Legible perfume and the visual arts

Isaac : It was a hell of alot better than that… that steel cube. Did you see the steel cube?

Tracy : Oh, yeah. That was the worst.

Mary :  Now that was brilliant to me.  Absolutely brilliant.

Isaac :  The steel cube was brilliant?

Mary : Yes.   To me it was… it was very textural.  You know what I mean?    It was perfectly integrated and it had a… a marvellous kind of negative capability. The rest of the stuff downstairs was bullshit.


Watch this hilarious scene from Manhattan on youtube.

When Chandler Burr said of Germaine Cellier that “her construction of Fracas was the first great Brutalist work of art”, I laughed.  (The term “brutalist” is from the french “béton brut” or “raw concrete”.)  And then I read Denyse Beaulieu’s insightful post on perfume criticism and the visual arts and I realized that comparison to an art movement or a couple of notes is fun… but it doesn’t always help the reader.

In order to save time, I have often reduced complex perfumes to a couple of descriptive words.  In my defense, if the perfume is legible, the short form description works well.  Referring to Clarins’ Par Amour as “cedar-rose” is not far off the mark and most people will understand what Par Amour smells like.  But to describe Guerlain’s Jicky as “lavender-vanilla”… well… I’m not sure we’re being fair to the perfume, the perfumer or the reader.  Jicky is alot more complex than that.

As for long descriptions… I have read posts and marketing copy (and I’m sure you have as well) where you just gotta wonder!  When I read, “it starts with a lemon-orange-grapefruit accord but throughout the day I could smell jasmine, rose, magnolia, hints of honeysuckle and iris finishing off with vetiver, patchouli and several musks, in that order”… well, I just don’t buy it.  Give me a break!  What human being can smell all those notes?  No one I know.  In fact, Australian psychologist David Laing’s study of the human nose and complex scents has shed light on this very subject.  He gave a mixture of 3 or more scents to test subjects and fewer than 15% of the people could identify even one component.  So now I’m weary when bloggers list notes like a grocery list.

And what about the visual arts?   They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Can a picture be worth just 10 notes?  Maybe.  And that’s why I resort to the visual arts alot in this blog.  I like to think that a well-chosen painting or sculpture is more useful than a photo of a jasmine flower… but maybe it isn’t.  For instance, I chose a Baroque masterpiece by Rubens to illustrate how I felt about Chanel’s Coco.  To me, it made sense.  When I think of Baroque, I think of complex, asymmetric compositions… intense, multi-layered colour… diagonal lines and movement.  It made me think of Coco.  But I don’t know that comparing Coco to Baroque art gets an idea across.  If you don’t know what the Baroque movement is all about (or share my description)… it won’t help.

The more I write about perfumes, the more I realize it’s hard work  and I don’t blame Chandler Burr for trying to describe the near impossible in just a few words.  However, when I think back to the brutalist Burnside Hall building where I took my Computer Science 101 course at McGill University, Fracas doesn’t come to mind… or even tuberose scents in general… but it’s an interesting comparison.

One thing I’m grateful for… that perfume criticism hasn’t got caught in Woody Allen’s crosshairs… yet.

Top image : Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan (1979)

Bottom image : Burnside Hall (completed in 1970) of McGill University

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  1. Richard Townson

     /  April 4, 2011

    Well I will now go to bed tonight a bit better informed.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. I didn’t get the “Brutalist” remark either — Fracas definitely doesn’t smell like straight tuberose absolute, and the mentholated aspect isn’t even foregrounded compared to a lot of tuberose perfumes. I think some people find Fracas difficult because it’s so big, buttery, and sweet, not because it’s a “brutalist” composition.

    Still, I appreciate the exercise of trying to assign the great perfumes to artistic schools.

    • Yes… I absolutely agree with you. I think the effort is worth it. And if it brings clarity… then all the better. Science isn’t any better. How many unpublished failed experiments go unnoticed in laboratories around the world. But the failed attempts get us closer to the successes.

      I can’t wear Fracas. It’s that blood note. And the whole raw meat thing. I think I even prefer Amarige because the tobacco distracts me! And I much prefer Poison.

      • I couldn’t believe the amazing stench the first time I bought real tuberose stems and let them turn in my apartment.

        By the way, Manhattan is my favorite movie!

      • Good grief! I can’t imagine the real blossoms.

        I’ve got Manhattan on DVD. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. It used to be a “movie night” favourite… 😉 I still love Mariel Hemingway although I don’t know what she has done recently. And Meryl Streep! And Bella Abzug playing herself. It’s too delicious!

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