The Hidden Art

- Is it… the art of perfume or perfume as art?

Whiling away a dismal Sunday November afternoon can be a most perilous undertaking. For one thing, I have been known to wade my way through all the internecine happenings on blogs, magazines and online newspapers I might have missed out on during the week. For another, this sudden surfeit of information overload has been known to cause something much, much more dangerous to my mind.

It makes me think. Watch out, world!

No kidding, there I was in my usual Sunday demeanor of microwaveable death-warmed-over beneath several layers of ratty wool and a cozy cloud of a favorite perfume, when my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to an item that somehow had managed to pass me by.

Chandler Burr, perfume writer and author of ‘The Perfect Scent’ as well as curator of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, has created an exhibition called The Art of Scent, the first major exhibition to highlight perfume as an artistic medium of expression in its own right, and to focus on how perfumes have evolved since the 1889 ground-breaking game changer that was the addition of synthetic coumarin in Houbigant’s Fougère Royale and Guerlain’s Jicky, the latter included in the exhibition itself.

You will find no iconic bottles, no advertising, nothing to distract you from the experience of the perfume itself, inhaled through specially designed snifters created expressly for this exhibition. In other words, not unlike Burr’s recent OpenSky experiment, where decants could be bought in plain bottles of the scents he chose to include, devoid of all marketing mystique.

But is it art? How can it be in an age that provides so many opportunities for redefining sensory artistic expression that relatively few exhibitions have focused on that most atavistic, primitive sense of all – our sense of smell?

After all, scents travel that little-understood information highway from our nasal receptors straight to our memories, emotions and associations, and completely bypasses that neocortical off ramp to language – just like another and not unrelated art form – music. And while no one will argue that an artist isn’t equally artistic in whichever medium he or she chooses whether it’s paint, Carrara marble or decomposing pork carcasses, the idea that perfume is every bit as valid as an expressive medium raises a few eyebrows among many non-perfumistas, simply for being such an unorthodox idea – or is that for turning a much-needed spotlight on the least-understood of all our senses?

Can it be that perfume straddles that great divide between ‘artistic medium’ and ‘artisanal product’, being not enough of one and too much of the other? In which case, perhaps it’s a good thing Mr. Burr chose that loaded headline-grabber for his exhibition…The Art of Scent, for no other reason that it brings us – the audience – to question and maybe even to redefine what we name ‘art’.

I haven’t seen the exhibition, so I can’t say anything you can’t already read in the press release. What riled me up and made me think, however, was Alyssa Harad’s take on Chandler Burr’s intiative, since her excellent blog post echoed many of the thoughts that ran through my own overheated Sunday afternoon mind, and Denyse Beaulieu’s own blog post did not much more to prevent me chewing on my nails.

I’m in no position to argue whether or not perfume is an art form in its own right and with its own merits – and limitations. For one, you could say I have a vested interest.

I’m a perfume writer, and perfume happens to be one of my own personal passions. To me, perfume is a means of artistic expression as valid, as rich, as rewarding, as challenging and as complex as any painting, sculpture or piece of music. To my fellow perfumoholic friends and acquaintances, I rattle off the names of famous perfumes and perfumers as easily as I can reference works by Titian, Gentileschi, or Alexander Calder. These liquid epics and novels, these allegorical redolent poems and metaphorical operas in magic, however, all exhibit a few characteristics in common no painting or sculpture can claim.

For one, I take issue with the general perception of ‘art’ (you insert your own definitions here) as a mode of creative expression that exists in a vacuum, outside any context or touch points with our ‘real’ lives. Art as a means of cultural expression  – in the sense of being ‘fine art’ – often ends up on private hands and out of reach to the general public or in the museums and art galleries who can afford to lend or buy them whereupon they exhibit them as ‘works of art’ to accentuate whatever statements the museum – or the curator – is trying to make. Art to me is something much more inclusive and dare I write it – quotidian. It is whatever enriches your life, makes you appreciate beauty, makes your personal horizons wider and maybe takes you somewhere out of yourself and into a place you would otherwise never know.

Perfume, on the other hand, is a democratic, inclusive art form. It is an instant mode of transport and mood elevator available for the price of a bottle for anyone who can afford to buy it. You can and often do take it with you anywhere and everywhere you go. It exists in a physical, concrete form in the bottle as a chemical concoction of ingredients both ‘natural’ and/or synthetic, yes – but the true story, the true art, is written on your skin every time you wear it, and no two wearings will ever be entirely alike, depending on such factors as your genetic makeup, your diet, your very mood, weather and so on.

You may have been seduced to buy it by the story of its inspiration, by the aesthetic considerations and heritage of the perfume house behind it, but as any perfumista and not a few perfumers know, the ‘story’ is nothing but a marketing ploy to lure you in, and the real story – and my own test criterion of a truly ‘artistic’ perfume – is what happens in that sublimely seductive, intimate space above your skin where it blooms. Not in whatever abstract or elusive inspirations the perfumer/creative director chooses to share with the world to sell the juice.

You may buy into the perfumer’s aesthetic, but the real reason you buy it and love it as you do is what it does to you and for you – in other words, how that perfume sings in its infinite variety…to you alone. Your family and friends, your colleagues and even total strangers can define or explain you by your choices in clothing, hair, and general demeanor – but that hidden art form, that art that may trail behind you and explicate you when you’ve left – that is the true art…of perfume.

In other words – also as Alyssa Harad stated – perfume art is ephemeral art. It exists only in the moments it breathes its wonders on your skin and invents new, untold stories of you, of its materials, of its very existence and the spaces the perfumer chose to give expression.

Even the very language we use to evoke that art form somehow lacks the ability to crack through the fourth wall and open the doors for our readers to perceive it. Which is why the best perfume writers have a large reference frame of history, literature, art and last, but not least, music to call upon. It’s no accident at all that perfumes are often described in notes, whatever Chandler Burr might argue to the contrary.

I applaud Chandler Burr’s decision to create an exhibition around the Art of Scent. I can appreciate his endeavor to create a neutral, association-free space in which to approach it anew, from another, more radical and perhaps more abstractly intellectual, unbiased angle. The question is, if perfume is an art form, is there such a thing as a lack of bias?

And yet. And yet. I look to my little sea grass basket full of wonders, signed by the perfume world’s Titians and Caravaggios, Francis Bacons and Lucian Freuds and Magrittes, the Afteliers, the Jacques and Aimé and Jean-Paul Guerlains, the Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes, the McElroy/Karls, the Tauers, the Kerns, the Lutens/Sheldrakes and the Duchaufours, the Chong/?s,  the Shoens, the Orchids and the Harts and the Morrises too, and I shake my head at such marvelous ideas and laugh and laugh.

Perfume is indeed a form of art, a medium of artistic expression, a story unfolding its unique and ephemeral pages. And as it does, as we who love its art as we do, redefine those stories each in our own individual ways, every time we wear it and every time we breathe it.

Caravaggio’s works should have been so lucky.

For an entirely different take, I can highly recommend Legerdenez.

With thanks to Legerdenez, Lucy Raubertas, Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu.

Image: ‘La Dame et Le Licorn’, ‘Smell’, late fifteenth century Flemish tapestry, from the Musée du Moyen-Age, Cluny, Paris

The Road to Redemption

- Confessions of a perfume writer

Once upon a time so very long ago, a girl of fourteen – that awkward age poised between childhood and womanhood, yearning to become yet hesitant to evolve – walked into a world-renowned store on the Champs Elysées in Paris.

So much of Paris had already taken her breath away. She was raised with an appreciation of beauty, knew something of the scope and scale of all art and many artists, of artistic merit and dedication, but the idea that an entire culture could define itself around an ideal of beauty and the art of the beautiful with its hints of unsettling and peculiar, even beauty’s peculiar art – this caused a seismic shift in her awareness and made her see life with new eyes, and this moment about to happen, just as she herself, would redefine both her and her aesthetic – forever.

See her as she was then – small, slight, reddish-blonde and green-eyed. She was too young to need artifice to enhance her, too curious and questioning to accept it and yet, she intuitively knew with one glance upon those hallowed doors that behind them lay secrets. The secrets that would push her over the edge with one sensory impression, the secrets that would help her evolve and become the woman she is, even today.

That young girl was me, and if I were to point to the ten most defining moments of my life, the moments that changed me forever, this moment on a May day in the year 1977 would be one of those pivotal moments.

The store was the Guerlain flagship store, and my mother – a very stylish, self-aware redhead with an acute appreciation of both her own beauty and everything required to enhance it, had chosen this day, this moment as her daughter’s rite of passage. The door was the threshold to a new and foreign land – the land of femininity.

I can still recall that first intake of breath in that rarified, fragrant air, still remember the sales assistant with her charming accent as she took us to a quiet sofa nook and sent for tea and another selection of everything that made Guerlain justly famous. I can remember that I already rejected my mother’s perfume loves out of hand – Shalimar and Mitsouko were hers alone and not for me. I can remember all those pre-reformulation wonders I tried that day – the rich olfactory, slightly melancholy confection of L’Heure Bleue, the heart-stopping fraîcheur of Après L’Ondée, the powdery sensuality of Voilette de Madame, the wake-up call that was Chamade. So many stories in those bottles, so many secrets whispering in those sparkling golden depths – but which one would I choose for my own? What story, what secrets would define me or define me as the woman I so desperately wanted to be?

In the end, I boiled my choices down to three. Jicky – abstract, audacious, playfully green yet flirtatious, the violet-drenched Après L’Ondée, and the supremely elegant, mossy charm of Sous le Vent.

When we walked out two hours later, I wafted a veritable cloud of Jicky and carried my first ever quadrilobe bottle of extrait. If it were good enough for my literary idol Colette, then who was I to argue?

Half an hour later and for the first time, I had my derrière pinched by an anonymous Frenchman in the Métro during rush hour. This told me I was now and forevermore on to something huge.

The allure – of perfume.

For many, many years after, I defined myself through my choices in perfume as I went on to other bottled loves. I rarely met a chypre I didn’t love – Miss Dior, Dioressence, Fidji, Cabochard, Rive Gauche, Chanel no. 19, Calandre, Bandit – and even if I passed over Shalimar’s Oriental allure, I still wore and adored Narcisse Noir, Coco, Magie Noir and Panthère, none of them precisely suitable for blushing wallflowers. On other days, YSL’s Paris trailed behind me, converting a former florally averse post-punk Goth catastrophe into a dedicated lover of what I came to call the Epitome of Rose.

All my perfume days and fragrant nights went on…with those I loved and those I abhorred (Giorgio!, Poison) and those I only wore in certain moods and mindsets. (Bandit!) The ones my friends either loved or hated (Narcisse Noir), the ones that slayed paramours (Magie Noir, Panthère, Coco) and impressed up-and-coming rock stars. (Cabochard. LOTS.) The one that landed me not one, but two dream jobs (Chanel no. 19 eau de parfum).

Until that fateful day not so very long ago when all my beautiful bottles were empty, and I couldn’t afford to replace them at all. I was left with orange-scented body butter and shower gel yet it was nowhere near enough. In some indefinable way, I felt diminished and invisible. I left no scent trail behind me, could no longer manifest my presence as I had become accustomed to, was no longer able to declare my intentions – dishonorable or otherwise. When I complained about it however, I came to discover that particular disdain non-perfumoholics display towards our affliction/habit/vice.

“Why? It’s only perfume, after all!”

But it wasn’t, it never was, and it certainly isn’t – even today, even after over two years as a perfume blogger and even despite all I’ve come to know about the subject matter, the talents who create it or the industry that sustains it.

So there I was – virtually scentless, undefined, invisible. A very sorry sad state of affairs. How it happened, I’m not entirely sure, but somewhere – I suspect it was MakeUpAlley – I began reading reviews – about perfumes, and again, there was this small, seismic shift in my awareness – and even in the woman who had caught the writing bug some years before, since the idea that you could write about it snagged on a cogwheel in my mind. The name of one dead-exclusive perfume house kept popping up in these conversations about brands I had never heard of in my part of the world, and its perfumes were described as “bottled emotions.” How did you do that? Were they really? Could any perfume justify the superlatives heaped on this particular brand?

This explains why I stood one day in the fall of 2003 in Albuquerque’s one and only niche perfume store. Their tag line got me in the door. “We have no common scents.” They sold an extensive range of Creed, Annick Goutal and Comptoir Sud Pacifique among many others – but even they were flummoxed by my question, had never heard of this Paris-based house.

I tried to gratify that olfactory itch in other ways, resorting in my desperation to the visual perfume porn catalogs of niche retailers, trying to conjure those wonders from overblown ad copy/a list of notes.

By this time, perfume blogs arrived, each of them writing about perfumes in their own ways with their own voices, irreverent, scholarly and poetic, conjuring the genies I was so desperate to try and still couldn’t. That same name kept popping up. You can imagine my radioactive level of curiosity by now.

It lasted six years until I could finally bear it not one millisecond longer. It took three weeks of agonizing through my well-thumbed English-French dictionary, banging my head on the keyboard over my own spinelessness and last but never least the admonition to my easily intimidated self that I’d be damned if they intimidated me…before I hit ‘send’ on the email to the Palais Royal in Paris and requested ‘Les Petits Livres’, those little leaflets of wax perfumes from that brand name of perfume superlatives…Serge Lutens.

For the second time in my life, my olfactory universe shook, shifted and changed…forever. Here were the fragrant epiphanies I craved, the odes to the beautiful yet wondrously strange, here were the epic storylines and yes, the bottled emotions I also thought I would never find.

A few months later, I had a truly radical idea one vacation night after the third glass of wine. There were quite a few – if nowhere so many as today – perfume blogs out there. Maybe, just maybe – I could write about perfume, too? At the time, I was in the final throes of writing my novel. Believe it or not, there really was such a thing as…too much testosterone bomb and total rock’n’roll overload.

I wanted to write something pretty, something frilly to wrap my words around. In other words (all puns intended), shouldn’t I be able to do that, too? I wanted the pursuit of the ephemerally beautiful and the ability to communicate it with my words. The worst thing that could happen – so I thought that night in my pleasantly tipsy state – would be to make me a better writer. How bad could it be?

Famous last words.

I never, ever – and this isn’t false modesty on my part – thought anyone at all would want to read what I wrote, or that I had anything unique to contribute to the ongoing conversation. Not until I came across Olympic Orchids, won a sample in a draw, and wrote my first reviews of a true niche perfumer did I realize there might be something there, something I could do, something…new. That was my third olfactory earthquake.

When Lucy of Indieperfumes (a titanically talented, FiFi award-nominated perfume writer herself) introduced herself to me, the fourth seismic shift occurred. Everything that has happened since in my fragrant life has happened because of Lucy and her never-ending encouragement, the many things she has taught me, the introductions she has made on my behalf and her sincere friendship, and for that, I’m far, far more grateful than she knows.

Since then, I’m more than a little thrilled to have met and to know – in a virtual sense, and in some cases, through many phone and Skype conversations – many other perfume writers and bloggers. I have reasons now to visit five different continents. Much to my own surprise not least, I’ve had the supreme privilege to meet both perfumers and Creative Directors, and above all else, to connect with so many incredibly smart, creative people who think like I do, feel as I do, who recognize a kindred soul on a perpetual quest for…that next redolent epiphany, and even so, have opened up in so many ways to a perfume loner in an overlooked part of the world.

What I’ve learned…never say never. A category you hate can very well become a category you love. Sometimes, a challenging, complex perfume can take five or more tries to ‘get’, and sometimes, it can happen in five milliseconds. Sometimes, you can’t ‘get’ the concept no matter how many times you try. The best money I’ve ever spent on perfume (not counting decants of the ones I can’t afford to buy – yet) was, in order, a sample order from First in Fragrance (which introduced me to Amouage and reintroduced me to an old love, Robert Piguet’s Bandit), and another from Opus Oils. (Yes!) Not counting the times I’ve been able to send off a few of my already reviewed and/or When Hell freezes-reviews/marvels to the friends scattered across Planet Perfume, because that has made me happy, too.

I’ve learned that no matter what I do or how hard I try, I can’t write like anyone else but me. Perfume is likely the hardest subject matter to communicate besides quantum mechanics and sex. It’s hardly a coincidence they’re al three related – and more than you think.

I’ve learned that sometimes you have all the best intentions in the world but alas, intentions are the last things to matter in that evocative, haunted space between the mind and the keyboard. Sometimes, I want to tell a story instead of write a straight-up review, and sometimes, the perfume wants a story when I want a straight-up review.

I’ve learned a few things about friendship, and having more than a little faith restored in my own gender. Perfume and words may have been the root cause of these connections, but not a few have blossomed into thriving, irreverent friendships far beyond them.

In these last few weeks, while waiting for my new apartment to be finished, while being unable to write any new perfume reviews (I have my writerly superstitions there, too), I’ve also come to realize just how much I miss that fragrant landscape of my own making.

It’s only perfume. But perfume meant that I finished my first novel and gave up hair dye for nine long months so I could buy myself the ultimate liquid prize – my first (and only, so far) bell jar.

Perfume meant that I’m writing these words so at least 92 people can read them. It’s only perfume, but that’s what I breathe for, almost what I live for, and certainly why I write about it in that perpetual pursuit of the beautiful that began with a girl on the Champs Elysées and ended with a jaded writer and her Famous Last Words.

It’s only perfume. How bad can it be?

It’s only perfume. Yet somehow without even being aware of it, perfume…redeemed me. And made me the writer I am today.

How good it can be!

A Waft of Woe

- Flotsam & jetsam, gratitude & anticipation 

The image above perfectly sums up the week I’ve just finished, although ‘lovely’ isn’t the word I’d choose…

Let me start by saying I’m fully aware that the frequency of posts (and no shortage of Way Overdue Reviews) has been sporadic these past couple of months. Ladies and gentlemen – I’ve had about two months of Mondays in that overrated dimension called ‘real life’.

Major changes and massive preoccupations have done everything they could to tear me away from what I’ve really wanted to do more than anything, and that was – for that matter, still emphatically is – to write. Three old-school spiral-bound notebooks – the kind that demand démodé pens or pencils and my own brand of schizoid Linear C handwriting – go where I do in case the Next Great Idea pops up out of the blue – three notebooks of three different writing projects that I plan to feed, water and grow into books. Although one of them you might know about, the other two are super-secret, and one of them involves – yes, you guessed it! – that nebulous, shape-shifting subject of…perfume.

My own collection – which seems to propagate like bacteria as soon as I look the other way – is packed away in acres of bubble wrap, electrical tape, bubblepak envelopes and cardboard boxes within a suitcase. My new (cute if tiny) apartment is being renovated from scratch, and until I can move in a few weeks from now, there they remain, whispering their secrets and haunting my dreams.

Meanwhile, life gets in the way…and this became patently clear this past week, when I’ve been glued to social media and the New York Times, frantic for all my extended family and friends in the Northeast US which received a sucker punch of its own named Sandy. I’m thrilled to say that they made it through in one piece, although not without consequences no one ever could have wished for. Sitting in my own cozy corner of Europe, snuggled up against the chill of winter watching the devastation wrought by the storm has broken my heart in several places, but if anything at all gives me hope, it’s that ‘we’ll be damned if we let this get us down’ attitude displayed by so many of those affected despite their devastating losses. If that’s not an inspiration and an attitude to emulate, what is?

The idea that I could ever inspire anyone at all blows me completely away. When it comes from two fellow perfume writers (and forces of nature in their own right!) I admire as much as the divalicious Perfume Pharmer and Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies, I have to puncture my ego, just in case!

Monica of the Perfume Pharmer – who has literally saved my own crocodile hide this year with her African Gold shea butter – interviewed me in a timeline format on Perfume Pharmer. If you ever wondered why I’m a bit strange, I blame my first babysitter…

Some time ago in a perfume exchange, I sent the fab Portia some Devilscent samples I thought she should have the chance to try. These perfumes are so outside anything in niche perfumery these days, I thought it could be interesting to find her take on them. That’s what we fumeheads do – spread the joys of our discoveries! Yesterday, she returned the favor by reviewing Olympic Orchids’ Dev no. 2 and Lil on the Perfume Posse, and interviewing yours truly on her own blog, Australian Perfume Junkies. (My own reviews are here and there.) I feel so privileged to have met and connected with so many hugely inspiring people through my perfume writing – and Monica and Portia are two of my own inspirations, so thank YOU, ladies! Reviews of two more Devilscents will follow…and more are coming in other venues, which is all I’m able to say for now. Stay tuned!

Two months ago, thanks to the kind of serendipitous networking that never happens except when it does, the book that inspired the Devilscent Project landed on an editor’s desk when I least expected – or was prepared for! – it. Although it wasn’t a natural fit for the publisher, I received the kind of feedback any aspiring writer would gladly kill for – and received several road maps for the final edit. So when I’m finally settled in my new digs, I’m going to buckle down and polish Quantum Demonology to a high and glossy patent leather sheen – when I’m not noodling with the super-secret perfume book and another project that isn’t perfume-related but something much more controversial. When a fellow writer throws down a gauntlet, issues a challenge and dares me to kick away a few boundaries, anything can – and likely will! – happen. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And just like that, I did. Be afraid…

Anticipation is one of my most favorite emotions. There are four remaining Devilscent reviews, and I feel a pang in my heart just thinking about them. Opus Oils’ contribution, the mind-blowing Babylon Noir arrived right before my move, and on this side of the Atlantic, it’s caused quite the sensation among my adventurous-minded girl friends. Two more of Neil Morris’ showstoppers have yet to be reviewed, and my one regret is not just that I only have four DSP posts to go, but that until I move, I also don’t have the time or space to write about them, and it’s killing me – not softly!

I’m anticipating not a few wonders in the weeks to come, including Aftelier’s new Wild Rose (anything Mandy does is grounds for Major Anticipation), Serge Lutens’ Une Voix Noire, and yet more wonders from one of my newest discoveries, Juan M. Perez of Exotic Island Aromas and a few more novelties I should have written about months ago – some from another of my Primeval Forces that had me hauling out the hyperbole – they’re that good!

Most of all, I’m anticipating the simple joys of my own space, my own place under the eaves, and banging away until the cows come home without other distractions than Hairy Krishna. I’m looking forward to unpacking my perfumes and samples and wearing them all.  I’m looking forward to blasting the neighbors with vintage punk, classic metal and the new release from another favorite band. (I wore their last release to shreds!). I look forward to the day life returns to mostly normal for my self-selected family of friends in New York and New Jersey. I look forward to all those fragrant epiphanies I know lie in wait and…since I broke my little finger yesterday, I look forward to the day I can remove the splint and move my hand around without yelping! And last, but never least, I look forward to the day I can write about it all – so you, dear readers, can read all about it!