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