bois that greet you when you open the vial. That would divert from the pleasure aspect if only there weren’t segments that transport the senses and validate the best wet dreams of an incurable perfumeholic (the creaminess of Un Lys, the deep plush of chocolate-patchouli in Borneo, the sweaty rot of the candied fruits in Arabie).

And then one stumbles on contradictory quotes such as this one:

"We don't care about celebrities at Hermès, it's the artists who drive us,"

Mr Ellena said.

"I do this for me. If it sells, it's a bonus."

The quote comes from on July 27th from an article about Ellena being in Sydney for the launch of Terre d’Hermès. Which left me wondering the obvious: if perfume is just art and not business, why travel to promote it?

OK, Mr Ellena, I forgive you the lapse this one time.


  1. if perfume is just art and not business, why travel to promote it?

    Did you find an answer? (I am aware that seven years have passed since...)
    I have seen your blog today for the first time.
    Greetings to you!

    1. Nope, there is no answer to that. But JCE is an artist and that does not change. He brings his own theoretical approaches to his work, which is not usual for many.


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