November 17, 2006

The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, Perfume and Art

Duchamp's perfume La Belle Helene
Recently I received a copy of the new Luca Turin book, The Secret of Scent, and I’m not yet finished, but it’s an intense read so far.

I am not qualified to give an opinion on the soundness of the chemical and physics theories on smell therein, and it’s difficult to revisit that controversy after reading Emperor of Scent and then seeing the Nobel Prize go in a different direction than LT’s theory on how the sense of smell works.

However, his opinion that perfume is not about sex and memory but about beauty and intelligence is something I have been formulating a personal opinion about, especially since there is a now a strong emphasis on the development of perfume as an art form.

I think LT is right that perfume is not about sex and memory, or not anymore, anyway, and in that case, I think art and perfume have switched places recently in that regard.

Contemporary art doesn't concern itself with beauty very much anymore, for one thing, and the intelligence most in evidence these days is that of a more cynical, world weary type, encompassing a sense of gallows humor sometimes, self consciously in the process of losing its ego, going in a different direction, from those who are engaged in making something more of perfume nowadays.

Modern perfumers seem more self consciously engaged in attaining a combination of elements that will impart an heightened perception of the beauty of the natural physical world, or approximations of concepts like cleanliness, comfort, or excitement and happiness, or intoxication.

On the other hand, much of the subject matter of contemporary art is heavily concerned with sex and memory, and the ordinary as a vehicle for a message, beginning with the early moderns such as Duchamp, whose influence has carried into the present day, and as evidenced by painters like Lisa Yuskavage.

Modern artists often use images of a "vulgar" form of sexuality through reference to advertising and media, celebrating pop culture, rejecting or undermining the concept of glamor, while perfume aims to heighten glamour and give an air of the exclusive and the haute and the pure.

So it seems to me kind of a musical chairs switch, art now often concentrates on sex and memory as a more direct path to the heart and mind, and a traditional craft like perfumery now aims at art by emphasizing pure beauty combined with the display of exalted intelligence and poetic association.

Still, smells are very direct and a clear sense of unambiguous pleasure is a prerequisite for any successful perfume. Because such direct pleasures are not so easily come by in art right now, I’m grateful they are still accessible through other creative disciplines, such as perfume making.

I think art left behind its ability to maintain innocent pleasure in beauty long ago, and its often critical intelligence attempts to depict many conflicting views together simultaneously, as a way to approach something closer to the truth of modern experience. It will be interesting to read the reviews of the book that are sure to come in the next few weeks and to see if any of it will resonate or influence perfumers in general.

Above - a 1926 Rigaud perfume flacon box, altered by Duchamp for his imaginary perfume La Belle Helene.  Rigaud is now a perfume house now most famous for their candles, and the subject of visual pun, as a "readymade" by Duchamp, who used one of their perfume bottles to make one of his always ambivalent, humourous/tragic meditations about sexuality (see link here).

For more on La Belle Helene please see this in depth piece on Architecture of Perfume by Maggie Mahboubian the perfumer behind Parfums Lalun

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