Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Optical Scentsibilities: Memento Mori

Dior Poison "memento mori" ad, "all is vanity"
How could the idea of mortality be tied to perfume? There seems to exist a plethora of references to Eros and Thanatos in scented matters. From the ancient practice of accompanying the dead to their resting place with aromatic incense and the fragrant burials in Egypt's pyramids to the annointing of the body for weddings in India with comparable scented essences, fragrance holds a key to matters of mortality. Rituals using it aim either to somehow "defeat" it (marriage and therefore procreation) or to pay their respects to the unavoidable.
But it is rare that a perfume company uses images of death to advertise their products; in this case Poison by Christian Dior.

You don't get what I am talking about? Squint. Now look again with your vampire eyes...The image of a skull is looking back at you through the mirror, the bottles and the torso of the woman sitting in front of her dresser. See?

Images of skulls abound in art and are indeed a premium means of delivering meanings that have to do with the subconcious. From the skull and bones flag of the pirate ship to more sophisticated paradigms, like this one from surrealist Salvador Dali, skulls are there to remind us that nothing lasts forever and the inevetability of death is the only centainty in life.
Of course Dali chose to depict it through naked women forming the parts of the skull, which is an allusion to the other half of the equlibrium of Eros and Thanatos. The regeneristic power of sexual desire and copulation is man's only means of transcedenting death. This of course lies at the root of ancient mysteries and rituals, such as the Orphic or Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece.

During the Middle Ages, at a time when general lack of education swerved the emphasis of ecclesiastical catechy into iconography rather than scripture, images of horrible monstrosity became almost normal in the abodes of the holy. One only has to take a look at the gargoyles of late-Gothic churches across Europe to ascertain this. In this environment the notion of Memento Mori flourished; a typically simple depiction of a skull making an appearence somewhere along a painting, a psalm book, or a tapestry.
The habit persisted through later years and this painting of Jean de Dinteville (depicted at left) by Holbein is testament to it. If you look at it from the left and squint enough, you see that at the bottom of it there is an elongated form of something that does not seem like anything much, but in fact is a symbolic skull.

And how would this culminate in the above Dior Poison advertisement? Simple: the name Poison lends itself to imagery of Thanatos, through its connotations of its meaning and the fairy tale poisoned apple like its bottle shape suggests. Apple, a fruit full of its own connotations of sin and corruption!
Perhaps the advertisers want us to remember that just as their perfume can symbolically be lethal (and in copious amounts I am sure it can be!), it can also put a spin into the other half of the eternal duo: Eros.

Pics from and Thanks to Sillage for bringing the initial Poison ad to my attention


  1. Loving the visuals...So erotic.
    My, my-
    It's early here !

  2. Very striking ad -- I'd never seen it before. But then I don't buy magazines any more. I'm sure John Galliano had some input in this: he's always been fascinated by art and psychoanalysis.
    Death is in perfume's DNA. Not only because of the perfume/poison associations that go back to Catherine de Medicis' era, but because smells were thought to carry death.
    And don't flowers need to die to yield their perfume?

  3. Damn, your good, Helg! I love this post. I could just meditate on it all day. One thought that occurs to me is that the greatest perfumes incorporate some element of decay-- some olfactory memento mori--within themselves, whether it's the fecal rot of indoles, or the leather notes you and Denyse have been exploring.

    1. Why do people call them fecal when indoles smell of moth balls in their pure form?

    2. Good question. Because they have become a pop reference (feces is more sensational).
      Also because factually they are featured in feces, so the reference is there (even if feces actually smell more of thiols and sulfur).
      You may want to consult my Indole article:

  4. Oops, that's "you're" good. My inner schoolmarm cannot let that go uncorrected.

  5. I, dear, aren't those great images? The ad is so subtly erotic.

  6. Dear D,

    good point about death and perfume. For centuries odours were thought the means through which disease travelled (hence the beaks/quacks of doctors).

    As to flowers dying to yield their best...not any more, alas (aka living flower technology). But this is another matter for another day.

  7. Dear M,

    thank you :-) When the ad was drawn to my attention I immediately thought that Memento Mori hasn't really disappeared from our culture. Only now is not catechism, but rather something that we fight so urgently with all that "live forever, be young forever" health-freak cult.

    I agree of course that indoles and leather do hint at decay. In fact it's been called "pourritude noble" by someone ;-)

  8. Small correction: "pourriture noble" refers to the mold that is allowed to develop on grapes to make certain wines like the Sauternes. If memory serves, it was Luca Turin in the Emperor of Scent who refered to the riper olfactory tastes of the French by mentioning, among other things, cheese and "pourriture noble".
    Bittergrace, you're right: perfumes do carry a note of the bodily decay they're meant to mask, while still alluding to it. At least, classic perfumes do.

  9. Yes, that's the one, smart gal. I was referring to the decay though, not the indoles and leather in the above phrase (I think the fungus is "decaying" the fruit).
    I may have been hazy in my syntax,though; excusez-moi. The wrong spelling though: that's inexcusable.

  10. Anonymous20:24

    Well, what can i say: that small post hit me just right in the middle. I love your thoughts, helg. I love the idea of the post. I love the images, the visuals and your analysis of them. Very erotic. Very sharp.
    One little thought came to my mind: the holy smokes and fumes were and still are, by some, used to build a bridge, to create a contact between this side and the "other side", the reich of the deceased... by the means of smoke higher powers can be evocated... a fascinating issue.

  11. Anonymous08:46

    Good article.

    If the correct lens was put to the skull depicted in Holbein's The Ambassadors (the double portrait of Jean de Dinteville and either Georges de Selve or Fran├žois de Dinteville) I'd be willing to bet it would appear in proper proportion.

    Use of the camera lucida causes a distortion because of the field of focus. The artist has manipulated the skull by mechanical means yet the foreshortened the lute and men's hands, very difficult objects to draw, are rendered flawlessly.

  12. Thank you N. I knew it would resonate with you as I have come to know your sensibilities.
    Of course smoke (per fumum) has its own rapport between living and dead: very succinct point. Your image of a bridge is very evocative of the other world.

  13. Dear V,
    thank you for your kind words.

    The idea of camera lucida is very clever. Somehow I think it might be camera obscura though, since he lived so much earlier than the former's extended use, popularised by Wollaston. But I might be wrong.

    In any case interesting to actually try a lens over the skull.

  14. Anonymous22:11

    Patented by Wollaston in 1806 but written documentation of its use over 200 years earlier.

    For a camera obscura you'd need the subject in bright sunshine and a whole room completely darkened with just a pinhole to admit light. As if the artist was sitting inside a giant 'traditional camera' as we know it and the shutter was open (which is possible because some artists kept an air of mystery about their work as purported by David Hockney).

    Evidence of camera lucida especially in paintings with tapestries on a tabletop. There is usually a 'glitch' in the pattern. Able to trace spread of use across Europe as painters developed a much more realistic style from early to mid Renaissance.

    I wish Blogger Comments allowed for posting pictures.

    P.S. Miss you on the Isle.

  15. Dear V,
    true about the patent (and wasn't Wollaston terribly cunning in getting the patent). I think it was Kepler that first used it? For scientific purposes, not art.
    I recall Vermeer used camera obscura for his.

    Comments with pics would be fab!

    PS. Thanks for saying so. Will try to pop in.

  16. I was thinking about this the other day, just how negative Poison is, in its image, very negative connotations, so what does it really mean? What is it expressing and what does it say about the people who wear it? I also found its concept incredibly literal, which is so strange, I can't really put it into words. Maybe it works against the fragrance? I don't know.

    1. Negative is enticing, everyone loves a good villain! Since sex and seduction is implicated in villainy of sorts, as in the tale of Eve and the serpent, it goes without saying that a negative element should be there in the story. It's also logical in this string of thought that since ethical considerations would condemn the deviation from the prescribed path (no sex, no knowledge of the facts of life) that death/mortality would be the price to pay for knowing/indulging. So far so good.
      But it totally works in advertising because we already know we're human and we'll die, so we might as well try out a sort of "villainy" in play-acting with our perfume. I think it's brilliant.

    2. It certainly was a groundbreaking project. I don't know if it's art, since it was commissioned through briefs and so on, I would love to hear more about its creation, there is some info online but not much.

    3. Perhaps the real question is whether it's artistic, rather than high falutin' "art" (too much academics and somehow it loses the punchline). IMHO it's very artistic.
      I hope to be able to come back and talk about this some more. Stay tuned!

    4. It's truly art but it was created in such a commercial way it seems, with a brief and hundreds of perfumers sending in samples, it also had a name before it even had a scent, the name Poison was trademarked years before its launch.

    5. There's only so far you can go with "art" in a commercially available product, after all, Ramon! :)


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