An exhibit that passes the smell test

'Hyper-Natural: Scent From Design to Art' at the National Gallery of Victoria celebrates the artistry of perfumes.

Wall Street Journal

In 1882 perfumers learned to lie, says Chandler Burr. And once they learned to lie, they began to make great art.

Burr, curator of olfactory art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, is here for the opening of his latest exhibition, 'Hyper-Natural: Scent From Design to Art', at the National Gallery of Victoria.

“In 1882 Paul Parquet created the first work of olfactory art,” Burr says. “It was a lie on every level.”

Made for the Houbigant perfume house, Fougère Royale used coumarin, a molecule with the scent of summer hay, isolated from the Central American tonka bean in 1820 and synthesized in 1868.

When Burr speaks of “lies,” he’s not referring to modern marketing’s insinuations that glamour and sex appeal can be sprayed on. He’s talking about the introduction of synthetic molecules in perfume making. For Burr, 1882 is the year the perfume industry ceased to be concerned with simply bottling the essence of the perfect rose, jasmine or honeysuckle, and began to invent new and entirely artificial fragrances. He considers these as worthy of appreciation as any great canvas or concerto.

“[The exhibit] shows you ways in which works of art in this medium are not and cannot be natural,” Burr explains. “Scent only became an artistic medium when it was freed from the constraints of nature. It is a lie, as all works of art are. And that’s the point.”

The naming of Fougère Royale was also a lie. Fougère means “fern,” and the name caused something of a sensation at the time. Since ferns have no scent, how could something smell of ferns? But Parquet asserted that if ferns had a smell, this was what it would be like. The term went on to be used for an entire category of coumerin-based fragrances.

Around us, in the gardens behind the museum, are several white-painted metal columns with large apertures in their sides. These resemble a 1970s imagining of the telephone booth of the future. At each one visitors line up to dip blotters into containers of pure synthesized molecule, inhale, then repeat the process with a classic perfume that has the same molecule as an ingredient.

The first column contains samples of coumerin and of Aimé Guerlain ’s Jicky of 1889, a collection of floral scents transformed into something entirely new by the addition of the synthesized molecule.

Coumerin is featured because it became of fundamental importance to the industry, but others appear simply because of Burr’s fascination with them. “Cis-3-hexenol” he exclaims at another column. “I love that molecule!”

It’s featured in Jean-Paul Guerlain ’s Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca of 1999, which Burr’s accompanying note describes improbably as “the scent of a perfect field cradled in a space station.” If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s also in the nose.

Burr is sniffy about perfume packaging, and even fairly offhand about the design of the exhibition -- he repeatedly says he had nothing to do with it. Although all the perfumes featured, ranging in date from 1889 to 2014, are by the perfume house Guerlain, his interest is in the scent itself and the artist who created it, not in its subsequent branding, packaging and marketing.

Coumerin-led fragrances are mostly sold to men, but Burr is dismissive of categorising works of art as male or female. He derides the practice as an entirely artificial and marketing-led distinction. Claims that perfumes smell significantly different on different people, or that they enhance sexual attraction in some biochemical way, also, in his opinion, stink.

Yet perfumes offer some kind of beauty in a bottle, and since 1882 have apparently been designed for the purpose of attraction -- to turn heads and to convey messages. Doesn’t this purposefulness make them rather different from pure art?

There’s a faint aroma of equivocation in his response. “There are mediums that are hugely colonized by commercial interests and lend themselves to the making of money and are particularly accessible to popular culture.” This doesn’t prevent them from producing great art, he argues. But perfumes are still used in a practical way that hugely commercial cinema, for instance, is not.

For Burr, only the art matters. “Nobody produced a painting without having it for sale, and the person I quote is Johnson who said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ In 20 years I believe that scent will be recognised along with paint and clay and musical notes and so on, as one of the major mediums.”

As Burr looks around with satisfaction at the visitors who are curiously peering into the white columns, perhaps he already scents victory.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal. Reproduced with permission.