Gleams & Notions

Fine Fragrance as High Art

By Harvey M. Fishman, Consultant | February 12, 2013

The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City is currently presenting “The Art of Scent 1889-2012.” The exhibit opened in November and closes later this month.

Fragrance can be a dramatic thing.

“The fundamental goal is placing scent as an artistic medium alongside painting, sculpture and music,” explained Chandler Burr, the curator of the department of olfactory art at the museum, adding that no matter how extraordinary a scent may be, “they’re not recognized as works of art, and the artists who create them are not recognized as artists.”

The museum is determined to change all that. In fact, the “Art of Scent” has been written about in The New York Times and other newspapers and periodicals.

The Essence of Fragrance

The exhibit features 12 fragrances to show the evolution of modern perfumery starting from Guerlain’s Jicky conceived in 1889. Chanel No. 5 from 1921 is another featured fragrance. There is no display of packaging or raw materials. The exhibit is in a white room whose walls dispense puffs of fragrance from curved indentations. When a customer leans into the curve, an electric eye will cause a machine to release a burst of perfume calibrated to stay in place for four seconds, without spreading across the room. There is also a space where visitors can dip a blotter into petri dishes that contain the 12 fragrances. The labels, projected on the wall, name each scent as well as the perfumer who created it. The wall texts also describe each scent in terms usually used for visual art and architecture.

When asked why he did not describe the scents in more common terms such as its ingredients (i.e.: citrus or woody), Burr proclaimed “I am completely opposed to this idiotic reductionism of works of olfactory art to their raw materials, which is as stupid as reducing a Frank Gehry building to the kind of metal, the kind of wood, and the kind of glass that he used.”

When selling a perfume, the focus is usually on the shape of the bottle, the color of the package and the images presented by the celebrity involved or the marketing department—facets of marketing that the museum eschewed. In fact, the museum had difficulty getting support from international cosmetic companies and perfume manufacturers who objected to having their products presented without marketing and packaging. Eventually, Estée Lauder was the first to come on board and others followed. Of course, not everyone has a sense of smell that can appreciate an odor or even enjoy one.

Blake Gopnik, writing in The, does not agree with Burr. “What’s an untrained nose to make of Eau de Protection (2007)? It was designed, to conjure both a woman so beautiful that roses ran in her blood, and the knife that killed her? When coached, I could smell the rose, but certainly no blood.”

Does blood smell? You bet.

Gopnik could not smell the “leather of horses” and the “cold stones” of Siena, Italy from a different exhibit either.

“Maybe perfumery is art, but the range of experience its capable of producing seems awfully limited,” he concluded.

Let’s remind Gopnik that smell has the strongest link to memory among all the senses. Furthermore, scent impacts mood, levels of arousal, emotions and even physical reactions. Not so limited at all.
Note: The Gleams & Notions column in January’s issue incorrectly identified the supplier of hyaluronic acid in the formula. The supplier is TRI-K Industries.
Harvey M. Fishman

Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm in Wanaque, NJ, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.