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The Smells of Commercial Success


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.


Strong Women

Dara writes:

I’m tired of the cliché strong women. When people use the phrase they seem not to talk at all of courageous women, but of cowardly women who use outward trappings to seem strong.

At Olympus Fashion Week in NYC in early September, a reporter asked designer Nanette Lapore about her inspiration. Lapore designs kind of ‘50s-style, half housewife-inspired, half-Carmen Miranda-inspired, fun clothes. While I’m sure strong women wear them—but probably not to sit on the Supreme Court or hold children or write poetry—I’m not sure that when I look at the clothes, they scream: feminism, bravery, resistance, etc.. But I have been in the store, and I consider myself strong, so. And I've worn the clothes. But I just didn't feel like Wonder Woman when I donned them.

To the reporter, Ms. Lapore gave her inspiration as “strong women everywhere.” How does that notion manifest itself in her clothes? What is a strong woman? I suspect it’s someone who might dare to wear green instead of black. I guess sartorial spontaneity is an element of strength, but probably not the most essential one. Integrity, ingenuity, loyalty, passion, etc., would seem more important markers of female resilience.

Stella got her groove back

8pm today found me at not one but two H&M stores rifling listlessly through racks of Stella McCartney tee shirts. Oh, yeah: I and about 13,000 other supposedly savvy women.

In the Fifth Avenue store, my second stop, weary boyfriends slumped on leather seats at the front of the flagship store as their tiny size 2 girlfriends fought over cable knit "blousons" in Large. See I found myself part of the herd, and my fighting instinct came out. A nice salesperson arrived with an armful of dressing room rejects and I spotted the edge of what looked like the over-sized sweater I'd been eying on line. I have one of these gigantic sweaters from Marc Jacobs and I really do wear it with everything because it multi-tasks as sexy but also camouflaging, when bulky underwear and tight pants don't match.

Anyway, I take the sweater from him but see it's huge. All of the sudden a small woman more petite than I sidles next to me and insists, "Are you taking that?" When I say no, because it's like for TWO people, she grabs it, retorting, "See, I already have one on, and it's a large. The style is BIG." I'd say so; it looked like she'd pulled it right from the washing machine.

Ahhh, the sweet smell of V-tonic from Fresh--I mean, desperation.

Did I mention basically every item had sold out the day it arrived in the store?

And by the way, walking from subway, a man stopped me and asked if I spoke Spanish. Since I'm learning, I proudly said, "Si, un poco." He blessed me and thanked me and then it became clear he wanted money, that he was HIV positive and needed cash for medicine. I don't usually give money on the street but I gave to him and it was too little for his taste and he cursed me but gosh, I haven't learned those palabras yet en espanol--and man, that's what you get for stopping to listen to someone's story, which I always think is the meaningful part of the exchange anyway: the recognition.