Saturday, 1 December 2012

A Fresh Intake Of Art

On the outskirts of Paris, inside an unassuming building a short distance from the banks of the Seine, a handful of young men and women is huddled over pipettes, weighing scales and bottles of various liquids. They bring thin strips of paper to their noses, close their eyes and take deep breaths. Every now and then, they stop to make notes before dipping another paper strip into a bottle and smelling it.

They are students at the Givaudan school and they’re learning to make perfume. Or to put it more poetically, they’re creating the memories of the future. After they’ve completed their course, many of them will end up formulating the fragrances which will, in decades to come, evoke powerful, visceral responses in people, responses which will conjure recollections of a long-lost grandmother, a first lover or a life-changing journey.

And although these students are aware that they will soon be entering a working environment where commercial pressures are unavoidable and the bottom line is dictated by the need to make a profit, they are never allowed to lose sight of one crucial aspect of their identities: they are artists. They know it, their teachers know it and a few passionate aficionados know it. At the moment, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to share this point of view. But there’s a whiff of change in the air: perfumery is ready to rise above the level of a craft and be recognised as an art form.

Of course, in the egalitarian atmosphere of the 21st century Western arts scene, the question of whether a practice may genuinely be considered an art is seen by many to be redundant. Anything can become art if the person responsible for its creation declares themselves an artist. However, those campaigning for the status of perfumery to be raised would prefer the field to earn the sort of independent, non-partisan approval granted to the fields of painting, music, writing and film making.

Any attempt to include perfumery in the established list of the arts encounters a problem as obvious as it is insurmountable: how does one agree on a definition of art? It would be all too easy to get bogged down by the many criteria and prerequisites that have been offered over the years, but if there’s one factor that unites most of them, it is conscious self-expression. It's generally agreed that a process worthy of being dubbed 'artistic' is one in which an object, exhibition or experience is the result of a decision to give shape and form to thoughts formed in the mind of the artist.

This is the concept which the uninitiated seem to find hardest to apply to perfumery. After all, they argue, if making a fragrance is little more than pouring a few substances into a bottle to see if they create a pleasing effect, how does self-expression come into play?

The truth is that every single perfume starts life as an idea. Some of these ideas may be more complex than others - which may help explain why some perfumes are more complex than others - but they all take shape in the mind as opposed to the lab. Crucially, they go far beyond simplistic notions of wanting to create something that smells ‘fresh’ or ‘fruity’ or ‘sweet’. For instance, they may stem from a desire to convey the clash of two ancient cultures (as in the case of Traversée Du Bosphore with its combination of 'European' florals and 'Asian' leather), to comment on modern masculinity (like Declaration, which tempers traditional 'male' woody notes with gentler, more feminine materials), or even to indulge in some facetious humour (like Lipstick Rose, which never fails to elicit a chuckle with its ingenious juxtaposition of the eponymous flower and the smells of make-up).

Perfumers apply their considerable technical skills to create intricate olfactory representations of these ideas. They use signs and codes to produce specific effects, in the same way that a film director uses a dissolve or a poet uses a caesura. In almost all cases, these codes are detected by people in a manner that is wholly objective: what smells of apples to one person smells of apples to almost everyone. The cumulative meanings of a succession of carefully arranged scents are easier to grasp than most people realise. We decode odours all the time. But perhaps some of us require persuasion to turn this decoding process into an active pursuit so that we can perceive perfumes as more than merely pleasant smells.

Once this basic premise of self-expression is accepted, everything else falls into place: several other arguments in support of perfumery as an art form present themselves with convincing ease.

For instance, perfumers have their own particular styles, not unlike novelists and composers. Indeed, experienced ‘noses’ can usually determine the creators of anonymous compositions by picking out certain distinguishing features. Alberto Morillas is well known for the way he uses synthetic musks (in scents such as CK One or Kenzo Flower). Jean-Claude Ellena (current in-house perfumer at Hermès) imbues his work with a recognisable, pared down transparency. The late Edmond Roudnitska (creator of masterpieces such as Diorissimo and Eau Sauvage) nearly always included a subtle, highly idiosyncratic, stewed vegetable facet in his work. These individuals stamp their own personalities on their labours of love as a painter does on a canvas.

Perfumery reflects social trends and cultural mores in much the same way as other art forms do. The excesses of the 80s saw the success of overpowering, gargantuan scents such as Poison and Giorgio. The more reticent 90s were notable for the popularity of Escape and L’Eau D’Issey. And the current trend for safe, fruity compositions ties in with the fearful conservatism that appears to have descended upon the Western world.

If perfumes can be placed within historical contexts, it follows that they can be judged as products of the times which produced them. They can be evaluated as part of a creative oeuvre. They can be seen to push the medium into uncharted territories or to present familiar styles and stories in unexpected ways. In short, they can be subjected to serious, intellectual scrutiny.

Indeed, the rise of intelligent, carefully considered perfume criticism is perhaps the main reason why scent creation is now in a position to enjoy the status of a bona fide art form. Mainstream sites of art-related discourse have never been overly interested in reviewing the scented wares of Chanel or Dior in the way they evaluate the output of Scorsese or Ishiguro. But the internet - or more specifically, the blogosphere - has permitted a few impassioned writers to create a vibrant online perfume community. Its members engage in discussions as focussed and complex as those on the subject of any other creative endeavour. Through their persistence and intelligence, they provide irrefutable evidence of perfumery’s artistic merits and they have begun the process of persuading the establishment to re-assess the ancient practice of scent creation.

A few forward-thinking souls have already tried to embrace this development. The New York Times became the first large-scale publication to appoint a fragrance critic. The man hired for the job, Chandler Burr, is now the curator of the world’s first Department Of Olfactory Art (at New York’s Museum Of Arts And Design). But these examples are notable for their rarity. The real shift in public perception is yet to come. And when it does, a piece of work such as Pierre Negrin's Interlude Man (Amouage) will finally receive the wide-spread recognition it deserves.

For a start, it will be seen as an impressive technical feat, displaying excellent tenacity, superb projection and a seamless progression from its opening to its conclusion. It will also be viewed as a genuinely interesting, novel addition to the genre of woody, smoke-based fragrances, an attempt to present fiery, burnt notes with unprecedented strength and assertiveness. And finally, it will be admired for its ingenious, olfactory expression of the idea of peace within chaos. It begins with a maelstrom of conflicting odours: tar, plastic and heat. But from the confusion, a quiet pensiveness emerges. Smoke, spices and incense create a contemplative mood, before myrrh and musks provide a subtle, tranquil denouement. The whole acts like a pause - a brief interlude, in fact - within the frenetic madness of modern life.

Regardless of how the outside world perceives their work, those young students hunched over their desks at the Givaudan school will continue to pursue their passion. But at least there's now a chance that, one day, a mainstream critic will view their future output in the same light as the work of, say, Carol Ann Duffy, Grayson Perry or John Tavener. And perhaps, as they sniff another strip of paper, they take some encouragement from the possibility that, before too long, the general public will appreciate the true beauty of their invisible sculptures.

[These thoughts were originally intended for publication elsewhere.]



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