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

One Journey Down the (Sample) Vials

–       a review of Alyssa Harad’s book ‘Coming To My Senses’

Look around Amazon, your local bookstores, leaf through your favorite magazines, and you will discover that the rarified world of perfume is becoming a hot topic in both fiction and non-fiction. There’s Denyse Beaulieu’s ‘The Perfume Lover’ that describes both a night to remember and the development of a perfume to capture it, M.J. Rose’s ‘The Book of Lost Perfumes’, Denise Hamilton’s novel ‘Damage Control’ (that features some famous perfumes in its story line), and that’s not even counting the books of Frédéric Malle and Jean Claude Ellena who also have their own stories to tell.

Once upon a time, books such as Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’ ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ and Chandler Burr’s ‘The Emperor of Scent’ were sizzling topics on the perfume boards and blogs, adding to that endlessly fascinating conversation on perfume – how to describe it, how to codify it, how to…understand that most personal and subjective of all art forms.

Even this lowly perfume writer/blogger/nonentity has been approached by three superstars of the perfume world at different times, encouraging me, egging me on and tickling my ego vanity vaunting literary ambition by stating…

“You should really write a book!”

They are all three of them people I respect with something akin to star-struck awe, but I have to say it – let me get in print first with this other thing (which is in a sense also, go figure, connected to…perfume) before I wrestle that fearsome, fragrant beast.

What I am about to say will likely have my perfumista license revoked, my credibility in smoking ruins and my carcass shot at dawn, and yet say it, I must: I have all of three perfume books, not counting a edutainment tome on the use of perfume in Ayurveda (you never know!). I have never read ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ except in excerpt, or Chandler Burr, or Jean Claude Ellena, Roja Dove, Michael Edwards or any other of those Great and Good Indispensibles.

First, since English language bookstores are as rare as unicorns in my part of the world, second, because books about perfume in those stores are unicorns with gilded horns and hooves. They don’t exist. I don’t own a credit card and my PayPal account is my (ludicrous) perfume budget. I can buy perfume. Or I can buy books. For the time being, I buy perfume.

Such was this bathetic state of affairs, until serendipity – and my own debatable notoriety as a perfume writer –  landed me a copy of Alyssa Harad’s ‘Coming To My Senses’.

I didn’t read it at all. I ate it in two days.

I’ve known about Alyssa for quite some time, had been reading her on Perfume Smellin’ Things, had the occasional Twitter exchange. Several phone conversations with my friends in the US mentioned her. So of course I would read it and in one overly enthusiastic moment I even agreed to review it.


I’ll say it right out: This is an incredibly charming book. If that sounds like the worst sort of backhanded compliment, I can assure you – it’s not.

In ‘Coming To My Senses’ Alyssa – self-professed feminist academic Geek Gal, describes her own personal journey of self-discovery as it happened through…perfume, from playing with essential oils and attending workshops with an entity known as the Curator all the way through her education as a perfumista – discovering the perfume blogs, acquiring samples hoarded like the guilty treasures they surely are, and opening her perception not just to her sense of smell, but to an entirely new way of perceiving all of life through her senses. We follow her – the world’s most unlikely bride – through planning for her wedding, excursions to New York, her entire journey to…become something better, someone ‘other’, someone somehow richer than she was before, and it all happened through that intangible/tangible, sensory medium of…perfume.

We meet the sneers and semi-embarrassed reactions to her new, all-consuming vice, and how it also becomes a calling card, a way of connecting with others in a way she could never have anticipated.

After reading it, I was totally floored. Floored not because our trajectories as perfume writers were so different, but more than anything because of all the similarities, even despite living on separate continents, cultures and countries.

What I loved most about the book is what I would call…relatability.

Most of the perfume books I’ve read reviews of have tended to lay down the laws of doom – in effect, the writer is saying “This is what I know, and I know infinitely better than you.”

Perfume is a uniquely subjective experience, so I rather doubt the validity of that statement –the books that are full of them, and the writers who are full of themselves.

Alyssa’s book has none of those stentorian, professorial airs. She comes across as entirely likeable, relatable and even endearing – cue an epic meltdown brought on by that ominous phrase ‘foundation garment’. Most of all, this is a book that’s entirely approachable even if you don’t know about perfume. I can practically guarantee – after finishing this story, you will be curious, intrigued, and if you already love perfume, maybe most of all relieved…that somewhere out there is someone else with a similar passion – and she’s every bit as human and as fallible as you!

Alyssa Harad, ‘Coming To My Senses’, is available at major bookstores and at Amazon. Alyssa is also giving a presentation today at the Artisan Fragrance Salon in San Francisco, and another in Brooklyn on July 19th.

Disclosure: A copy of ‘Coming To My Senses’ was made available by Viking.

Photo: my iPhone