Monday, February 18, 2008

Art by Women: an Equal Opportunity Manifestation?

Through the course of history, men have left a more prominent relief on the gauze that seperates present from past deeds. Even the term "history" is arguably problematic, a priori denoting a heightened importance to gender.
Expanding this thought into the realm of art and more specifically perfumery, it is easy to see that the emblematic fragrances of modern perfumery have been mostly conceived and composed by men, with the notable exceptions of pioneers Germaine Cellier (nose behind Vent Vert, Fracas, Bandit and Jolie Madame, among others) or Joséphine Catapano (the true creator of Youth Dew, despite tales to the contrary). Later on of course women took the reins and composed many interesting fragrances. I was inspired to think on those matters for today's post by the very interesting interviews of women perfumers hosted by Osmoz, which brought many facets of le métier into focus.

Before proceeding, however, one has to think about art by women: Is it any different in its structure and message than men's? And more importantly, should it be and why/why not? Is there some substance into the differentiation of feminine vs masculine produced Art?

In my opinion, which I had the chance to find out is also shared by Václav Havel, leader writer of the Velvet Revolution, it should not and should it do it ultimately becomes inferior Art. Because appreciation should focus on the content and not the creator it does not, in my opinion, make a lot of difference whether the artist is a woman or a man. I am personally no more lenient to art created by women and/or for women than I am with the equivalent by men (interestingly, you never see that latter advertised as addressing mainly men, do you?) This might explain why I do not generally read chic lit (the term is mirth-producing), but perhaps this is besides the point.

To revert to our question: Does a fragrance created by a woman reverberate into some subconsious desire and need di femina that is mostly incommunicado to men? Do women perfumers hold the secret to what other women desire in this most effervescent of arts?

Dutch-Canadian Ineke Rühland, founder of the INEKE line, is adamant on that point: "I honestly don’t see gender as being a major influence on my work", seguing to elaborate that the only difference is in her creating process for masculine fragrance ~she envisions how she would like men to smell rather than guessing how they themselves want to smell like. Clara Molloy of Memo fragrances agrees:

"I think it’s quite difficult to assign a gender to fragrances, characters,behaviors…It’s a very cultural thing. When you’re very sensitive, even the weather can influence you. Putting on a fragrance is an infinitely precious, delicate and intimate gesture that implies taking one’s time, letting oneself go, being gentle and languorous. Which can all be considered masculine too… "
On the other hand, Annie Byzantian of Firmenich, the creator of mega-blockbuster Aqua di Gio and co-author of Pleasures and Safari pour Homme, disagrees. To her, in contrast with the afore mentioned creators, being a woman plays a role in interpreting the goal of any given fragrance creation.

Perhaps the common thread running through the fabric of those artists' thinking process when creating is the importance of emotion.

Sarah Horowitz Thran of Creative Scentualisation brings the multi-sensory experience to the table, focusing on the inherent acceptance of sensuality in girls growing up. Indeed little boys are not as encouraged or condoned in their exploration of the sensual world, at least in my experience. I was especially interested by Sarah's comment that this appreciation and inspiration by the natural world has been heightened ever since becoming a mother: this is a true differentiation between women and men and as such it poses its own fascinating little questions.

Isabelle Doyen, resident nose at Annick Goutal and creator of 3 Les Nez perfumes, places highest importance to the creative effort above other things. In contrast to Nathalie Larson (who prefers soft, rounded compositions, often with rosy-woody accord, more traditionally feminine), Isabelle goes for the shorter formulae. They instigate a certain idea in no uncertain terms right from the start and thus she describes this effect as "a little brutal". Of course, anyone familiar with the Annick Goutal line might take this last bit in a less literal sense. Nevertheless I deduce that what Isabelle means is that she strives for a clear, hard-hitting vision that is immediately perceptible without roundabouts and frilly details. Quick to admit her own admiration for colleagues' oeuvre however she mentions the infamous Mousse de Saxe base used in the Caron fragrances by laboratoires Laire, but shuns the sensibility of most men's fougère scents. In this instance we could argue that her feminine disposition is showing through.

One of the most illuminating comments was made by Nathalie Larson, creator of Bulgari Pour Femme, Encre Noir and Perles by Lalique as well as Kate Moss:
"as a woman, some brands’ images suit me better than others"
This is something that has to do with the prevalent objectification of women in many mainstream brands that capitalize on a raw sexuality for the sake of shock-value; but also, I surmise, with the concern about brands projecting images that could be safely emulated by women instead of unrealistic ideals of men-imagined archetypes.

It is also interesting to note that when asked to name some of the fragrances that have made an indelible impression on them and which they would have liked to have created themselves, the choices named are composed by male perfumers. But to round out things, ending on the same note as we began, that might have to do with men gaining recognition more easily than women in the past anyway.

For two interviews with women perfumers on Perfume Shrine click here for Anya McCoy and here for Vero Kern.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on those questions posed.

Pics of Isabelle Doyen and Clara Molloy courtesy of Osmoz


  1. Carol Sasich12:21

    A basic philosophical question and oh so difficult to make generalizations. The Artists Way ( athor escapes me ) poses similar thought provoking ideas...as a left-handed woman I consider myself in a double minority and quite certain in touch with areas of the creative process others are not. Is this masculine or feminine?
    Intellectual or ethereal?
    It is an expression of my uniqueness...nothing more. If we were to consider one another all one of a kind, our perspectives on these issues would certainly change for the better.
    Sincerely, Carol queen of caffeine

  2. Thank you Carol for your comment and welcome.
    It is quite something to be in a minority and monitor responses. But women are hardly a minority, therefore I would expect them to be treated the same as everyone.
    I agree with you on expressing uniquness through your choices as a human being.

    Let's see what others will chime in and say. It's an interesting discussion.

  3. It is a very interesting question--not just in regard to perfume, obviously. In general, I come down very firmly on the side of saying that gender is just one part of the huge constellation of factors that influence the individual artist. I don't think there's any value at all in discussing women's art, women's literature, etc., as such. It does make sense to look at the status of creative females in a discussion of cultural history, but that's a different issue from evaluating or appreciating a particular creation. Am I making any sense here? It's complicated ;-)

    Of course, perfumery relies on the body in a way that many other arts don't, so to that extent you might be able to say that a female nose is necessarily a little different from a male--women's sense of smell is generally more acute, we're more sensitive to particular scents, etc. But there again, it's not really a matter that should concern the critic or consumer--it's just an unalterable fact about a given perfumer. The corollary would be in dance. Men's bodies can jump higher, women's bodies can move more precisely and lyrically, but we don't say that men are better dancers than women, or vice versa.

  4. Interesting perspective, P and thank you for your comment: you provide food for thought.
    It is a complicated matter.

    I am also wondering if there is some wild differentiation among different civilizations: for instance, it might be better accepted to be a male dancer in one culture, but not in another etc.

    There is I think some preference by women on specific scents that might leave the men indifferent (like I read somewhere coconut is one of them; I found it a valid comment). But that has to do with the consumer more than the creator who is usually detached from personal, particular preferences when creating according to a vision.

  5. It's difficult to compare the very rare women perfumers of the past, stellar exceptions in what was in every respect a man's world, with the ones working now. Was it harder to become Germaine Cellier than Annick Ménardo? What was it like to be Thérèse Roudnitska, to whom only Moustache is credited to my knowledge, and work in the shadow of a great man who happens to be your husband? Jacqueline Fraysse (Weil perfumes), of the brilliant Grassois Fraysse family that gave us Lanvin perfumer André?
    Perfumery, unlike other arts, has a "hard science" dimension added to the creative one (knowledge of chemistry, starting out in labs), which must have made it even harder for women to start out.
    Nowadays, some women perfumers are still the scions of Grassois dynasties (look no further than Céline Ellena, 3rd generation perfumer), some have come in from the left field... A recent excursion to the Osmothèque, housed in the same building as ISIPCA, the only perfume school in the world, confirmed that the profession is becoming more and more feminine.
    Does gender affect the manner in which perfumes are composed? Being more abstract, I would posit that it's not quite the same thing as clothing -- many female fashion designers have created the type of clothing that they, themselves wanted to wear, starting with Chanel... I think that gender and perfume composition are not directly related in the majority of cases, because it doesn't draw from the image of the body, and thus, self-image.

  6. Thank you D for your detailed comment: interesting as always :-)

    I think being married to an exceptional, iconic nose such as Roudnitska would be the tombstone of any claim to personal notoriety, she would be overshadowed by him no matter what.

    Despite the hard science part, which you are quick to point out and rightly so, there is also the element of perfume being an element of Grasseois tradition and in some cases being self-taught.

    We do know that those Grasse families (of which the Ellenas are an eminent example indeed) have been mostly men who had either the choice of "stealing motorcycles or becoming perfumers" (or people implicated in the production of perfume materials). They were very sensual too, almost too sensual (Henri Almeras was supposed to be groping, another had written a shopping guide to Rome that was only about expensive shoes and ladies' lingerie etc...)
    In that environment I can hardly see women (who were objectified) grafting their own path and becoming true protagonists of their own tales.

    Of course today things have changed and women are more accepted, as in other fields as well.

    Interesting what you say about creation/perfumery not drawing from the image of the body and thus self-image.
    Perfume nevertheless does pertain to self-image on the part of the wearer; so I am wondering how much of that goes into the creative process on his/her behalf from the side of the perfumer.

  7. Yes, you're right, there is a huge impact of self-image in the perfume we select to wear, and perfumers often seem to have an image in mind when they compose -- at least that's what we're told in launch interviews and press releases. What would be interesting to analyse is, within these interviews, whether there's a difference is the discourse on that image. A male perfumer will talk about the woman he intended his fragranc for. For instance, Jean-Paul Guerlain often presented his new compositions as gifts to this or that woman he loved. Do female perfumers project onto an image of woman? Quite possibly. Is it an "orthopaedic" image, intended to correct their own self-image, as sometimes happens in fashion? Or as a projection of an idealized version of themselves? See Donna Karan's evolution (when she lost weight, her dresses became skinnier), Sonia Rykiel's enlargement of her own persona... Women fashion designers wear their own stuff. Men designing for women don't. I don't know if same goes for perfumers.

  8. Good point correlating and contrasting this with fashion!
    Indeed I am not sure if women perfumers ultimately want to "correct" their own image, as the element of catering for their mistress is -mostly- lacking; therefore it would follow that they create for an ideal vision of womanhood in their mind.

    It would be fascinating to know if male perfumers do opt for their feminine creations! Like you I think not, in most cases.
    Except if we're talking about Jean Claude Ellena (and a few others) who doesn't believe in the segregation?

  9. Anonymous10:03

    I absolutely like BitterGrace's comparison to a dancer.
    Within my studies of art and history i have had many thoughts on the very question of male and female art. Is there a difference? If it is so, what makes the differences? Except the issue of socialisation of the individual i haven't found a clue...
    A perfume is a perfume is a perfume...

  10. Thank you N for your comment. I knew you would have thought of this issue too!
    I tend to agree with you: it's postively sphinx-y to try to break down this.

  11. Anonymous08:54

    So many opinions, and I'd bet none of you have actually fought to be a presence in any of the arts. I don't mean getting yourself an agent and kissing an endless ladder of influential asses; I mean creating anything of a timeless quality. I speak of infusing a vehicle with your very soul, with much emphasis put on that very noun and exactly what it means. As a woman, I can tell you that unless you've suffered and toiled with discipline, dedication, and devotion, you aren't qualified to critique those of us who do, or our creations. For those of you who have had everything handed to you, you simply have no concept, like it or not. No a perfume is NOT a perfume as a color is NOT a color, sound, song, etc.. The programming you mistake as study qualifies you only to quack with the rest of the ducks.

  12. Anonymous09:04

    So many opinions, and I'd bet none of you have actually fought to be a presence in any of the arts. I don't mean getting yourself an agent and kissing an endless ladder of influential asses; I mean creating anything of a timeless quality. I speak of infusing a vehicle with your very soul, with much emphasis put on that very noun and exactly what it means. As a woman, I can tell you that unless you've suffered and toiled with discipline, dedication, and devotion, you aren't qualified to critique those of us who do, or our creations. For those of you who have had everything handed to you, you simply have no concept, like it or not. No a perfume is NOT a perfume as a color is NOT a color, sound, song, etc.. The programming you mistake as study qualifies you only to quack with the rest of the ducks.

    1. I published your comment, as you see, but honestly I don't get why the bitter tone.
      Critics exist for as long as art exists. It's nothing new and nothing to get one's knickers in a bunch over.

  13. Anonymous12:23

    I am glad you mentioned Nathalie Lorson (Larson?) Her fragrances for men always resonate with me.
    Taking a tally of my favourites, almost half were created by ladies. It is a similar situation with recently released music. I think perfumery and music are the art forms where there are fewer barriers to getting the message across.
    On the other hand, most of the books I read were written by men and I do not care about fashion much.
    My conclusion has to be that the main difference between feminine and masculine produced art is in the focus of interest and it is fine to be different.


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