As the new No.5 Culture Chanel exhibition opens today at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, you may wonder if the No.5 has deserved such prolonged recognition since 1921. In Perfume Legends by Michael Edwards, the author retells the anecdote of a young perfumer visiting a member of the Guerlain family, whose name is not disclosed, asking which perfumes that person thinks have become famous thanks to their sole qualities rather than advertising? That person starts by answering that they are to be counted on the fingers of one hand. After a pause, the Guerlain scion adds a few more names. A second pause; Chanel No.5 makes it to the short list the third time around. While probably the most iconic perfume in the world, the fragrance composed by Ernest Beaux has benefitted from so much publicity both in-house and through more spontaneous channels that it is very understandable to see a Guerlain hesitating while wondering if a perfume like the No.5 could have been as widely recognized without the help of advertising...
According to that intuitive, Guerlain purist's point of view, it could have made it on its own. But the fact remains that the No.5 has had such a cosmopolitan and long career; it has been sung, drawn, photographed, painted, conceptually integrated into modern art and contemporary art so many times, that it has become a cultural phenomenon. Even if you did not like the smell of the No.5 in the first place, you could not discard it as cultural artifact. Its symbolic status is such that you could arguably offer it only for what it represents, its juice coming as reinforcement of its reputation rather than its sillage preceding the name of the fragrance as is most natural to experience the effect of a perfume.
Jean-Louis Froment is the curator of the new exhibit which has travelled previously to Moscow's Pushkin State Museum for Fine Arts, Beijing at The National Art Museum of China and the Opera House in Canton.
"Made up of subtle plays of correspondences, N°5 CULTURE CHANEL cracks the N°5 code to reveal the links which connected the world's most iconic fragrance to specific moments in time and to the avant-garde movements it spanned."
The works of art, photographs, archives and objects exhibited provide an account of the many inspirations which fed the imagination and world of Mademoiselle Chanel. They echo her inner thoughts and shed light on this unique and timeless perfume; whether through her favorite destinations like Venice, Russia or her Villa, La Pausa, or through the creations of her artist, poet and musician friends Cocteau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Stravinsky and Picabia."
ANOYMOUS - Gabrielle Chanel reading a newspaper at Royallieu circa 1910 -COLLECTION EDMONDE CHARLES‐ROUX © CHANEL/All rights reserved
Some rarely seen archival pictures, like the one above of the young Gabrielle Chanel ca. 1910, from the collection of her autobiographer Edmonde Charles-Roux, will shed a more unconventional light on the brand founder revealing the evolution of her personal style and the historical context from which she emerged.
MAX ERNST, JOHANNES BAARGELD -Mock‐up for the cover of Manifeste We 5 (West stupidien) 1920. Collage & frottage on paper 28.5 x 30.8 cm. Galerie Natalie Seroussi © Courtesy Galerie Natalie Seroussi
Works of art having links to the perfume or having served as inspiration for the perfume will be displayed, like this collage by Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld.
N°5 PERFUME PACKAGING, CARDBOARD AND PAPER CASE, 1921 CHANEL COLLECTION, PARIS © CHANEL/All rights reserved
If in 1921, Chanel could not have foreseen the extent to which her new perfume would become a cultural icon, you can try and appreciate in her stead, with the benefit of hindsight, how the No.5 came to be together with the couture house of Chanel, such an object capable of crystallizing desire, of things other than just perfume.
Palais de tokyo
13 avenue du Président Wilson, 75016 Paris entrance: 2, rue de la manutention
tel: 01 81 97 35 88
Entrance is free
See also Chanel No.5 Retrospective