More thoughts about The Art of Scent 1889-2012 Exhibition at The Museum Of Art and Design in NYC.
Calls us fragonerds, fume-heads, cogno-scenti... As someone who blogs about fragrance several times a week I'm a card-carrying member of this club. We love perfume and want to talk about it. A lot. We often find ourselves explaining to doubting friends and family that perfumers are artists and their work makes one feel and think. That there are cultural aspects to perfumery, cross-disciplinary connections and associations, and it's just like high fashion: an Alexander McQueen gown or Karl Lagerfeld jacket can be art. So can be a fragrance made by Christopher Sheldrake or Edmund Roudnitska. We can talk about them for hours and we want to share this passion with the world. What's better for this purpose than introducing a Department of Olfactory Art to the Museum of Art and Design in NYC?
The first exhibition of the department attempts to chart "the major stylistic developments in fragrance design to the present day" by showing milestones in perfumery in chronological order, starting with Jicky (Guerlain, 1889) and ending with Untitled (Maison Martin Margiela, 2010). It's what happens between these two that makes me raise my eyebrow and wonder what went wrong in showing a brief history of modern scent.
History is written by the victors, and it's painfully obvious who they are in this context. The heavy involvement of the department's sponsors, from major perfume brands to large manufacturers of odor molecules (these companies are the employers of many perfumers). They all have a commercial interest in presenting their work as the biggest scent achievements, making the visitor familiar with their products and learning how the public responds to them. But is this a good enough reason to choose these particular fragrances as the major scent events of the discussed period?
The questionable selection (Light Blue? Really?) becomes even more evident when one considers that the exhibition and the Department are trying to push perfumery as art (I'm not arguing with that). It would make a lot more sense then to include works by houses and perfumers who are actually focused on the artistic aspect of fragrance and less on topping sales charts at the malls. I'm not even talking about the dead past (Jacques Fath, Germain Cellier, Christian Dior, Edmund Roudnitska, Francois Coty, Henri Almeras, Ernest Daltroff, Bernard Chant...didn't they change the world of scent?); but what about creative forces such as Serge Lutens and Frederic Malle? The latter is a publisher of perfumes who commissions works of art from some of the greatest perfumers of our time. Meanwhile, Lutens gave new life to orientalism at the exact point in time you'd have expected this style to disappear thanks to Angel and L'Eau d'Issey.
I'm not even talking about the decades missing from the exhibition or the complete denial of the role of natural raw ingredients in perfumery as an art form. I see The Art Of Scent 1889-2012 as missed opportunity. There's so much to show, explain and share with the public, fragonerds or not, but Pleasures and Drakkar Noir are not part of that.
See more thoughts about the exhibition by Jessica on NST and Avery Gilbert on First Nerve.
Photograph by Eric Maillet