Author, campaigner, critic and curator, there is no more tireless advocate for perfumery to be regarded as the ‘olfactory art’ than Chandler Burr.
His 2003 work ‘The Emperor of Scent’ charted the origins of Luca Turin’s theories on the functioning of human sense of smell. In his 2005 article for The New Yorker he followed Jean-Claude Ellena’s year-long creation, in Paris and Grasse, of ‘Un Jardin sur le Nil’ for Hermes.
Out of the piece grew his next book ‘The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York’, which captures not only Ellena’s creative process but also the actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s involvement in the first perfume to bear her name ‘Lovely’.
Between 2006 and 2010 Chandler served as The New York Times’ perfume critic, a move the paper’s style editor commented placed its coverage on a par with “the way it does movies, books, and theater.”.
Chandler left ‘The Times’ in 2010 to take up his current position as ‘Curator of the Department of Olfactory Art’ at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City.
His first curatorial presentation in the role: ‘The Art of Scent 1889-2012′, displayed twelve significant fragrances that in some way altered the development of the form, from Aime Guerlain’s Jicky in 1889 to Daniela Andrier’s Untitled created in 2010, placing the perfumes in the context of some of the major artistic movements of the period.
Running from November 2012 to March this year it was, according to MAD, “the first major museum exhibition to recognize scent as a major medium of artistic creation”.
With the catalogue of ‘The Art of Scent’, complimented by samples of the dozen featured scents, still available and the second season of his ‘Untitled Series’ on Open Sky just about to begin, The Perfumed Dandy was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Chandler Burr: first gentleman of scent.
You once wrote “You have to, I think, start out understanding that there is no such thing as a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine” fragrance’ . Is it too strong to say that the ‘gendering’ of fragrances is a sort of fraud perpetrated by marketeers, persuading people that certain smells belong to men and others to women?
Fraud is too strong a word to my mind. It’s purely a marketing tactic, and it’s an extremely effective one. It works amazingly well.
It gives (I’ve said this so many times, but) straight English-speaking men the psycho-emotional permission they need to wear scent. And that’s important.
I wondered in particular whether in your view the ‘marketing trick’ of creating ‘pour homme’ had, as well as giving Anglo Saxon men the permission to wear scent also put some notes or accords artificially ‘off limits’ to them?
Absolutely, though not so much accords as materials or tropes.
No roses for men, no florals in general, and no sugary candyfloss.
Just as women can wear pants and ties, the marketing puts virtually nothing off limits for women except for the metallic lavender deodorant trope. Otherwise, whatever women want. From the marketers’ point of view, women aren’t the problem.
In the ‘Untitled Series’ you strip away the publicity, the gloss and glamour, associated with fragrances allowing us to experience them ‘naked’. What are the distractions of the ‘selling’ process that prevent one appreciating a scent as intended?
Take as the analogy the art market, specifically painting. Painters are, if they’re successful (but even the promising debutants) represented by galleries, who market them, talk about them. They create excitement about them. They place them with prestigious clients. They manufacture artists’ reputations, and artists like Murakami and Hirst and so on, sell by their brands.
But ultimately the paintings stand on their own. Perfumes must as well.
The perfume brands are merely acting as the gallerist representatives. In many cases the representation is necessary to present the work correctly to the maximum number of potential clients . We switch here from the painting-perfume analogy (given that with paintings there are usually either one or a limited series) to film-perfume analogy, as both are made in hundreds to millions of copies, and the representation of the works needs to apply to the nature of the artistic medium.
I think in both films and works of olfactory art the representation frequently obscures if not hurts the work. But there’s no perfect system.
‘Celebrity fragrances’ seem to be the opposite of the anonymity of the ‘Untitled Series’: perfumes that exist by dint of association with the famous. Yet, as you point out in ‘The Perfect Scent’ this needn’t lead to an awful fragrance. In the book, Sarah Jessica Parker’s commitment to creating ‘Lovely’ is made absolutely apparent. Is it this involvement that’s the secret to getting a ‘celebuscent’ right?
In my experience the answer could be getting the participation of the celebrity, but only if the celebrity has good taste. Big if.
The other variables are getting a talented artist, giving them sufficient money to create something great, and having a creative director with vision, talent, and patience.
With these three you can take the celebrity out of the equation completely. And even with the celebrity you probably need them.
And there are other variables: for example the celebrity having an agent smart and tenacious enough to sell their client’s license to a serious licensee that’s truly invested in creating something great for them.
Even with all this, everything can go wrong at any point.
Oh, I forgot: you need the marketers to represent the scent correctly…
Interviewed on Scents Memory, you set out your view that ‘olfactory appreciation’ should be a mainstream subject, like musicology or art history. I wondered if you’d ever given thought to what a course might look like… would it be chronological, chart out the major movements or concentrate on the ‘canonical artists’ perhaps?
I’ve in fact given those future courses a lot of thought, in part because I love to teach.
I was an English teacher for 10-12 year olds in rural Japan for a year and fell in love with them, which is what led to my (finally) adopting two boys from Colombia in late 2011.
The courses will be fascinating. I love courses in art, both the visual arts and music, and courses in scent would be extraordinarily interesting.
You’ve named the two fundamental intellectual and aesthetic structures of art history classes, or rather the one structure, as I think they are two sides of the same approach: chronological via the major stylistic movements and study of the canonical artists.
The art critic Blake Gopnik (right), who did a profile of me when ‘The Art of Scent’ opened, made me think about something I find very important and, at the same time (and I both like and admire Blake; he’s a serious, brilliant thinker about art) provided a virtually paradigmatic example of the incomprehension of olfactory art that will face the early professors teaching the medium.
It’s the same reaction as that of students and the public when departments of art history began teaching photographs, which art historians had only recently recognized as works of art. Here’s Blake approaching olfactory art for the first time:
“After several hours of smelling [a range of perfumes], and for all Burr’s proselytizing, the range of experience on offer still seems smaller than in some other art forms. It’s as though all of visual art were limited to the kind of expressionist abstraction that’s all about emotion and vague hints at the world—to paintings that buy into the old-fashioned sensual model that still rules the aesthetics of perfume. But of course fine art can be full of content as well. Artists can draw or paint or snap pictures—or make films and videos and installations—that talk, directly and with force, about almost anything that humans can think about. Artists can go for the wildly scatological or the emphatically political; they can craft experiences that work below the belt or speak to our most abstract mental capacities; they can please, but they can also enrage or disgust. Whereas most perfumers make expensive stuff that smells more or less like perfume.”
He perceives all perfume as abstract. And as vague. And to Blake it all smells like… “perfume”… and the definition of perfume is “expensive stuff”.
To him, there is no difference between Antoine Lie’s technically masterful and brilliantly figurative ‘Wonderwood’, which more beautifully and more viscerally captures wood than any of Blake’s visual mediums could ever hope to, and Lie’s ‘Sécretions Magnifiques’, more scatological and political than any video or installation could hope to be.
As for the visual arts’ power to speak to “our most abstract mental capacities” or to enrage and disgust? Please. The absolute incomprehension of new artistic mediums—and ironically Blake is a huge champion of other new mediums—will simply recede with time, education, and being faced with works of art that are, by all these measurements, as great as, and indeed in some ways much greater than, any others.
Where Blake made me rethink my curatorial approach in ‘The Art of Scent’ was by challenging me with his very different intellectual and aesthetic framework for perceiving, experiencing, and valuing art.
Blake finds the (my) traditional art historical framework as extremely limited; it starts (I start) with the era and its politics, styles and values, only then looks at the artists within that culture and time, and finally analyses their art as generated by their era.
“Why does art have to come from an era?” he asked me recently on the steps of his brownstone in the West 40s. “I find it much more interesting and productive to engage with art as progenitor, as instigator, not merely reflection, of an era. Art forms”.
It turns the traditional way in which I approach art on its head.
While it took me a bit to rethink this (the meaning of a “school” can be deeply changed with this approach), I agree, as I think we all would, that Drakkar Noir was less an astonishingly important reflection of the rapidly growing influence of the post-war industrial and technological impact on our lives than it was an actual generator of the way we approached industry, its products, and its effects.
Our era generated this work of art. But arguably this work of art even more profoundly remade us.
On the role of artists, the catalogue for ‘The Art of Scent’ lists the fragrance followed by the artist who created it, the house that commissioned the scent reduced to simply having ‘lent’ it to the exhibition. Will it be the norm one day to talk of Oliver Cresp’s Angel or Bernard Chant’s Aromatics Elixir without mentioning Thierry Mugler or Estee Lauder?
Up to the 1950s, stars moved on screens, speaking lines, and the movies were merely the contexts in which we watched them.
After the mid-1950s’ New Wave Cinema and the auteur theory of director François Truffaut and The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, we spoke of works of art and we spoke of films.
The movies still exist. They’re commercial, and we go to see George Clooney’s handsome face, cf ‘The Ides of March’. But films also exist now, and we go to see the artistic creations of director Terrence Malick. (These can be great works of art: ‘The Tree of Life’, or disasters: ‘To The Wonder’.)
In the future, we will buy perfumes because of the brand Michael Kors or because they star Beyoncé. And we will buy works of art because Olivier Cresp and Bernard Chant made them. See under: auteur theory.
An exhibition at a major institution like MAD must have been a vindication of your work for perfume to be regarded an art form. When the moment came to select the fragrances, did you feel the hand of history on your shoulder? Did you know instantly what you would choose?
It damn well was a vindication and, of course, at the same time a challenge to everything I’d ever proposed for the past five years in The [New York] Times.
The list of works changed constantly over a year, maybe year and a half. It drove me crazy. The selection of works in the next exhibition probably will as well. That’s the job.
In Britain we have a radio programme, ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which the guest is asked to imagine themselves stranded alone with only eight pieces of music to keep them company. A fellow blogger has started asking people from the world of perfume which eight scents they would take… would all of yours come from the selection you made for the show?
I love ‘Desert Island Discs’.
To answer the question, my own eight would not, by any means, all come from ‘The Art of Scent’.
Remember that my curatorial criterion there was specific: “works of olfactory art that had fundamentally advanced the state of the art either aesthetically or technically.” That’s completely different from “scents I love to wear just to smell them”. ‘Vetyverio’, a work Diptyque commissioned from the artist Olivier Pescheux, does not meet the criterion of fundamentally advancing the state of the art. It is a work I just love, one that I fall into whenever I can.
On the ‘perfumes that got away’, I can’t help noticing that there’s a long gap between Jicky in 1889 and L’Interdit in 1957 in terms of the fragrances you chose for the exhibition. To borrow your art historical theme, why no Post-Impressionist or Cubist scents? Were those seventy odd years really that fallow?
There are fewer works at the start of the period covered by ‘The Art of Scent’ (1889 to 2012) because there were far more technological and aesthetic changes and thus new schools arising in the second half of this period than in the first.
Moreover not all schools are represented, or equally represented in an important way, in all mediums. Schools are often important in one medium in one period and in another medium in a completely different period.
There may be no more famous example of the Ashcan School than George Bellows’ ‘Both Members of This Club’ (1909), it’s an extraordinary painting, beautiful violence and ugliness, and it would be extremely interesting to compare and contrast its aesthetics with a work of olfactory art from any period, but it wasn’t necessary for me to put the school in ‘The Art of Scent’. And I didn’t.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your reference points relate to the visual arts, do you feel perfume is particularly connected to painting or sculpture, more so than say music or literature?
Not at all. It may be more analogous to music in a majority of ways. Maybe I just feel painting is more accessible? I’ll have to spread out the mediums more. Actually I feel like I use architectural references a lot.
You’ve mentioned before that ‘The Art of Scent’ might tour in the future, and in the meantime we have the catalogue, but in your ideal world would you like to see a major museum create a permanent suite of ‘perfume galleries’? Is there an institution that you would like to lead the way?
If the Met, the Louvre, the Tate, the Fondazione Prada, the Mori, the Hammar, or any others of this calibre, were to create permanent collections of works of olfactory art, it would be terrific. It’s a project for the future. At the moment I’m working on my next exhibition.
Are you in a position to say anything more about that next exhibition?
I’m not unfortunately. I’ve proposed four completely different exhibitions, and we’re looking at all of them at the moment.
Well dear readers, it was worth a try… we shall have to wait to discover what Chandler and MAD have in store for us with the second of their scented exhibitions.
For now I would like to extend my wholehearted thanks to Chandler for being such a fascinating interviewee and taking the time to answer my questions.
The Perfumed Dandy.
To learn more about Chandler and his various projects, including where to buy ‘The Art of Scent’ catalogue and join the ‘Untitled Series’ simply click on any of the links in the article, there’s also that intriguing profile of Chandler by the art critic Blake Gopnik, that’s worth a peek.
My conversation with Chandler is one of a series with a number of bloggers organised by the inimitable Lanier of Scents Memory. Do look out for the others in the project which will be appearing over the weeks ahead at:
Australian Perfume Junkies: http://australianperfumejunkies.com/
Smelly Thoughts: http://smellythoughts.wordpress.com/
Another Perfume Blog: http://anotherperfumeblog.com/
What Men Should Smell Like: http://whatmenshouldsmelllike.com/
The Scented Hound: http://thescentedhound.wordpress.com/
The Fragrant Man: http://thefragrantman.com/
Oh and do take the time to check out ‘Desert Island Sniffs’ over at the wonderful abode of The Candy Perfume Boy.