The perfumer Oliver Cresp

February 6, 2013

The Smells of Commercial Success
By James Panero

A review of "The Art of Scent 1889-2012"
Museum of Arts and Design
Through March 3

New York

Should "scent art"--perfume, that is--be critically considered alongside music and painting? In "Against the Grain," an influential 1884 novel by J.-K. Huysmans, the decadent character Des Esseintes makes a case that it should. "After all, he argued, it was no more abnormal to have an art that consisted of picking out odorous fluids than it was to have other arts based on a selection of sound waves or the impact of variously coloured rays on the retina of the eye."

Like much of what Des Esseintes says in Huysmans's fanciful and wonderful book, his case for perfume is both logical and absurd--an aestheticism taken to an extreme. But he is right to argue that scents should command a more respectful place alongside sights and sounds, with a critical language that includes more than merely "good" and "bad." By appreciating each sense on its own, says Des Esseintes, we better enjoy its harmony with others, "co-ordinating them to compose the whole that constitutes a work of art."

Just like food and wine, perfume has recently enjoyed a renaissance of sorts among latter-day Esseintes-ists. Independent perfumeries create their own blends. Professionals and amateurs write sophisticated perfume blogs. The 2008 book "Perfumes: The A-Z Guide," by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, has become something of an Oxford English Dictionary for scent.

Now add to the mix "The Art of Scent: 1889-2012" at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.

Claiming to be the "first major museum exhibition to recognize scent as a major medium of artistic creation," the show strips perfume of its extensive packaging and advertising and presents it as an "olfactory art" in a purpose-built white-cube gallery. Curated by Chandler Burr and designed by the architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the spare exhibition consists of 12 smelling stations seamlessly cast into the gallery walls, a side room with a table of perfume oils, and mouthlike formations sculpted into another wall that spit out scented cards.

The perfumes on exhibition begin chronologically with Jicky, an 1889 blend by the perfumer Aimé Guerlain--considered the first modern perfume for its use of synthetic aromatics and still in production--and concludes with Daniela Andrier's Untitled (2010, designed for Maison Martin Margiela). Along the way we encounter Ernest Beaux's magisterial Chanel No. 5 (1921), Pierre Wargnye's odious Drakkar Noir (1982, for Guy Laroche), Olivier Cresp's diaphanous Angel (1992, for Thierry Mugler) and Jean-Claude Ellena's Osmanthe Yunnan (2006, for Hermès), a scent that starts with an infusion of tea and finishes with a rinse of dental fluoride.

An exhibition of scent is a fresh idea. Too bad "The Art of Scent" is so fishy. With elaborate stagecraft, it is more interested in making the case for commercial perfume as high art, with the rights and privileges accorded therein, than in revealing the artistry of perfume design. For all the hoopla, the show conveys even less than what you would learn walking through the ground floor of Saks Fifth Avenue—which, unfortunately, might be the point.

The urinal-shaped smelling receptacles abstract perfume to absurdity. Paired with illuminated labels that fade to white the moment you want to read them, this is more a show of prestidigitation than olfaction. For a museum of design, MAD seems oddly contemptuous of the design elements that went into these commercial products. "The Art of Scent" gives only passing reference to perfume chemistry and history. It includes an all-too-narrow survey of well-known brands and ignores the independents. It disregards the packaging and advertising that is integral to what these products become. Until the day we have wall-mounted smelling stations in our homes, perfumes are high-end consumables with elaborate marketing campaigns and exotic packaging—a thriving multibillion-dollar industry--and there shouldn't be anything wrong in acknowledging that.

And therein lies the fallacy of this exhibition. Here, everyone is an "artist." Perfumers are "scent artists." Perfumes are "aesthetically influential works of olfactory art." Miuccia Prada, who in 2004 commissioned the perfumers Carlos Benaïm, Max Gavarry and Clément Gavarry to create Prada Amber, is not a fashion executive but a "patron of the arts."

"The Art of Scent" purports to strip away the commercial side of perfume. Instead, it merely adds another layer of packaging, covering over the existing labels and selling the elixirs as high art. At times these gimmicks are all too apparent. The room with the smelling table includes a museum staffer whose hawking of the fragrances is little different from a department-store floor-walker's. The "catalog" of the exhibition is a "limited edition box set" of fragrances that costs $285, with a text that is more sales pitch than scholarship.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that "The Art of Scent is made possible by The Estée Lauder Companies--a Founding Major Donor--and other Major Donors, including Chanel, Inc., Givaudan, Hermès Parfums, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc, L'Oréal and P&G Prestige. Additional support for The Art of Scent is provided by Funders Arcade Marketing USA and Guerlain, as well as Diptyque and Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce Inc." There is nothing wrong with corporate sponsorship, but here the sponsorship seems to have gone to supporting a nonprofit front for Madison Avenue. With "The Art of Scent," the Museum of Arts and Design has left a good idea smelling rank. Des Esseintes would be the first to turn up his nose at that.