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.
Image: Frank Stella, Blue Horizon, 1958