Sunday, December 09, 2012

Review of The Art of Scent 1889-2012 Exhibition- The Museum Of Art & Design NYC By Kelly Kreth

My friend Kelly Kreth, a NYC-based publicist and blogger, attended The Art of Scent 1889-2012 Exhibition at The Museum Of Art and Design in NYC. Curated by Chandler Burr, the presentation is  "dedicated to the design and aesthetics of olfactory art. Starting from the late 19th century....the exhibition charts the major stylistic developments in fragrance design to the present day. The Art of Scent offers insights into the creative visions and intricate processes of noted perfumers." 
This is Kelly's review:

I recently went to the Museum of Art and Design to see, or rather smell, The Art of Scent exhibition. Upon entering the gallery on the 4th floor I noticed a faint scent of perfume but was not at all overwhelmed. Once in the stark gallery, I faced 12 indentations in the white walls that could best be described as urinals, albeit far better scented. Each scent is presented in chronological order beginning with 1889 and related scent Jicky, by Aime Guerlain. In the middle of the room, there is text projected onto the floor describing the overall exhibition.

Text is also projected next to each “urinal” describing the fragrance highlighted and explaining how it was created. I found it highly annoying —I’m a New Yorker, impatient and cranky--that the text would disappear every minute or so, making it hard to finish reading in one go-around. I found myself staring at the blank wall waiting for the furtive text to reappear, and it made me feel silly , like I was wasting valuable time, much like I feel when at the laundromat waiting for the final spin to end in order to unlock the door to the washer.

But no matter, I would finish reading the description of what I was about to smell, bend my head down into the “urinal” and a light mist of scent would waft out. It was also fun to try to guess the scent prior to reading what it was. I immediately recognized Chanel No5, Angel and Drakkar Noir. Next followed 1921, Chanel No5 by Ernest Beaux, 1957, L’Interdit by Francis Fabron (which I was unfamiliar with prior to this visit), 1971, Aromatics Elixir by Bernard Chant and 1982, Drakkar Noir by Pierre Wagner.

I stopped dead in my tracks and almost gagged as did a friend who accompanied me upon smelling the [dreaded] Drakkar. So tied to our teenage memories was Drakkar that we both had a very visible response to it. It was at this moment that I felt the exhibition moved me, although maybe not for the reasons it intended, pointing out how tied to memories different odors are. A certain fragrance can immediately make me extremely happy, bringing me back to a moment of glee, and likewise, an odor could drag me into the pits of despair just as quickly, when it conjures up thoughts of a bad time I associate it with. And that is what art is supposed to do--evoke an emotion in the viewer— isn't it?

Drakkar reminded me of unrequited grammar school crushes and school dances held in the sweat-tinged gym. Gag!

I continued through the exhibit which also included: 1992, Angel by Olivier Cresp; 1992 L’Eau d’Issey by Jacques Cavalier; 1995, Pleasures by Annie Buzantian and Alberto Morillas; 2000 Light Blue by Olivier Cresp; 2004 Prada Amber by Carlos Benaim and Max and Clement Gavarry; 2006, Osmanthe Yunnan (I had also never heard of this scent) by Jean-Claude Ellena; and lastly, 2010 Untitled, by Daniela Andrier.

I noticed several things about the descriptions that accompanied these scents. I felt they failed in two regards: First, being a publicist I’m particularly sensitive to overt use of marketing language. Each description was peppered with fairly useless adjectives that added nothing to my understanding of why the creation of the scent was noteworthy. Second, much of it went over my head and didn't adequately explain the nuances of scent creation and how the evolution of such has impacted what the consumer experiences.

What I've garnered from the descriptions is that prior to the late 1800s scent makers relied on natural essences to create scents, and in the late 1800s newly available synthetic raw materials became available that liberated—in a sense—olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette and turned scent into an artistic medium. The increased usage of newer synthetics changed how scent was created and perceived. Until these materials were available artists created scents that replicated things found in nature such as flowers and grass. By the mid-twentieth century not only was visual art more abstract, but so was olfactory art. In addition, scents up until the post-war era were primarily associated with France. However by the 70s more fragrances were created in the US. By the early 80s scents were not simply either “fine” or “functional”. Drakkar Noir was the first scent created that blurred this line--designed to mimic the smell of “clean” or “laundry detergent”. As time progressed, scents became more and more conceptual as illustrated by L’Eau d’Issey which evoked the concept of “water”. Scent creation had become less about replicating a smell, to creatively representing what a smell conjured in one’s mind.

All I could think of when reading about “synthetics” and  manufactured essences was that basically we were all paying a high price for air  pollution. A lover of perfume, this sort of turned me off and with each sniff I began to think about how many chemicals I was inhaling and how that couldn't possibly be good for my health or that of the environment.

Connected to the main gallery is a smaller room with several related exhibitions. Along the back wall is an explanation of how the scent Tresor was created using five different scent layers. Each one is presented so the viewer or sniffee could trace the evolution of how the scent was built upon and layered to create the final product. In the middle of that room is a long glass table with bowls of each of the 12 scents represented in the main gallery. Visitors are encouraged to dip a tab of paper in each and then go to the computer and click on words that the scent brought to mind.

Here’s where it got rather odd and mysterious. There was a woman in the gallery urging visitors to do so and log their impressions into the computer. I asked her whom she worked for—was she a museum employee or did she work for a scent firm? She merely answered that she was an “interpreter” hired to compile guests’impressions of the various scents. I asked her what the data would be used for and again she only gave a very vague answer about how for now it would merely go into the museum archives. She mentioned that some of the companies that had supplied the scents would come often to keep track of what visitors were saying about their products. Still, a born Nancy Drew, I smelled a very well-scented rat.

Maybe I’m just paranoid by nature, but logging all this data into a computer had to have a particular use. Later, eavesdropping—a girl detective’s work is never done—I overheard her tell another guest that she worked for one of the fragrance companies represented but would not say with one. Mysterious! She also presented us with a journal where we could write which fragrance we liked best, which we remembered the most easily and allowed us to leave any notes. “But notes for whom?” I wondered. She also recommended scents to different people throughout the night, as if we were at a department store’s perfume counter. She pointed out which scents were unisex and why, to some gentlemen, and I got the impression she was almost trying to sell them on one. Again, maybe I’m just over-suspicious or was being a bit loopy from all the chemical huffing I had done on my visit.

While I didn't really like the marketing language and overall salesy feel to the exhibition and had no idea why these specific fragrances were highlighted as opposed to the myriad of others in existence, all in all, I enjoyed the exhibition for several reasons. It was novel to me because I had never experienced anything like this and would eagerly go to another similar one. Also, more than anything, I love a good mystery. 

A freelance writer and publicist, Kelly Kreth is also a malcontent who often feels trapped in a Seinfeldian Hell. She'd like people to love her for her flaws, not in spite of them. That rarely happens. Her favorite perfumes are Black Cashmere and Chaos by Donna Karan and Chanel No.5.  You can read more by her at:

Photos (other than Kelly's) courtesy of the Museum Of Art And Design.


  1. I went last week to the exhibit, and was underwhelmed. The in-and-out fade of the text annoyed me, and I felt like there were dozens of scents that would have been better for the exhibit. How is Light Blue worthy of being in a museum? I don't know, and it all reeked of advertising.

    The second half of the exhibit was strange too. The woman who was "guiding" the sniff tests was very clearly from a fragrance firm. I told her that I owned most (not Drakkar Noir, of course!) of the fragrances featured and she lost interest in me. I guess I couldn't be sold on anything? But she spent a lot of time with my fiancé discussing Chanel No. 5. I almost felt like she was trying to get him to leave and buy me a bottle.

    I don't know, I wanted so much more from this. I was disappointed. It's hard to even articulate why, because I have so many complaints.

    At the very least, it was nice to be able to stick my face in a near-continuous blast of MMM Untitled! YUM.

  2. I did not see any comments on certain aspect of this exhibition: how recent are the versions of the early perfumes included in it? I don't expect to find the 1921 Chanel 5 wafting from the "urinal", and for the sake of consistency and the suspected sales oriented pitch, it would make sense to have all of the perfumes included in their current, even if possibly recently re-formulated versions, but I have not found any mentions of this in the few reviews of the exhibit I read. Maybe the lovely Ms Kelly could investigate further ;)

  3. I've already shared my overall thoughts about the exhibition on Now Smell This, so I won't repeat myself here. :)

    But I just wanted to add that I met the same interpreter/guide/assistant in the second gallery, and I overheard her making a similar remark about a fragrance company that she works for / used to work for but "can't name." Maybe she should consider not mentioning this fact at all while she's in her MAD role...!

    I'm not sure how useful the selected adjective/noun iPad data would be for any research firm, without information about the people (customers) who entered it... but I wasn't thrilled about being pushed through this routine, either. I just wanted to sniff and think a bit, without having to share my impressions with museum staff. (I wouldn't want to do it in a traditional fine-arts museum, either.)

  4. I attended the exhibition yesterday. Although I can understand why perfumes like Jicky, Chanel No. 5, L'Eau d'Issey and Angel were either considered innovative or represented a completely new path in fragrance at the time they were created (and I knew before going to the museum), I had no idea why the other fragrances were chosen. Nor was it clear why they represent anything more than Chandler Burr's opinion of what is innovative.

  5. Akimon, I just put in that question to the Musuem's PR dept. I await a response.

  6. I love the review and comments by people who have not drunk the Kool Aid of the perfume industry, which oddly, is what Mr Burr has come to represent. I find his choices odd and not particularly enlightening, neither for us as Perfumistas nor the general public, but I could be wrong of course, what the heck do I know about the GP? I find the point made by Akimon Azuki particularly interesting, why hide the fact that the Classic perfumes in particular have changed over time, if you are going to create an exhibit acout perfume history? Great choice of reviewer, thanks! PS I think I will not see the exhibit on my trip to NY in February, Bergdorf's seems like more fun!


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