Scented Thoughts: On Comparing Perfumes II: Perfumery - The Most Humane Art Form



I must confess however that, on occasions, I actually do like to compare perfumes. This week, for example, I undertook a systematic practical and empirical investigation that undermines Roudnitska's very ideal of unicity regarding the perception of a perfume; I deliberately attempted to unearth a collection of perfumes that address the same theme, namely, offer an interpretation of the same dominant note (I will unveil the results of this investigation-cum-quest later).

One can wonder whether Roudnitska's distaste for artistic comparison entailed distaste for comparison at all levels of reality. I have not studied his method of teaching perfumery. The only information I have about his pedagogical method comes from an account by his son Michel. It appears that in this case too he priviliged a great economy of means and intense focus on a sole object of study....

His son recounts how his father's teaching method would be to ask him to re-create the formula of a given fragrance that he had composed and now handed to him as an exercise to complete. Michel Roudniska (the creator of Noir Epices and Bois de Paradis, among others) then had unlimited time to try to recompose it, guess the notes as well as their relative proportions to each others. He was not allowed to divert his attention apparently from that one task. It was a tremendously subtle and difficult enterprise that could take up from several months to a year.

Edmond Roudnitska was interested in elevating perfumery to an art form. To this effect, he wrote aesthetic treatises on perfumes and sought his inspiration in the works of André Sourdel, an art historian. His efforts were aimed at making perfumery statutorily be less of a craft and more of an art. Nevertheless, it still remains, despite his best efforts, that perfumery continues very easily to be apprehended more as a craft than an art. And there is undeniably great pleasure to be derived from, in all simplicity, well-crafted scents. In this sense, certain fragrances are completely satisfying; they will not open new vistas onto an imaginary and visionary world, they will not cultivate dissonance, be revolutionary, but they will have the capacity to sublimate natural aspects of our world.

This being said, the instinct of the craftsman was never dead in Edmond Roudnitska, for in the end a perfume had to smell good to him; this still stood as the ultimate test. But if you think of perfumery as an art, liberated from all constraints of bourgeois good taste and necessity to please not only you, but others as well, then you would have to accept the idea that a perfume could smell bad, even foul intermittently, be disturbing, difficult to wear, provided it was thought out, interesting, and meaningful.

This idea is probably still difficult to accept because at a fundamental level we use our noses in a very primary manner to distinguish between good and bad smells. The foul is linked with danger, poison, death, corruption etc. The pleasing smell is linked to sustenance of our life force; it is to be interpreted as a sign that a natural balance exists, that a food is edible, that a person is healthy, that all things in our environment were checked and found out to be normal. There is a strong sense of normalcy and harmony as reiterated values attached to our sense of smell.

The basic sexual instinct is also a problem. The innate disposition in a perfume to be seductive and pleasing in order to attract sexual partners to allow for the reproduction of the species makes it less free to be just an art medium. Even the sublimation and transformation of scent as sex-into-scent as fashion in the 20th century pushed it further in the direction of being an harmonious medium of expression. A perfume has to go with your mood, with a certain social occasion, with your skin chemistry, even be a reflection of who you are. A perfume is not supposed to clash with any entities; it is supposed to take on an espousing contour. The intervention of our persons within the creative space allocated to fragrance creation makes this art form very tributary of our own inclinations.

If we take the example of portraiture in painting, we can see that even it does not have to go to the extent of being a reflection of who you are, it can just be a reflection of you as seen by an artist. Renaissance portraits that were commissioned by wealthy patrons still reflect more the manner of an artist than the personal, unique individual style of the subject in the painting.

The crucial difference is that Renaissance painters did not paint on bodies. Tattoos, for example, are more like perfumes because they adorn the skin and thus are made part of the representation of the self. You are also made morally responsible for the display of that art on your body, even if the author is not you. However, perfumes have more material to play with than flat tattoos; they have time and memory to play with. One should also keep in mind that perfumes are only contingently applied to the body.

Serge Lutens' creations are closest to this art conception that puts preeminent stake in the artist. His fragrances are the most indifferent to our skins, to our persons and center more on his vision, you be damned. The result is that his scents are sometimes truly difficult to wear, i.e. not "pleasurable" to wear, and I personally feel at times that I am just being used as rented space/ skin/ gallery for an exhibition of paintings. Being a person, I can resent being treated like a simple space, an ambulatory venue for art creations. This sentiment is not just about a good or bad fit between the perfume and me, it is more about a sense of self-respect - I am more than an inanimate object and a blank canvas - and therefore, yes, a certain conception of humanity.

So here again, we go back to this idea that perfumes have to do with human relationships and interconnections and not just with art. Perfumery - the most humane art form, the one that is most called upon to develop the idea of the common social and moral good, of life in a community of social ties. Of human bondage.

Many more things could be said, I will stop here for now.

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2 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Hello there. Very interesting post... I've come to the same conclusion concerning Serge Lutens: they are fragrances who often wear you, rather than you wear them... I'm not sure the analogy to tattoos is the most fitting, though, since fragrance, unlike tattoos, is not permanent. Fashion, inextricably linked to perfume as it is, seems to fit better: like perfume, it is wearable art, more or less mass-produced and designed to appeal/ seduce/ disguise/ enhance identity. This, of course, compromises their status as pure arts. Between Hussein Chalayan's or Martin Margiela's research on shapes and the very nature of garment, and the more commercial approach of scads of designers, there is the same discrepancy/ continuum as between, say, Lutens and the majority of fragrance composers. There is much to be explored in this topic, and I hope you will pursue your train of thought!

  2. Thank you!

    I agree that the tattoos analogy might not be a straightforward one.

    I think I thought of tattoos rather than clothes because I needed a strong reference to the skin, to something a bit raw, "wild", and potentially unsettling. Tattoos are identity and often erotic marks too. Tattoos have a primordial quality about them that I can see in perfumes and less so in clothes (my bias). Also one can use temporary tattoos -- hmmm, but they would be less primordial then :)

    I certainly need to think more about this topic:)


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