In the discussion that followed last week’s post on whether it was relevant to shoehorn perfumes into artistic movements, a few comments raised the issue of intention.
First of all, to be an artist you’ve got to claim to be one. You can be a bad artist, an irrelevant one, a plodder, a follower, a smooth PR machine or a trailblazer, but whatever your contribution you’re staking a claim. And since the advent of the avant-gardes in the late 19th century, you’re staking a claim on new territories.
Though a certain number of crafts movements, essentially in the Anglo-Saxon world – notably in ceramics – have consistently blurred the boundaries between arts and crafts, the distinction could be summed up in the following terms: artisans can be content with repeating the techniques and forms of their forebears; the critical self-awareness of artists leads them to question their own practice and the history of their art: how they re-read it, what they reject, what they revive, what they use as a springboard to go forward. Artistic movements express this critical self-awareness through discussions, emulation, declarations of intent and manifestos.
There are very few such declarations of intent in the history of perfumery, essentially because of the way it developed industrially: perfumers did not sign their work unless the house was theirs and even so, none achieved the fame of the pioneers of couture – Worth, Poiret, and most spectacularly Chanel who set out quite deliberately to forge the narrative that sustained her house.
That there are aesthetic schools in perfumery is, on the other hand, a plain fact. The method conceived by Jean Carles for Roure-Bertrand (now owned by Givaudan) spawned an approach which has been handed down from one “generation” of perfumer to another, both through the still-extant school and through apprenticeship – though the latter mode of transmission is less and less applied as senior perfumers race to meet deadlines and can’t properly take on apprentices. But it worked for decades and several perfumers now in their 40s, 50s and 60s are the product of it. Apprenticeship is, of course, more characteristic of craft or of fields such as couture, where the lore and know-how are transmitted verbally and through example, than of today’s art world.
As for declarations of intent, up to recent years, Edmond Roudnitska was perhaps the sole perfumer to have claimed to be an artist. And perfumers are shy of making that claim, both because they are painfully aware of the restrictions placed on their practice by client briefs and budget, and because they is very little critical discourse to bolster it – in effect, it’s a matter of who’ll be the first to jump naked in the pool.
Perfumery is also an intensely technical practice, and in that sense it is closer to a craft such as ceramics than to contemporary art, where technical know-how has been all but scrapped and is barely taught in schools. Like a ceramicist, if a perfumer commits a technical mistake he must throw out his work, revise his formula and weigh it from scratch.
Critical self-awareness, however, is a constant feature in the discourse of the perfumers who are allowed a measure of creative freedom. Their approach, from what I’ve gathered from my discussions with them, is usually formal and practical: deriving new forms either from earlier products – their own when, over the course of a development, they’ve glimpsed an interesting avenue which they’ve had to discard. Or the work of other perfumers: very often, within a composition company, there is a certain manner of treating specific accords which is passed on. The great Edmond Roudnitska himself, who claimed his creative independence in the late 40s, possibly glimpsed the structure of Femme in André Fraysse’s 1934 Rumeur, which is often mentioned in his writings; his own approach to composition has of course been tremendously influential. There may be no self-proclaimed movements, but there are filiations.
Today, this formal approach is often materials-driven: many new ideas are found by studying a material to shed light on it in novel manner – in big labs such as IFF, this study is often fuelled by scientific research, though it is the perfumer who decides which of the forms within the material he’ll tease out by associating it with other materials. Their observation of real things is also essentially formalist: perceiving a smell from a new angle in the case of a flower or plant, understanding the logic of aromas associated in a recipe, finding the structure that can link the different smells of a place. Getting to the point where a perfume will generate emotion is grueling work: even the most instinctive creators can only let their intuition speak after years of learning, and they’ll often go through the dispassionate observation of dozens, even hundreds of mods to reach that moment of emotion. They never forget this, and most perfumers I’ve spoken with are much more comfortable discussing their observations on materials and the forms they’ve deduced from them than emotions or stories. Their aesthetic stance is implicit, to be deduced from the result of their research as much as by what they disclose about their observations or other people’s work: most of this remains off the record.
Why do perfumers keep mum, precluding any possibility of an informed, public critical discourse? Octavian Coifan and I recently attended a conference at the Société Française des Parfumeurs where new ouds were being presented by Andrew Steel who heads the Asia Forestry company, and when Andrew asked perfumers to comment on their characteristics, not a one spoke up though there were several in the auditorium. As we were talking about the reasons for this silence, Octavian pointed out very relevantly that the way a perfumer envisions a material or the smell of a thing is his trade secret: any publicly shared insight will put his colleagues, who are also his competitors, on the track he intends to follow. This is as much about technical innovation as aesthetic vision: you want to be the first to get there, and the only one able to see things as you see them. Gas chromatography may disclose what you’ve done with your materials, but not necessarily the turn of mind that yielded the result.
This culture of secrecy is one of the reasons why there are no aesthetic manifestos, no movements or self-proclaimed schools – especially since the results belong not to the perfumer who authored them, but to the labs that employ them, to be exploited in the name of the brands that commercialize them. Add to this the absence of perfume culture in the general public – a chicken-or-egg conundrum, since as long as insiders don’t talk, the public won’t learn, and the public isn’t asking them to talk since they don’t even suspect there’s something to talk about --, the dearth of historical sources for past perfumers, and even the fact that most perfumers haven’t got the pedagogical bent or verbal skills necessary to take a public stance on their own aesthetics…When they have one. Frequently, it aesthetics boil down to a matter of tastes; of taste in the best of cases. We are a long way still from being able to discuss perfumery as we would other art forms.
But I still don’t think tucking perfumes into slots meant for painting, music or architecture is helpful, beyond transforming them into a cultural currency intelligible to the art world and its followers: a pitch. Drawing parallels with other arts is useful only inasmuch as to grasp new knowledge, you’ve got to graft it onto information you’ve already acquired. Perfume is a specific idiom, with its own currents, filiations and stances: as long as perfumers don’t communicate with people who are apt to translate it into discourse, there’s little chance of its being granted full artistic status – or at least as the potential for being an art form. The good news is that they’re starting to. And not necessarily, or at any rate not only, to feed the ravenous maw of the society of the spectacle. Some actually care.
Image: Isidore Isou, Self-portrait.