Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Optical scentsibilities: the Art of Composition

One of the first things that one learns at Art School is the mastery which is required in placing your subject in a composition that focuses on what you want to focus on and hinting at subtle references. The art of composition is not easy, alas. This is often the downfall of many advertising campaigns which opt for a too "loaded" approach or one that misses the target and diverts the eye from the focal point.
And then some others do brilliantly exactly thanks to their arresting placement of elements on paper. Like this advertisement for Paco Rabanne cologne for men from the late 70s. In a very clever composition it puts all the emphasis, through the use of light and shadow, on the central subject: the man in the background. The fact that he is a glamour photographer is hinted at by the equipment seen in shadow on the foreground and the two are joined by the ray of light escaping from the room that is seen at the back, while the man is apparently talking on the phone, casually -as hinted by his hand in his pocket- disheveled; perhaps arranging a tryst with a loved one. The message is smartly displayed: Paco Rabanne for Men is meant for men who don't have to prove anything and it challenges vision to be used in alternative ways: maybe through the aiding lens of olfaction, for a change.

The composition merits its own lineage being revealed. It is none other, in my opinion, than this classic of classics: Las Meninas by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez from 1656. Las Meninas means "maids of honour" in Spanish. The painting is a depiction of the royal family of Phillip IV of Spain and its entourage, in which the Infanta Margarita (the royal child-daughter) is posing at the center with her maids, her chaperone and two dwarfs. But in reality it is more a depiction of the shadowy silhouette standing at the doorway, seen through the lit "window" at the background that draws the eye upwards and through the painting. Again the trail of light travels from the back to the foreground, creating the tie that binds the composition into a whole. In the words of Silvio Gaggi, the painting is presented as "a simple box that could be divided into a perspective grid with a single vanishing point".
The iconic status of the painting is evident even more if we consider that Pablo Picasso as well as Salvator Dali interpreted the composition in studies of their own. Here is one of them by Picasso from 1957.
If one is interested in a more analytical approach of the painting, I would advise turning to Michel Foucault's Les mots et les choses ("The order of things", New York, Random House 1970), in which he devotes the opening chapter to this.

A innovative approach that has had an unforeseen lineage in perfume advertising.

Pic of Paco Rabanne courtesy of parfumdepub.
Las Meninas courtesy of


  1. Anonymous21:39

    One of my favorite pictures from my art class, it has such serenity to it depicting everyday life. A perfect composition.

  2. Isn't it, Sabina? It is so full of elements and with such complex structure as to warrant hours of study: yet it remains easy to the eye.

  3. Anonymous18:23

    I only read things like that here! Thanks you!! Amazing!

  4. Well, thank you very much Irene. I appreciate it you saying so.


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