Friday, 10 May 2013

Persolaise Review: No 5 Culture Chanel exhibition at Palais De Tokyo, Paris

shadow of Main Gauche, bronze sculpture by Diego Giacometti, circa 1964 

Whilst flitting backwards and forwards between the artefacts displayed at Paris' No 5 exhibition, I ask myself which perfumes released in the last 20-or-so years could be called avant garde. Have the splintering effects of globalisation, Twitter and individualism made it impossible for anything to be considered truly radical these days? Or are there some recent scents which will eventually be seen as having re-shaped and defined the era in which they came to life?

Of course, this raises the question of whether No 5 itself genuinely deserved the 'avant garde' tag. Certainly, the exhibition assumes that the issue isn't even up for debate. The scrupulous Chanel publicity machine has ensured that although some of the objects on show throw up novel comparisons between seemingly unconnected facets of the No 5 story, the basic tenets of the perfume's cult remain untouched: it was a revolutionary work of olfactory engineering, it is one of the most potent icons of 20th century luxury, and it occupies a unique place at the intersection of the worlds of fashion, art, social history, retail and, of course, fragrance creation.

Those three statements may be true to varying degrees, but the curatorship of Jean-Louis Froment doesn't encourage them to be dissected in this particular setting. Far from it. His foreword to the exhibition's official guide book is coloured such a pious shade of purple ("This fragrance exists only through the mystery of what it seems to name, through the mark of it that we are seeking, through what it renders to us of absence"; "The only obligation of a fragrance is to know how to flee") that it threatens to sully the pleasures offered by a stroll through the hyper-austere, rigidly symmetrical display space.

But what might these pleasures be? Well, they have nothing to do with a straightforward education about the making of Ernest Beaux's 1921 masterpiece; Froment has decided to dispense with a linear presentation of instructional facts and statistics. Instead, he's chosen to focus on contexts. Through a series of deliberate juxtapositions, the various letters, photographs and antiques try to evoke the period which led to the creation of No 5, the impact of its success and the way in which it both influenced and was influenced by various artistic movements. So, for instance, at the start of the exhibition proper - after the sight of a Piet Oudolf garden which rather weakly attempts to underline No 5's 'naturalness' - the visitor is presented with the perfume's original bottle as well as a geometrical ink sketch by Picasso. The implication is that the smooth, linear aesthetic of the flacon was in some way a response to the Spaniard's stylistic innovations.

The remainder of the show continues in a similar vein. Relatively candid, Man Ray shots of Coco are contrasted with the more familiar, artful images of the smoking, pearl-wearing poseur. A reconstruction of a piece of stained glass from a convent at Aubazine (in which Coco spent much of her childhood) is placed alongside the double-C logo. And a Brancusi sculpture of a serene, Buddha-like head is linked with Richard Avedon's 1970s advertising images featuring Catherine Deneuve.

Whether the cumulative effect of all these elements is sufficient to make a case for the importance of No 5 is probably down to the susceptibility of each individual visitor. Personally, I couldn't quite shake off my questions about why the exhibition should be staged now, at this particular moment in time. Is it a sign that the link between perfume and cultural art needs to be re-asserted? Is it a pseudo-intellectual exercise in nostalgia? Or is it a move on Chanel's part to raise the profile of a product which, by many accounts, isn't quite the market leader it was a few years ago?

There's no doubt that 'No 5 Culture Chanel' is a fairly interesting collection of various snippets of 20th century significance. And although the more crowd-pleasing elements could be seen as diluting and confusing the purpose of the central exhibition space (there's an 'interactive' section which offers opportunities to smell the scent's main accords and a chance to attend an olfactory workshop conducted by Cinquieme Sens) the concept at the core of the enterprise is pretty robust. However, the exhibition's ultimate achievement is to prove how difficult it is to capture the very real, yet very ephemeral impact and effect of a momentous perfume. You can scour all of the world's finest museums and bring together a vast array of evocative items under one roof. But you end up grasping at something that refuses to become tangible. Like the shadows cast by all the objects on the clinically white floor, the real magic of No 5 disappears when you try to reach out and touch it.

['No 5 Culture Chanel' is at the Palais De Tokyo, Paris, until 5th June, open from midday till midnight every day, except Tuesdays. For further information, please click here.]


'No 5 Culture Chanel' main exhibition space
Chanel No 5 bottle; left: 1924; right: 1921
Oval Composition, Pablo Picasso, 1911
Ernest Beaux, photographer unknown, circa 1910
Arthur 'Boy' Capel, photographer unknown, circa 1911
Cravates De Chanvres, Pierre Reverdy, 1922,
signed by author and dedicated to Gabrielle Chanel
shape poems, Guillaume Apollinaire, 1915
Gabrielle Chanel, Man Ray, 1930
sales catalogue of Chanel perfumes, 1924
newspaper advertisement, New York Times, 28 June 1932
Marilyn Monroe, Ed Feingersh, 1955
Chanel (D), Andy Warhol, 1985
sculpture, artist unknown, 1921
Gabrielle Chanel, Cecil Beaton, 1965
'No 5 Culture Chanel' workshop space


  1. Regarding the timing/reason for the exhibit: I would assume that Chanel is always trying to at least maintain the profile of No.5. But I'm wondering if Chanel is trying to make the argument that this scent is so iconic and influential that it deserves some sort of formal cultural designation that would protect it from incoming regulations.

    -- Lindaloo

    PS Thanks for sharing the illustrations, especially the Apollinaire.

    1. Lindaloo, that's a very interesting idea. I suspect that Chanel would refute it - their current official line is that they've found various raw materials which they can use to make No 5 regulation-proof - but you never know exactly where the truth lies in such matters.

      The shape poems are pretty, aren't they :-)

  2. The concept,and the idea behind it seems relevant,but:looking at your photographs,the exhibition seems cold,austere;almost too clinical.I doubt that was what Gabrielle Chanel tried to convey through Chanel No.5.Maybe its just a Parisian thing...Anyway,still am jealous that I cannot attend!:-)

    1. Johanob, you raise a good point. From our perspective, it's probably impossible to guess what she would have wanted. You never know, she might have appreciated the sci-fi ambience :-)


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