Unless you have been living under a perfumed rock for the past five years you would have heard of the work of Chandler Burr, former scent critic for the New York Times and appointed Curator of the Centre of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. You may have attended one of his lectures, eaten at one of his infamous scent dinners or read one of his books such as The Emperor of Scent or The Perfect Scent. These books were my first introduction to Chandler Burr and they opened the doors to an industry that is often shrouded in secrecy. To write The Perfect Scent, he was given access to this secret world to follow the creation of two very different perfumes. One for American actress, Sarah Jessica Parker and the other for French luxury brand, Hermes. At the time Hermes had recently acquired Jean-Claude Ellena, a perfumer Chandler Burr has frequently referred to as one of the greatest olfactory artists of the 21st century. Jean-Claude Ellena was the topic of the talk Chandler Burr gave as guest speaker at Pitti Immagine Fragranze 10, a talk, which continued later that evening during one of his Scent Dinners at Florence’s St Regis hotel.
The title of Chandler’s talk was The Art of Jean-Claude Ellena, A Retrospective: 1976-2012 but the meaning of this talk felt like much more. As the Curator of the Centre of Olfactory Art he has taken on the challenge to change the world’s perception, to view perfume as an art form. In his recent appearances the curator has been chipping away at the public’s perception. Some debate the notion and although many critics say they appreciate perfume as art, it seems Chandler’s beef is that along with such critiques, the perfume is still reduced to a commentary on perfume notes or ingredients. In the critique of an art form like painting, this would be the same as only discussing the colours and type of paint the artist used with no mention of the forms and inherent meaning the artist has created with his or her paint. My difficulty with this lies in the fact that I am rarely given a context in which to appreciate what a perfumer was trying to communicate through scent. When you visit a gallery, the curator provides information separate from the artwork to allow viewers to appreciate the work in context. When you walk into any department store, pick up any bottle of Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana or Hugo Boss and listen to the information the sales person provides you, it becomes apparent that the companies creating perfumes don’t view their product as art. This makes it difficult for the public to then appreciate the item’s artistic merit. Of course niche or artistic perfumers are much more likely to present their work in an artistic context but I feel like Chandler has his work cut out for him.
At Fragranze, Chandler’s talk was set up in an interview style with the audience seated around the stage. The audience was made up of the public, media and industry insiders. Italian perfumer, Laura Tonatto was seated front row and a few rows behind her sat L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bertrand Duchaufour. Perfume guru, Michael Edwards was also present. Chandler frequently referred to him for clarification on perfume creation dates. At one point he laughed, correcting himself after referring to Michael Edward’s work as an encyclopaedia on perfume. “No Michael, you are the encyclopaedia.”
His talk began with the introduction of First by Van Cleef & Arpels. He made the careful distinction of calling the perfume a work of art, the perfumer an olfactory artist, and the brand behind the perfume was the artist’s patron. First (1976) was one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s earlier works and was considered to be the fragrance that launched his career in the world of haute perfumery. What Chandler finds interesting about First is that it felt out of sync with its peers. It does not smell like a perfume from the mid-1970s. To not know First and to smell it blindfolded, one could be forgiven by thinking it was a perfume from the 1920s or 30s. Chandler called it a pastiche as his interviewer questioned him as to why Mr Ellena would make something like this in the 1970s. Musicians were not writing Mozart in the 1970s so why would a perfumer create something so out of vogue with the current time? Chandler replied that Mr Ellena is referring to a past era of floral decadence in perfumery. Chandler cast a visual of red crushed velvet curtains and gold-gilded chairs that are inside the Paris Opera- this sensual experience can be found inside every bottle of First.
If in 1976, Jean-Claude Ellena was looking back, he was looking to the future for In Love Again, a perfume created for Yves Saint Laurent in 1998. Chandler calls this perfume surrealism. Here you have a boldness that smells of bright neon colours. This boldness leads to a question by the interviewer about the place of synthetic raw materials in perfumery. Chandler is quick to respond by saying the exclusion of synthetics in perfumery is similar to an architect only using wood, straw and mud to create buildings. While it is certainly possible, architects embrace the benefits of modern technology finding design solutions from every material made available to them. Similarly, perfumers work with every material made available to them to realise the idea they need to bring to life.
As Chandler discussed each fragrance, paper touches dipped in perfume were distributed throughout the room allowing the audience to smell each perfume as it was being discussed. Next were a number of perfumes Jean-Claude Ellena was commissioned to create for Frederic Malle. A question was raised regarding the relationship between the perfume’s patron and the artist. Chandler talked about the function of a perfume brief and the roles of the marketing department and the perfumer that bring the brief to life. He pointed out that it is not necessary for an olfactory artist to share the desires of their patron. He made a link to Michelangelo; history books show he did not see eye to eye with the Pope. He was an extraordinary artist who simply fulfilled the visual brief given to him by the Pope and he created some of the world’s most famous works of art. The relationship between perfumers and their patrons in niche perfumery is much closer. For Frederic Malle’s Editions de Parfums, Malle encouraged his stable of olfactory artists to develop olfactory ideas they found interesting and innovative. Chandler walked the audience through Angeliques Sous la Pluie, and Cologne Bigarade, a work Chandler described as modernist. It is an invention that modernises the eau fraiche concept. Chandler described L’Eau d’Hiver as abstract expressionism saying it forces you into a place that has no natural references. His comparison was a painting by abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko. This connection to the visual arts lead the conversation in a new direction as the interviewer responded to the fact that you do not wear a Mark Rothko painting, so how does perfume, a product that was originally designed as a functional beauty product, become seen as art? Chandler spoke of how we perceive and interact with art. We can listen to the art of Mozart by wearing headphones connected to an iPod. We can hold a book in our hands and take in the words with our eyes in the way the nose takes in a perfume. The interviewer rephrased her question to say that the intention of someone wearing a perfume may not be to appreciate it as art. Perfume used as a beauty product is used to enhance one’s sense of personality- so can this be considered art? Chandler replied, yes it can. If you go to a dinner party, the host may have works of art decorating their house. They are still considered works of art even if the host of the party is displaying them not as a gallery curator would, but their display is to communicate to visitors about the personal tastes or personality of the host.
Chandler defines art as an artificial experience. Art is the manipulation of the viewer’s senses by the artist. Compare the work of painters, Francis Bacon and Paul Cezanne. Both works are paint on canvas but each art work stirs different emotions in its viewer. To illustrate this point Chandler presented the audience with Ambre Narguile from the Hermessence collection. For this gourmand perfume, Jean-Claude Ellena used a number of synthetic molecules to create a scent of food. Chandler says that Ellena sees his role as an artist is for him to be able to trick you. He tricks the nose into experiencing things that are not real. Under my nose there was only a paper strip soaked in perfume, yet to close my eyes, I could imagine a table setting of honey, spices and candied fruit before me.
Chandler’s talk at Pitti Immagine ended here and I saw him later at the Scent Dinner. I asked him whether he had any plans to hold a scent dinner in Australia to which he replied there had been plans to but no dates had been fixed. At his dinner the tables were a mixture of Florentians and internationals guests, which made a multilingual Chandler jostle between conversations in English and Italian throughout the evening. His chef was Michele Griglio and team from Ristorante Etichetta at the St Regis Hotel. Chandler worked closely with Michele to create a menu that reflected the raw materials and perfumes he wanted to discuss during the dinner. Over six courses Chandler presented a range of perfumes from Hermes, created by Jean-Claude Ellena with the exception of Eau de Mervilles, created by Ralf Schwieger. Chandler commanded the attention of his audience by dispersing a range of paper touches soaked in a variety of raw materials, both synthetic and natural. This lead to the reveal of a perfume built with these raw materials. Next, the presentation of a corresponding dish prepared by the chef and his team. Being vegetarian, Chef Griglio adapted my menu, which must have been a challenge as he maintained the message of the perfume using only vegetarian ingredients. The evening progressed through Eau d’Orange Verte Concentree, to a number of Hermes Jardins and on to Terre d’Hermes. The dinner brought out everyone’s inner nose as Chandler had the tables guessing the material we had been presented with and its origin, either synthetic or natural.
Questioning in this way moved us away from analysing a perfume in terms of its notes, but the reverse; smelling a raw material to see what image it could evoke, then following this chain of thought through to an olfactory work of art. There was a certain element of fun to see the work reinterpreted again into a culinary art form.
After his talk in the morning and now at dinner, Chandler was still being challenged by guests who wanted to debate the idea of perfume as art. He also spoke about his work with the Museum of Arts and Design. In his upcoming exhibition he will have his first artist residency with perfumer Ralf Schwieger. During his residency within the gallery, Ralf will work on a formula commissioned by Chandler. Visitors are able to watch him work, interact with the artist and ask him questions as he works. This level of transparency is currently unseen.
This new exhibition will begin in New York in December with more to come no doubt as Chandler Burr continues his crusade for perfume to be appreciated as an art form.