jeudi 26 mars 2009

No, Jean-Claude Ellena isn't a Minimalist (and he says so himself)

Less is more.

The founding axiom of the Minimalists is such a catch-all phrase that it can practically be applied to any artistic process based on formal simplicity and an economy of means. Whether in interior decoration, design or fashion, the term “minimalist” is often used indiscriminately. In perfumery, it is commonly applied to the style of Jean-Claude Ellena.

Short formulas, a deliberately pared-down palette, extremely legible fragrances: in his compositions, Hermès’ perfumer always seems to strive for the simplest possible way of expressing his intention – for what is called, in the realm of science, an elegant solution. This streamlined and limpid style is probably what has led many commentators – including myself, in an article published last September in the French art review Particules and reproduced in this blog (click for Parts I and II) – to label him, a little hastily, a Minimalist.

Jean-Claude Ellena rejects this label. This is what he wrote to me after reading my article, in a private email from which he has kindly allowed me to quote:

“I don’t feel minimalist in my olfactory writing. The Que Sais-Je on perfume gives a definition of minimalism in which I don’t recognize myself. In fact, I try to reconcile the perceptible and the intelligible, in resonance with the philosophy of Camus, who sought to rehabilitate perception in a world dominated by reason (read “Helen’s Exile”, The Invisible Summer, Albert Camus).”

I’ve never read Camus, a shortcoming (especially when you’ve got a PhD in French literature) I will soon remedy. But I have re-read Jean-Claude Ellena’s Que Sais-je, Le parfum :

Minimalists play on odor for the sake of odor, stripped of any sentiment.” (p.79, my translation).

If you go by a stricter definition of Minimalism, rather than by the more general meaning it has acquired over the years, Mr Ellena is absolutely right: he is not a Minimalist, far from it.

The Minimalist movement was born in the 60s as a reaction to the subjective overflow of Abstract Expressionism and the figuration of Pop Art, essentially in arts (Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Carl Andre), but also in architecture (Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller) and music (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, Michael Nyman).

The Tate Gallery website icely sums up the main characteristics of the school. So rather than paraphrase them, I will quote them directly:

“We usually think of art as representing an aspect of the real world (a landscape, a person, or even a tin of soup!); or reflecting an experience such as an emotion or feeling. With Minimalism, no attempt is made to represent an outside reality: the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. (…) Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings 'What you see is what you see'. (…)Minimal art does not refer to anything beyond its literal presence”

Now, when Jean-Claude Ellena composed Kelly Calèche, inspired by the delicate smell of certain leathers, or when he created the Jardins series, he obviously drew from his experience of the real world:

“To create is to interpret odors by changing them into signs, so that those signs convey meaning; the smell of green tea becomes the sign of Japan, flour the sign of skin, mango the sign of Egypt.” (Que Sais-je, p.59)

Granted, this inspiration is transposed, reworked, streamlined, but the referent is maintained. In that respect, Jean-Claude Ellena’s creative process can’t be called minimalist, since it evokes. Even the Hermessences, whose extreme simplicity and short formulas seem to stem from a minimalist approach, still represent something real (vetiver, tonka beans, amber, osmanthus, etc.)… Thus, for Un Brin de Réglisse, Jean-Claude Ellena explains in his email :

“It wasn’t a matter of emptying lavender of its substance, but of revealing it. You must know that when lavender is distilled, the heat (120°C) and water produce artefacts in the essential oil, i.e. substances that don’t exist in the natural state of lavender. Because I have a concrete knowledge of lavender, I had certain ingredients removed which didn’t exist, or hardly existed, in the smell of lavender. Which allowed me to recover the SMELL. This difficult and very costly task, which would have been impossible to carry out three years ago, wasn’t sufficient to create a fragrance, hence the daring association with licorice.”

It isn’t a question of the material for the material’s sake, but of stylizing the perceptible reality through the interplay of streamlining and connections: we never really leave the realm of the figurative. Which means, once more, that Jean-Claude Ellena cannot be defined, strictly speaking, as a Minimalist.

Hence this long corrective footnote to my initial post: I wish to thank Jean-Claude Ellena for having taken the time to shed light on the matter.

For an account of Jean-Claude Ellena's conference at the Institut Français de la Mode on March 11th 2009, click here and here; for an overview of his October 15th 2008 conference at the Société Française des Parfumeurs, this will take you to 1000fragrances.

Click here for Octavian's review of the latest Hermessence, Vanille Galante, and here for mine.

Image: Frank Stella, Blue Horizon, 1958

11 commentaires:

  1. Dear Denyse: Thank you for this thought-provoking post, and thanks also to Monsieur Ellena for once again speaking so eloquently about his "écriture olfactive." It certainly is intriguing to hear from someone who has clearly devoted a lot of thought to defining his own aesthetic.

    I do think that Ellena's work does exhibit a certain privileging of economy of means and formal simplicity, even if we do not call this "Minimalism" in the strict sense. While there isn't the sort of pure abstraction of minimalism (the "odor for the sake of odor"), there is a kind of stylization, I should think, in the deployment of fragrance notes as signs. That is, unlike the "naturally classic era" you mentioned in your earlier post of JCE's comments at the Institut de la Mode (when perfumers used notes like rose and jasmine as "themselves"), notes are now used to evoke rather than to represent in any strict, "realistic" way. The use of the word "sign" certainly has a structuralist flavour to it, especially in highlighting the way that "signs convey meaning" (i.e. emphasizing that the relationship between signifier and signified is not one of equivalence, but rather, necessarily involves some degree of abstraction).

    I think there is also a modernist perspective implied in Monsieur Ellena's comments on time and evolution. The idea that fragrance is not static, but evolves in time seems to draw our attention (in a very modern way) to the ever-changing relationships between perfumer, the perfume, and the one who experiences the perfume. The perfumer's creative process (especially when it can be so eloquently conveyed), and the perceiver's unique experience at THIS particular moment (during which, as you said the other day, the perfume "consumes itself" as we smell it!) are all wrapped up in the total experience of fragrance as art.

    One more interesting thing to me (if you'll forgive this long and meandering comment) is the idea that the skill of the perfumer is involved in "evoking" reality in a way that feels "realer" than the real. I was just re-smelling Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert the other day, and was struck again how it gives such a strong feeling of tea, knowing full well that the astuce of pairing ionone + Hedione is not really the "smell" of tea itself, but somehow the "idea" of tea. (Frankly, it implies to me that all of our sensory perceptions of the world around us involve some degree of abstraction or idealization, and part of the pleasure in the "legibility" of some of these fragrances is the pleasure of letting the brain "fill in the gaps" or make the connections between the signs and our conceptions of the Real.

  2. Jarvis, the "gap-filling" is something our brain does naturally, I think -- this is why very novel fragrance compositions are not always perceived in the street, says Ellena somewhere else in his book. In his conference, he also explained that one of the characteristics of the evolution of a fragrance over time is that we still perceive notes after they have evaporated, which lends continuity to the development. This is one of the reasons he calls himself an illusionist and a thief of smells...
    Oh, how I wish more perfumers had thought out their discourse (for us intellectuals to mull over...).

  3. D, what an interesting post. I'm super guilty of bandying about the term Minimalist, having famously once said to an self-avowed Interior Decor Minimalist at a party "Minimalism is fear based," which I can now back up with the idea that it might be the fear of emotion, and of the messiness of being human.........

    I remember the post when you cited M. Ellena as one, I think I quoted you somewhere. I think that the thoughtful Jarvis has it just right in referring to him instead as a Modernist, a term I also often use about design, making the distinction vs Minimalism, as the two ideas are so often conflated over here in the US, and misused. Since I've begun teaching, I've gotten a bit pedantic ; )

    I'm embarrassed to say that I am not a fan of the scents of M. Ellena, although I am a big fan of the man himself, I love reading insights from people who do the work itself, it's so rare, as you mention at the end of your post, in many creative fields, don't you think?

    That said, I'm wearing Vintage Visa on one arm, and Vintage Futur on the other one today (big samples sent by a dear pal), what a luxury, they are both just great!

    Thanks for a great thought provoking post!

  4. Wendy, it's interesting to consider JCE's references -- here he mentions Camus, elsewhere Cézanne... I've often illustrated posts about his compositions with Cy Twombly, but that's just an intuitive rapprochement. Modernist, Structuralist, Existentialist... It's interesting to try the tool box on his work, but there is too little theory of perfume aesthetics to do it properly... yet.

    P.S. Isn't Visa the most feral thing there is?

  5. Hi, D. I agree with you -- we've been "borrowing" terms from the visual arts, music, writing, etc., but the vocabulary of perfume aesthetics proper has not been fully worked out yet. It's nice to be able to discuss this here, and to propose ways of developing such a vocabulary.

  6. I love the use of literary, art, design and musical terms to talk about perfumery, it really brings it home to me.

    And I LOVE Visa, feral is a great word for it.

    Today I'm juxtaposing it with Or Black, not sure if that was the best idea, but I have loved them both in this testing week........

    Bon weekend!

  7. Jarvis, JCE himself suggests describing materials through words borrowed from the other senses. His classification of forms according to "schools" also uses concepts developed for other art forms (baroque, classical, abstract, figurative, narrative, minimalist).
    I would certainly add post-modern (thinking of Laudamiel's work in particular).

  8. Wendy, you mean Visa isn't enough for you on its own? (Faints dead away).

  9. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.

  10. Denise, thanks for this thoughtful article. You captured exaclty one issue that always has been a type of "stereotype" in the perfumery of JCE. And people have to open their minds to break some these stereotypes.One more time, this great master is totally right. I think that minimalist term is very hard concept to be used in evocative and personal issue as the perfumery, no matter how clean are his fragrances. It is time we use other adjective to describe his art and really your article was a learning for me as a writer and an fragrance evaluator. I need to read my book Je sais Le Parfum(could not yet) and something about Camus to a better understanding, anyway the quote "we never really leave the realm of the figurative" summarizes that minimalism word should be used more carefully when refering to the work of perfumers. Perfumery is highly figurative, that is the point.Merci!

  11. Cris, thank you... The matter of the figurative in perfumery is a complex one, and distinct from the question of JCE's minimalism. For instance, N°5 is always quoted as one of the first examples of great abstract perfumery: of course we can pick out distinct notes that refer to things that exist in nature, but the composition itself is self-referrent. It smells of perfume -- which is probably why it became a template of modern perfumery.

    There are some notes that don't smell of anything actually found in the real world... But they aren't necessarily sufficient to create a fragrance, though they can carry it out of the pure realm of the figurative. Some fragrance represent only themselves...

    However, coming back to JCE, it *is* true that minimalism doesn't apply per se to his style, going by the strict definition of the school: but then what? That question still hasn't been solved.