jeudi 31 mars 2011

Are Fracas and Odeur 53 Brutalist? Of the use of artistic labels in perfumery...



Chandler Burr gives excellent sound-bytes. On March 16th, the freshly minted curator of olfactory art at the New York Museum of Design spoke to the New York Times, where he was formerly (and famously, at least in our little world) a fragrance critic. How can you not pay attention when he dubs Edmond Roudnitska’s Diorama “one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist perfumes in the world”? Or Fracas “the first great Brutalist work of art” before going on to compare it to Comme des Garçons Odeur 53, “another Brutalist perfume”?

I’m all for setting the great perfumes of history alongside the major artistic currents of their time. There is no earthly reason why perfumers can’t be part of the zeitgeist, subject to the same influences as artists, composers or architects, and therefore able to express them through scent. But the exercise has got its limits, and unless you can do a parallel demonstration on olfactory and visual forms, slapping the label of an artistic movement on a perfume doesn’t go very far into shedding any light on it. Mea culpa: I was once upbraided by Jean-Claude Ellena for calling his work Minimalist, which in fact it isn’t in the strictly art-historical sense of the term…

So what is, exactly, an “Abstract Expressionist perfume”? Abstract Expressionism is really a grab-bag term: you can stuff Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as well as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko into it. The 1949 Diorama is definitely a contemporary of the movement; it’s undeniably abstract, but no more or less than practically every other perfume of the period, or indeed most perfumes up to the 70s. It’s expressive, certainly. But comparing the intensely sophisticated, full-fleshed Diorama to, say, Pollock’s drippings or de Kooning’s furiously clownish Women? Edmond Roudnitska’s ashes must be spinning in their urn.

As for Fracas, according to Mr. Burr, it is “Brutalist” in that “It uses a raw material that is extremely difficult to work with — tuberose. Tuberose has a quality of being one of the least floral florals in the entire world. There’s a huge menthol component to it, and menthol is very, very violent. What Germaine did was she took this violent thing and she created a structure around it.”
I suppose Mr. Burr said “menthol” in order not to frighten the journalist off with mentions of methyl salicylate. And Fracas’ outrageous femininity can be construed as “brutal”. But raw, as in “raw concrete”, the term which gave rise to the word Brutalism (from the French “béton brut”) it is not. The tuberose absolute is tamed and rounded out in Fracas by orange blossom, muguet and peach effects, among many other things: its raw edges aren’t showing as they do in, say, Annick Goutal’s Tubéreuse; they aren’t magnified as they are, famously, in the top notes of Tubéreuse Criminelle.

Brutalism was about exhibiting the functions of a building as well as the ruggedness and irregularity of the materials[1], as opposed to the smoothness and polish of the Modernist style, and you could make a case, as Mr. Burr does, for Comme des Garçons Odeur 53 displaying the synthetic character of perfumery materials in a way that brutally assaults certain noses. But the deliberate display of the true nature of a material and the play on the synthetic are not particularly characteristic of Brutalism (some of Le Corbusier’s buildings use no synthetic materials). If Odeur 53 is to be likened to any artistic movement, I’d say it is much closer to Conceptual art, an installation of non-organic, often impossible smells -- oxygen, flash of metal, fire energy, washing drying in the wind, mineral carbon, sand dunes, nail polish, cellulose, pure air of the high mountains, ultimate fusion, burnt rubber, flaming rock.”  

It does, as Mr. Burr explains, take fragrance “completely out of the natural”: one of the most transgressive gestures of the CdG line is Christian Astuguevieille’s displacement of the notes that can be used in perfumery; of what can be the subject of a perfume. The list of notes itself acts in the same way as a cartel in an exhibition: by adding a layer of meaning, warping facets of what may be common perfumery materials normally used to convey “natural” notes into also displaying their synthetic aspect; those fantasy notes, by being overtly impossible, fly in the face of the most common practice in the industry when it tries to fob off calone, say, as the ocean. But then again, at least half the listed notes in Odeur 53 refer to natural phenomena and this blending of “noble” and mundane notes is actually as subversive a gesture as ripping away the façade to unveil the synthetic nature of perfume.

It may well be that the term Brutalism can be applied to Fracas and Odeur 53, but as long as the argument is not supported you can easily slap other labels on, as I’ve just done.
Let’s put it down to editing the NYT interview into a manageable 900-word piece: I can’t imagine that Mr. Burr doesn’t have a reasonable knowledge and understanding of 20th century art history. It’s as though in his eagerness to fit perfume into the mandate of a museum of design, he’d just gone and used terms like “Abstract Expressionism” and “Brutalism” for their expressive rather than historic value, or to translate the language of perfumery into more familiar cultural currency – to give it distinction – for readers who wouldn’t otherwise understand why valuable exhibition space should be wasted on a futile commercial product.

Mr. Burr’s curatorial approach – showing the olfactory rather than the visual aspect of the art -- is laudable, remarkable and long-overdue. Is throwing around labels with careless abandon what it takes to sell the concept to institutions and to the public? He’s in a better position than I am to make that call. Whatever works, right? 

P.S. Normand of The Perfume Chronicles has just sent me this link to the museum website. Thanks N.!


[1] "The qualities of that object may be summarized as follows : 1,Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and, 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities
"as found"." (Reyner Banham, "The New Brutalism", The Architectural Review, n° 708, décembre 1955, p. 357)


Illustration: View of Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame de Ronchamp Chapel by  Hiroshi Sugimoto

54 commentaires:

  1. "It's as though..." Gee, ya think? I recognize this kind of writing from some of my own less-admirable efforts in grad school - commit to the idea because it sounds clever and then massage the facts/terms as much as you have to to make them fit. I had a professor who used to talk about "The Fallacy of the Brilliant Idea," meaning the complete distortion of something in order to describe or produce it in adherence to some clever idea you've come up with.

    The more Burr writes about perfume, the less I think he actually knows about it.

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  2. Amy, it *is* an interview, and God knows you can get carried away in interviews and come up with ideas that sound half-baked because you never got round to substantiating them. Not to mention quotes are sometimes truncated. And the more I write about perfume, the less I feel *I* know about it, because I become more aware of elements I can't yet handle - it's an entirely normal part of the learning curve. But, yeah, there is a bit a word-abuse going round in that interview, such as it is.

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  3. I'm so glad you wrote about this. As an art historian as well as a perfume lover I find Burr's glib, clever-sounding references profoundly irritating. It's not, as you say, that connections to the visual arts can't be made - although sometimes the more interesting point might be the contrast in style rather than the affinity with contemporary work - but you have to know what you are talking about. And you have to be careful to acknowledge the differences between the visual and the olfactory, which he doesn't: "the first great Brutalist work of art"?

    Perhaps, as you say, the interview didn't do his remarks justice. But his NYT columns often suffered from the same kinds of superficial overstatements. I hope the exhibition can do better.

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  4. Hilary, thanks for weighing in on this. I often attempt to see parallels between perfume forms and the visual arts -- I'm inclined to see the early Cotys as linked to the Fauves and Ballets Russes sensibility, or the older Jacques Guerlain to Impressionism, but that can only go so far, and most perfumers I've spoken with -- often men and women of culture -- acknowledge it's difficult to go past a reference to the sensibilities of an era.

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  5. Calling a certain perfume "abstract expressionism" pays hommage to academia... but it also isolates perfume from the public.

    I mean, it sounds good in an interview and I laughed out loud when Chandler Burr described Fracas as a good example of "mid-century brutalism" but it reminds me of Diane Keaton in Manhattan explaining to Woody Allen what she thought of a steel cube she had just seen at the art gallery...

    "To me it was very textural.
    You know what I mean?

    It was perfectly integrated and it had a... a marvellous kind of negative capability."

    It's New York speak... or academic speak. It's clever... but it doesn't really communicate in terms that most people will understand... if anyone.

    Normand

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  6. Normand, the Woody Allen reference makes perfect sense. It is, after all, an interview for the NYT... who at least like to think they know about Abstract Expressionism.
    I can only imagine what the notoriously foul-mouthed "Germaine" would answer back.

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  7. Just to clarify: I think the comparisons to art (or music, or architecture, or fashion etc.) are wonderful and I really enjoy reading them as long as they are thoughtfully made. Yours always are! I've never had a chance to smell the early Cotys but the analogy to Fauvism at least allows me to imagine. And the older Guerlains seem to have a romantic, Impressionist quality to me too. I'd include L'Heure Bleue in this group, although by 1912 Impressionism was pretty old hat, although certainly still being produced. To me, it points to the discrepancies that can exist between canonical perfume and canonical art - as well as the multiplicity of 'sensibilities' at any one time. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

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  8. Hilary, true, Impressionism had long been left in the dust by the avant-gardes by WWI. I'm a little rusty on the moment when it became the French bourgeoisie's main artistic currency, but one would imagine it was still fairly forward when Jacques Guerlain forged his artistic tastes. Guerlain was never an "avant-garde" house. L'Heure Bleue still lands square in Monet... Reading a 1929 biography of Goya by the art historian Eugenio d'Ors (if memory serves, he was responsible for expanding the use of the term "Baroque") I was struck by the fact that the Impressionists could still be attacked: this was clearly before they were canonized!

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  9. Indeed! And some people still find Impressionism excessively modern, of course. But in retrospect, art history tends to valorise the avant-garde and not the more conventional tastes of the bourgeoisie - or at least has traditionally done so. But wouldn't you say that perfume history, at least when considering scents up to mid-century or so, tends to write about popular, best-selling scents, at least in part because they usually the ones still available in some form? There's not the same importance attached to avant-gardism in the perfume community, I think, where "neoclassical" is still routinely used as a term of critical appreciation. I think that's not just due to reformulation making the real classics harder to acquire.

    Anyway, I hope I haven't derailed your comments thread! I'm very interested in the comparison, as you can see...

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  10. Hilary, it's hard to date the advent of what we could consider modern perfumery (Octavian Coifan is doing a great job exploring mid-to-late 19th century documents), but let's say it pretty much started at the same time as artistic movements started detaching themselves from the tastes of the public.
    The limit of perfumery is that it has to please several hundred people at the very least, so that it must be pleasing, something that hasn't taken into account for at least a century in art. Some of the newer forms may have been jarring initially, but they were certainly designed to be immediately pleasnig to the greater number.

    I'd liken perfumery more in that respect to an art that's the same age as modern perfumery, the cinema. Like the cinema, though 50 years later, it acquired its "politique des auteurs", but in both you've got a form of popular art.

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  11. But there is definitely some cross-pollination going on. When I read that Germaine Cellier had posed for André Derain and that she hung out with Jean Cocteau... it's not a big stretch to think that she would have been influenced by Cocteau's economy of line. And Derain! In some of his work, you can almost count the brushstrokes! And those colours! They look like they came right out of the tube.

    I don't think of Germaine Cellier so much of a brutalist as a creator who creates with a minimum of material. I mean how much galbanum was in the original Vent Vert... 9%?

    There are comparisons to be made with the visual arts but one has to be careful. Denyse... you're one of the best (if not, THE best) in doing so. I'm always fascinated by your choice of artwork. Making comparisons to art when done correctly works extremely well. But when it's offhand... it confuses the message.

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  12. Normand, thank you (blushes). You're right to point out that Cellier was close to the artistic milieu... And she wasn't hanging out with Le Corbusier and Mies.

    That said, it is known she used a lot of bases, which are already mini-perfumes, so though the effect was broad-stroked, the formulas themselves might have been fairly complex.

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  13. Denyse, thanks for that thought-provoking post, it was nice to get your response Burr's interview: I read the latter when it came out and my eyebrows shot up at the idea of Fracas as 'brutalist'...

    My knowledge of artistic movements is seriously limited, but brutalism to me evokes functionality, concrete blocks, sensory assault etc...I guess Fracas does 'assault' the senses (!), but while not Guerlain-plush, it's way too bouncy in a pink cartoonish way to fit that description (though of course comparing it to cartoons is equally imprecise).

    It's hard to talk about smell without referring to other sensory dimensions & art forms, & like you say as cultural products perfumes do participate in or respond to artistic movements of their time. But slipshod use of critical jargon in articles appearing in 'mainstream' publications doesn't do perfume criticism in general any favours. The field's a bit of a novelty, & so particularly vulnerable to charges of just being bullsh*t.

    That said, I'm quite happy to throw out my own random & half-baked ideas as blog comments...and contentious statements do foster debate :)

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  14. Parfymerad, you're clearly not alone in feeling that tossing those kinds of labels around, in a field that's so new, might be doing it a disservice instead of giving it credentials. I'm confident though that the work done at the Museum of Design *will* serve that purpose.

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  15. Hi. I'm not art-educated enough to enter that fray, and I'm wearing the "amateur" hat anyway, but throwing in my two cents that a fair percentage of the time I get to the end of a perfume review and think: this part here, I sound like an idiot. It's hard to talk about perfume if you're going to try to convey something beyond the notes/chemical components. I'm not defending his position, just feeling a bit sympathetic.

    On another note and I may be completely wrong, I heard he'd decided (maybe he announced this at a Sniffa?) that he wasn't going to discuss notes when talking about perfumes any more -- and clarifying, I did not hear this from him. But I got to thinking about whether it's possible to convey something informative about a scent without talking about notes at all -- what do you think?

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  16. March, I've heard the "not talking about notes anymore" sound-byte from a direct witness. But I'm not sure what that means. You can't *not* talk about what a perfume smells like if you're going to write about it...
    But we spend so much time just figuring out the notes because the real ones are not given out that we often focus on notes rather than the general form of the product: how the notes work together, what's the logic behind them, what's the story they tell, etc.
    But I don't know whether he meant from now on he was relying exclusively on metaphor, à la "Diorella is mint toothpaste smeared on a fur coat", or what.

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  17. I think that maybe someone should sit down, preferably around the Osmoteque area and actually consider defining and naming artistic periods in perfume history.

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  18. Cristina, that would be a fabulous idea, if the industry were interested in its own history. The Osmothèque is, from what I understand, still woefully underfunded. But since it seems Christophe Laudamiel is getting involved, maybe, along with Patricia de Nicolaï, things will be shaken up a little.
    There is, in fact, knowledge about which perfumes originated which forms (outside of the "families" we are given for instance on Osmoz or Michael Edward's site and books). This circulates mostly as oral lore in composition houses. It would be tremendously useful to have such knowledge out in the open. But given the persistent secretiveness of the industry, it's not likely to happen. You can't even get perfumers to comment publicly during conferences given at the Société Française des Parfumeurs!

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  19. Well I don't know wether Mr Burr's remarks were generated by a moment of silliness under pressure or a more longlasting loss of plot but it has spawned one of then most stimulating blog pieces i've read in a long time and subsequently a wonderful debate. I did five years Art History and like Hilary I find that kind of clever careless remark irritating (adds to all the popular prejudices about art criticism). However there is a rich and largely unmined seam of thought about the interaction of the olfactory and the visual and their relationship within a wider social and cultural context. Perhaps the exhibition will contribute to and inspire that discussion, I just wish I could get to New York to make up my mind!

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  20. Maureen, if I'm ever in New York in November I'm sure to make a beeline for that exhibition too.
    You're right that there's a lot to reflect on in the relationship between the olfactory and the visual. The one person who has been systematically exploring that, among other fascinating subjects, is Octavian Coifan. Since he has a degree in architecture, he's certainly well-qualified to do so and the Museum of Design could do worse than to consult with him on exhibitions.

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  21. In general, I think it's very hard to support a particular work's "belonging" to a particular art movement unless you can show that the artists involved were personally connected in some way. Cellier has been mentioned, so a case might be made there. In general, art movements evolve because artists are communicating with each other. It's harder to support, and easier to just say, that someone belongs to this or that movement without having to substantiate the personal links. Artists group together for particular reasons! It's fun to say, in retrospect, that so-and-so belongs to thus-and-such because one sees a commonality, but it's just a party game if evidence is lacking.
    -Marla

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  22. Marla, exactly. At the time where there were actual movements rather than today's flaccid "collectives", artists carried on a discussion, elaborated common stances, etc. Another thing is that to be an artist, you have to start out by saying that you're an artist -- not a sufficient condition but definitely a necessary one. That we know of, no perfumers outside Roudnitska actually came out and said it. This doesn't diminish the value of their work, but this is why I liken the status of perfumers to that of directors under the Hollywood studio system: they didn't necessarily have critical self-awareness, and it took the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to designate them as authors.

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  23. And Gabrielle Chanel... asking that her perfume (No. 5) be "the idea of a flower"... an artificial scent. I mean... she was in Paris in the late teens and early 20s... "the idea of" or "the abstraction of" was all over the visual arts. When you look at the context, her "brief" to Ernest Beaux wasn't so radical.

    P.S. Am I getting this correctly that there will only be ten fragrances at this exhibit? Why so few? Are there speakers? Wouldn't it be great to hear Octavian Coifan speak? Denyse Beaulieu... Jean-Claude Ellena, Duchaufour, etc, etc. Obviously, I'm looking for a reason to go... but I won't go to sniff 10 perfumes.

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  24. Normand, I'm not seeing that "ten fragrances" mention anywhere, have I missed something?
    As for the Chanel brief, as most of the anecdotes concerning her, there's a strong chance it's apocryphal. The other story that's been circulating is that Beaux had already composed it as Rallet n°1. To me the zeitgeist is possibly more strongly expressed in the Bauhaus-style packaging.

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  25. If you go to this link...

    http://www.mediabistro.com/unbeige/quote-of-note-chandler-burr_b12718

    It says...

    Scent critic Chandler Burr, who in his new role as curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design is organizing “The Art of Scent, 1889-2011.” Slated to open this November, the exhibition will allow visitors to experience (via diffusion machines) ten seminal perfumes from the last century in a special exhibition space designed by Toshiko Mori. There will be no bottles."

    True about No. 5. There have been so many stories... they can't all be true.

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  26. Normand, thanks for the link. I haven't followed the story closely. Ten scents are worth "visiting" if you're around but perhaps not making a trip for...

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  27. That doesn't sound so optimistic. I'm going to try to see the bright side a little bit. I think the blogs have opened up the opportunity to have perfumery seen and organized more as an art and not just a job. I see people like Boisdejasmin's Victoria, you or Octavian as well trained critics and the perfume blogosphere as an ever expanding media. Then there's the perfumers that are becoming more and more open and available. I now and then read Celine Helena's blog and the interviews in other blogs. With all these things and perhaps some additional pressure maybe we are getting closer to more transparency and somewhat of an organization of perfumery as an art. What Burr is doing now at the museum is maybe adding a drop to this movement.
    Or else , alas, we might be eventually flooded with VS Pinkishness.

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  28. Billy, of course there *is* more information, more transparency, more thought. There will be more as perfumers move out of big labs and a) work on things worth talking about, b) aren't beholden to big groups and thus don't infringe on confidentiality agreements when they talk.
    There is a certain amount of pressure coming from the online perfume culture that makes certain branches of the industry see how there's profit in catering to us. It's still a minuscule drop in the ocean. What's needed is a more concerted pedagogical action towards the general public on the one hand, and a will to study the industry's own history on the other. As long as those archives aren't even know to perfumers, as Octavian has often remarked, or aren't preserved, what hope of making them available to scholars?

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  29. D, I would guess "mint toothpaste" etc. is the direction he'll go, and yes, the houses themselves can be cagey or misleading about the notes. But given that a fairly high percentage of people who read perfume blogs want to know those notes, if we can get them, I can't imagine leaving them out. If I can't smell whatever the alleged note of leather etc., is, of course I say so, as do you...

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  30. In one of my past lives I researched and wrote about the Hollywood studio system during its heyday. Directors then were workhorses, as was everyone, as are commercial perfumers working for the big labs now. So in a way the perfumer-as-artist trend could be likened to the director/auteur movement that came out of French cinema. I hope that any tendency to stuff perfumery into a convenient box along with visual art movements such as Fauvism will be short-lived; that glove doesn't fit well, imho, and perfumery deserves its own set of movements and its own history.

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  31. GalileosDaughter1 avril 2011 15:22

    Cristina makes a wonderful point. If perfume is to be taken seriously as an art form, distinct and separate from the others and worthy of critical study and preservation, then perfume should have its own language and frame of critical reference. To me, using references from the other arts only weakens the “perfume as an art form” argument. Perfume should have serious scholars who can make these frames of reference without using those from the other arts.

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  32. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

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  33. March, I can't imagine talking about perfume without a blend of accurate descriptive words alongside more creative metaphors: much of the work with perfumers is one of finding the words to start with. The jolt of an imaginative metaphor is more of a literary pleasure. Which is, of course, part of the pleasure of a scent: the story we imagine to go along with it, or read into it.

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  34. Olfacta, I agree, how couldn't I? There *are* common gestures to be found between visual arts movements and perfumery, and I do often use them to help my students grasp how perfumes fit into a certain zeitgeist. At the time when there were strong avant-gardes, perfumers like Guerlain Fraysse, Daltroff, Coty, couldn't not be aware of them...
    The analogy can only be carried so far though, especially since an important share of the invention of perfume forms was spurred on by technological innovation and thus very specific to the art.
    But the analogy to the studio system was also triggered by the fact that the people who commissioned the scents were often the couturiers, and that the composers of bases did bring enormous creative input, so that even the classics weren't necessarily the work of one author from A to Z...

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  35. GalileosDaughter: from your lips to Givaudan/IFF/Firmenich/Takasago/Symrise's ears! As long as the industry doesn't finance this type of scholarship (and open up its archives) there's scant chance of this happening. Unless the French ministry of culture takes an interest, and even so: those archives would remain verboten to outsiders... When they still exist.

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  36. It occurs to me that Impression, too, was spurred by technology. The metal tubes were new and made paint portable for the first time. Before that it had been stored in things like pig bladders after being laboriously ground in the studio. And there were many more colors, brighter ones, as the use of synthetic pigments was beginning to take hold. So, yeah. I suppose one could say that even niche perfume is a collaborative medium, something like auteur cinema, as no perfumer (or director) can possibly do absolutely everything. Even with a lone natural perfumer, someone has to make the distillates, the vials, the labels...

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  37. Olfacta, that's exactly what I teach in my courses: perfume became both an art and an industry because of the new synthetic materials much in the same way that painters could leave the studio because of the invention of the paint tube, and depart from naturalistic representation because of the invention of photography.
    As for perfume as a collaborative form of art, I think now it really goes from projects entirely art-directed by perfumers (if they have their own brand or are given virtual carte blanche by their clients) to the team projects involving several perfumers, plus evaluators, plus marketing teams, even when you don't take packaging and advertising into account. Pretty much like music or cinema. There's a certain level of disclosure now about this that allows us to suss out the real import of the individual creator. Not so for perfumes from the past... One can surmise that Jacques Guerlain was sole master on board, but what about François Coty? He probably didn't do the actual composition, but his choice and his ideas certainly guided the work of the perfumer(s).
    That's why, in a way, I don't quite buy Chandler Burr's stance on the museum's website: much as it is seductive to single out a perfumer as sole author, and of course this is a line I've taken myself, it's hard to know for sure that this is the case. Either because you don't know what actually went down, or because you know too much about the way the industry works.

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  38. As you say in the article, Burr seems to be using the art history terms outwith their real context, for effect. Here in Britain we have many examples of brutalist urban architecture dating from when concrete was king, and Fracas, which I have always envisaged as a cartoony huge pink fluffy noxious cloud (yup, not a favourite), really isn't the fragrance to link to that style. Hard to imagine what might really suit the brutalists. probably Demeter might have something suitable.

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  39. I am jumping in on the end of this thread, because I'm so keen to drop in my two cents' worth - must go back, though, and read the commentaries more carefully. This has been a really interesting discussion - coming out of a richly intriguing post. Thanks, D.

    Just want to add a couple of observations: In your perfume intensive here in London last June, comparative sniffing of Coty and Guerlain brought to the nose precisely the distinction you were making through the words "Fauve" and "Impressionist" & this worked because the fragrances were variations on single themes. Not sure how better to make the point that sometimes you have to smell it to get it. But also that once the point is made, it's just the one thing. It's not a mode of classification, or a "black box" of wisdom - it's just a point of comparison, so one can better understand what perfumers were doing.

    I do think that the characterizations published in the NYT are a form of currency - both in the sense of giving value to something otherwise unknown to readers and in the sense of making something that can circulate, in this case from mind to mind; an intellectual currency. In short, intellectualist advertising. Not bad in itself, but the problem lies in the discursive authority attributed to Mr Burr by the curatorial post he occupies.

    I think what I'm getting at here is the idea that an "authority" is a way of reducing variation - establishing a centre as against which other views are defined as periphery. In perfumery, of all places, this would be the silliest mistake one could make. The whole point of the thing is that the conversation is never ending and is slightly disputatous - and there can never be so much consensus as to shut out the possibility of characterizing an old thing in a new way. The discrepancies of perception or opinion are generative of new possibilities, and also are like the "fingerprints" by which the community makes something - in this case knowledge - its own.

    Finally - it seems possible that the removal of the packaging has to do as much with commerce as with art. The name and the package are protected by law, while the fragrance is not, as we know. So, this may have introduced rights issues - or advertising issues, etc - since, for example, one needn't worry that museum visitors would rush out to buy a vintage Chanel gown, but they might head straight to the shops for No.5. Who knows? But since the packaging is also part of the object, its absence is interesting.

    Such a pleasure to think about,

    Kit

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  40. Should have included this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denys_Lasdun

    A link to the Wikipedia entry for Denys Lasdun, the architect who designed the building where I teach - and also the one I can see from my window - the Institute of Education.

    The photo of the IofE shows the particular complexity of what one can mean by 'Brutalist" - it is, as can be seen, quite lyrical. K

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  41. Sunsetsong, as it happens I was at the Barbican last Sunday and discussing Brutalist architecture and its place in Great Britain with an art dealer friend. As far as I've understood, Brutalist architecture had a social, even utopian dimension -- certainly it did with Le Corbusier. This shows how unwieldy it is to fit something in perfume into that kind of slot.

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  42. Kit, thanks for dropping in, I was hoping for your input.

    The parallels I make during the course between Coty and the Fauvists, and Guerlain and the Impressionists, are a way of pointing out common aesthetic sensibilities. Probably a more elaborate demonstration could be made of common structures -- Roudnitska himself believed L'Origan was the first "violent" perfume, and certainly this corresponds to a similar saturation and intensity in, say, the Ballets Russes. Still, as you say, it's not the only possible interpretation.

    The point you make about Chandler Burr's curatorial authority is of course the crux of the matter: CB is taking over what was previously Luca Turin's position, Luca having the authority of the scientist and of the printed word.
    I very much doubt that in the online perfume culture - having developed the way it has, with a multiplicity of voices each adding to the story of each perfume - CB's authority will be established. Whether it is established within the cultural world or the general public remains to be seen. I've mentioned his assertions to a few people in the art world and they were met with jeers.

    You also raise an interesting point about the absence of packaging in the exhibition(s). I don't know whether there were copyright issues involved, but I can see how tricky it would be to publish a catalogue with samples boxed and packaged by each company, especially since some of the perfumes are no longer extant.
    But it's the "I'm against photons" stance that gave me pause.
    I'm as big of a "it's only what's in the bottle that interests me" snob as anyone, but the bottle, packaging and name *are* part of the story. Though it's certainly interesting to eliminate all visuals in order to focus on the scent, and I understand why a curator would do that, especially since it's always the opposite that's been done.

    And I *do* have quite a fondness for some Brutalist buildings - if it's bad for Prince Charles, it can't be all bad, can it?

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  43. Thanks for a very interesting post, and I have greatly enjoyed reading others' contributions. I think it would be a fun post if you were to select a style and perfume it.

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  44. Sunsetsong, it *has* been a fascinating discussion, hasn't it? The art + perfume parallel is something I try to do indirectly and at a gut-level with the illustrations I pick for the posts. If I get a sudden influx of inspiration, I'll do the reverse some day!

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  45. Dawned on me that the perfect brutalist scent may be Secretions Magnifiques. Perfect for badly lit concrete multistorey car parks and "streets in the sky" inhabited by the poor, exploited and vulnerable who were/are often the "beneficiaries" of unimaginative versions of Le Corbusier's vision. Sorry to introduce a downer! Spent most of professional life as a team member enabling the demolition of brutalist environments. I have to live with myself as a lifetime supporter of a French style republic - but Prince Charles ain't wrong. Vive les contradictions!

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  46. Sunsetsong, as it happens, I intend to take another look/sniff at Secrétions Magnifiques, a product that has taken on mythical proportions in the online perfume community. But however much its smell may give off a vibe evocative of bad Brutalist architecture, I'm not sure its actual *construction* (use of materials, proportions, etc) is based on the same principle, and that I think is what one should look for when attempting a parallel between artistic movements and perfumes. Otherwise, I'd just be doing what Mr. Burr seems to be doing in the interview.

    Obviously you *can* draw a parallel between a scent and a building/architectural style/work of art: it is one of the ways of conveying the impressions the scent conjures.
    It's stating that this particular scent *belongs* to an aesthetic movement that sounds intellectually unsound, if it is not justified.

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  47. So Sunsetsong, what do you REALLY think of Corbu?? ;-) (I have a hate/love relationship with his work.)
    -Marla

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  48. I love Le Corbusier's chairs! My preference is for living closer to ground level than in the sky.

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  49. Watch out, Burr, Denyse is paying attention! But seriously, I've heard Burr on NPR and he does a good job making an understanding of perfume more accessible to the general public. He had some great sound bytes and lots of enthusiasm. These are more easy-to-repeat-to-sound-smart sound bytes.

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  50. Carla, I'm not dissing Burr's work, just taking issue with a careless use of words that actually mean something. Wouldn't want people to think they'll scrape themselves with raw concrete by dabbing on Fracas or splatter themselves with multi-coloured drippings when they spray on Diorama.

    But, yes, seriously, of course he's doing a good job spreading the word. He's not the only one though: anyone doing an internet search on a fragrance will stumble on a hell of a lot of material. Having a museum back up that interest in perfume and lending it its cultural credentials is a further step into legitimacy, and that of course is great.

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  51. That is exactly right. A museum legitimizes perfume as art, especially to those who believe that nothing is legitimate without its own museum.

    I've taken some raised eyebrows and scoffing from artist friends in the past ("Perfume? You're into cosmetics now?" said one.) These people get quite a bit more humble when I tell them that perfume is getting a New York museum.

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  52. Olfacta, truth be told, it's a department rather than a full-blown museum, and may inspire more initiatives. There *is* the perfume museum in Grasse though, which has quite a few olfactory exhibits and does organize sessions in partnership with the Osmothèque.

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  53. I appreciate the way you've differentiated between zeitgeist and specific artistic movements. Movements have definite intentions, and how do you judge a perfumer's intentions if they didn't talk about it at some point? The very least intention, as you point out above, is to view oneself as an artist.

    Perfume can reflect the spirit of the times, but try anything more specific and you're dealing with assumptions - unless you have proof. Proof, Mr. Burr, please. (And a good exhibition.)

    Thank you for such an engaging read. Never met with such a fun discussion in art history class, which always bored one to tears!

    Alastair

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  54. Alastair, I think you've singled out the main point: the distinction between artistic intention (which we may never know anything about) and echoing aesthetic sensibilities of the time. We can of course analyse the structure of a fragrance and determine its style, but as someone suggested above, it would surely be more relevant to find "schools" and styles *within* the specific idiom of perfume, where intentions did, and do exist.

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