SOMETHING IN THE AIR
BAZAAR looks at the rich interplay between perfume and art through the ages. By Hannah Betts.
Magic happens when art and perfume collide
While the alchemy of perfume is itself an art, throughout history scent has looked to the arts for inspiration. There may be analogies of content or structure, and affiliations with artistic movements or particular artists’ oeuvres; both forms of creativity must engage in the process of restoration, of resurrecting classic works in a way that makes sense of their past and present. Accordingly, painting, poetry, music, sculpture, photography, and film all enter into imaginative symbiosis with the scented sphere. As Jean-Claude Ellena, nose for Hermès, remarked: “I am sensitive to all different styles of art. Wherever I can, I make parallels, associations, analogies … There are similarities between Cézanne, Ravel, and my fragrances. There’s a vision that veers towards simplicity, the working drawing. I like Soulages because, like him, I limit my palette enormously, yet manage to find new shades within it.” The relationship between scent and art may be allusive and elusive, but that is where its beauty lies.
The Guerlain family has always maintained a close affinity with the world of fine art. Jacques Guerlain, the house’s first great nose, was an enthusiast for and collector of Impressionism, the movement that strove to understand the play of light and shade. L’Heure Bleue (1912), his most overt Impressionist tribute, took its name from twilight: the moment at which the scent of flowers intensifies, smell gains ascendency over diminishing sight, and a visionary quality takes hold. A lavish floral with a powdery musk base, the scent has a richness that is undercut by a piquant, vaguely troubling heart of aniseed, clove, and heliotrope.
The first lady of the avant-garde, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, famously enjoyed friendships with – and played patron to – many of the greatest artists of the age: Cocteau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Stravinsky, Picabia, Dalí, and Diaghilev. As the 1920s dawned, the abstraction that had been gathering momentum since Picasso’s Cubist revolution of 1907 flourished across art, literature, and music – and, no less, in Chanel N˚5 (1921). Gone were any mimetic or figurative aspirations; instead, what she and Ernest Beaux created was the first abstract perfume.
For some, the affinity between the visual and the olfactory is literal. Frédéric Malle, the editor of his eponymous Editions de Parfums, is a synaesthete who sees smells. He elaborates: “I see colours, more or less transparent, and shapes that are soft or angular.
These are always abstract, and evolve, a bit like smoke or water.” The advantages are manifold: “It allows us to stay in a world similar to music and abstract painting – something quite immaterial.”
Not that everything Malle sees in the world of perfume is beautiful. “The classics generate more precise and simple shapes. Today’s junk fragrances look like wishy-washy kaleidoscopes, as impossible to memorise as the scents themselves.”
Malle has produced images to accompany a number er of his editions. For Portrait of a Lady (2010) – all amber mber and patchouli, topped by a vast rose – we have a plush brown and gold, contrasting with the red, pink, and purple of rose and berry; while Carnal Flower (2005) is “milky, soft, see-through, with a hard darkness at the centre”.
Dalí dreamed up a jasmine and rose confection in 1983, its flacon based on his “Apparition of the Face of Aphrodite of Knidos”. Andrea Maack, an Icelandic artist who recently exhibited at the Reykjavik Art Museum, produces scents that are olfactory interpretations of her visual creations. And Pierre Guillaume’s Huitième Art Parfums are about recognising perfume as the eighth art, after music, literature, philosophy, and the like.
On occasion, the synergy between scent and art will be as simple as one image, one scent. Miller Harris’s Lyn Harris is working on a fragrance “deeply inspired” by Picasso’s “La Femme-Fleur”, a portrait of his lover, the artist Françoise Gilot. A work in progress, it will be a bouquet dominated by iris, with a tang of leather.
She explains: “I was spurred by the photo of her holding the iris; a beautiful woman with the most beautiful flower. And the fact that we extract the smell from the iris’s root is the soul of it all. The painting enabled me to fantasise about female beauty through the eyes of one of the greatest painters. I love how Italian-looking she is, and the spacing of her eyes and chin: imperfections that lead to absolute beauty.” The first new Estée Lauder perfume for a decade, Modern Mo Muse, to be released later this year, yea is an elusive, woody floral that plays with a similar notion. It is described by the company’s com fragrance guru Karyn Khoury as “in “inspired by the complexity of a modern woman”. wom She continues: “Its construction reflects refle the same dynamic tension as her personality. People think of tension as a negative word, yet in the world of art, and not least in the art of fragrance, creative tension can be a great source of inspiration, with the influence of seemingly contradictory qualities leading to new heights of creativity.” Restoration is no less an art. I interviewed Guerlain’s Thierry Wasser after his creation of a lighter, fresher version of Shalimar with Shalimar Parfum Initial (2011), and he told me that while it was intimidating to tackle Jacques Guerlain’s 1925 classic, he was obliged to create the future while honouring the past. Out went the leather and the jasmine – “too old-school animalic, too much”; in stayed the delicate rose and orris of the house’s signature Guerlinade.
Chanel’s Jacques Polge, creating Coco Noir (2012) from Coco (1984), observed: “A fragrance’s birth is an act of pure creation and unique intuition that cannot be retraced, only felt. What remains is the lineage. This passage of time that enters the most unexpected olfactory compositions into the history of perfume and renders them intelligible … Any fragrance, however individual, can only exist because of those that came before it.” And it, in turn, will inspire the artistry of the future.
“I don’t sell the fragrances; I create them. Who is she, the one who wears my perfume? I guess she is sophisticated, but sophisticated doesn’t necessarily mean she has money. I guess perfume for her is that she wants an experience – it is something you barely see, very subtle and understated. Too many details doesn’t mean luxury. It is very French
in an obscure way. The women I have in my life and the diversity of the people I love, all these people inspire me. Also, age doesn’t matter. It is such a mistake to target by
age category.” – Francis Kurkdjian
Chanel Coco EDP, RM432 (100ml)
Guerlain Après L’Ondée
Diptyque Vetyverio EDT, RM295 (50ml) & RM379 (100ml)
Lancôme Trésor EDP, RM305 (100ml)
Giorgio Armani Sì EDP, RM300 (50ml) & RM430 (100ml) Hermès Terre d’Hermès EDP, RM425 (75ml)
Tola Shahzadah EDP