Monday, December 16, 2013

Optical Scentsibilities: the Kiss by the Piano or The History of the Tabu Vintage Perfume Ads

Who hasn't been swept by the passion of the old Tabu by Dana perfume advertisements showing a female pianist passionately embraced and kissed by a male violinist? "Tabu, the forbidden fragrance" ("un parfum de puta", as per the fragrance brief to perfumer Jean Carles, no less) recounted to the reader that "Things  don't happen the way they used to. But they still happen." Kinda Fabbio-jacket cover dreamy, eh? In fact more artistic than initially thought of, so a great subject for our Optical Scentsibilities feature exploring the connection between art history & perfume images.

Tabu the fragrance, coming out in 1932, isn't that far removed from the painting that actually inspired the iconography of this advertisement, which is The Kreutzer Sonata painting by René François Xavier Prinet in 1901. (Itself inspired by the homonymous Leo Tolstoy novella which dramatizes a husband's jealous rage over a wife's "animal excesses" and making a case for sexual abstinence, the literary artwork itself referencing Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, originally dedicated to the violinist George Bridgetower who by insulting the morals of a woman in Beethoven's admired list lost the dedication to his peer, Kreutzer. Talk about meta-galore and war of the sexes on this one!)

via wikipedia commons

The specific advertisement depicted on the top is only one generation ahead of the original perfume launch (please note all the ancillary products mentioned at the bottom, such as soap, dusting powder and lipstick the Tabu brand has under its belt), but boy, how had mores changed in the interim!

Tabu continued on the path of the "painting like" advertisements and has a pleiad of vintage perfume ads (as shown on a dedicated blog from 2009). Among my favorites is this one, showing a woman in front of the iconic painting, cleverly referenced in the background, reading "When Tabu becomes a part of you, you become apart from all others". (ain't that the truth!)

Finally Tabu reprised the violinist with a nude male model posing for a 1990s fashions-clad woman painter (what a genius meta-meta-comment on Dana's part!)

The transcription of the values and tropes of oil paintings into perfume advertising in particular is stunning, straddling the contradictory notions of wealth and spirituality. Using the work of art as a quote acts as a potent sign of cultural authority; in a way it confirms the wisdom and appraisal ability of the viewer and acts as a reminder of being a cultured European (or a cultured partaker of the European values of aesthetics, at the very least)

This post today brings me nicely to the observation that I had made in a previous installement of the Optical Scentsibilities articles exploring the ties of perfume advertising and art history that sometimes the image you see is not only "inspired" by a painting/iconic photo (such as "Las Meninas" did for Paco Rabanne pour Homme or the Madame de Pompadour painting by Francois bouchet did for countless "reclining" poses in recent perfume ads) but it accurately reproduces the art work down to the smallest detail, as was the case with The Divers (utilized by Guy Laroche for Horizon). or Watteau's "The Swing" reprised in 1999 by Estee Lauder for Pleasures perfume featuring their model at the time Liz Hurley.

via ebay

via wikimedia commons
A timely reminder that perfume imagery isn't as frivolous and low-brow as initially thought of.


  1. Oh Helg --- so many "buy with their eyes" !!!

  2. M,

    oh definitely, which is why perfume advertising is of so much importance to the launch.


  3. Great post as usual, and for a perfume I like a lot (in its vintage parfum form at least).

    The painting does resurface now and then. For instance, last year I got a christmas gift set with body cream (sadly not smelling like Tabu in any vintage) and a 50ml violin shaped bottle carrying the painting on the label. Not that I needed any modern tabu, but the grand total being $9.99, I could not resist.


  4. M,

    we share a taste for vintage Tabu! (it's quite something, isn't it)

    What a lovely reference to have in a Xmas set. It up there with the painting on the Bal a Versailles bottle, which is adorable too. (though I have the white canister of the skanky eau de cologne which is my preferred form)
    The bargain you got it for is mind boggling for a deprived European-buying person….


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