Two women lean forward to get a whiff, literally, of the works in a show called “The Art of Scent, 1889-2012”, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York – which turns out to be one of the most stimulating exhibitions in New York in recent times.
Back when I profiled its curator, Chandler Burr, I hinted at doubts I had about the models he was using to declare perfume art, and about his readings of his chosen art works. Now that the show is up, however, most of those doubts disappear. “The Art of Scent” really is a purist’s immersion in the language of perfume – no fancy bottles, no touting of luxury firms or their star clients, little to distract from the opportunity merely to sniff. And it proves that scent is an art form with its own unique rules and dynamics.
For one thing, there’s no such thing as a quick “glance” at a smell, the way there is with an image: It feels as though you’re either truly attending to it, or not. This means that you’re more tempted to return for more and renew the experience than with an image – maybe because the details of an aroma vanish so quickly from your mind and memory. Perhaps because most of us are so undertrained in scents, it feels like there’s a huge amount left to learn about them: The sheer difficulty of smell aesthetics make them that much more compelling. There’s a full language there, waiting to be mastered, and most of us don’t even know its ABCs. (I got a kick out of discovering the cotton-candy overtones in the perfume called “Angel” and the laundry-soap notes in “Drakkar Noir”.)
For someone like me, who lives mostly in the visual arts, the show also teaches an important lesson: Many people are probably almost as much at sea in the language of fine art as I am with scent. It’s also cheering: There seems to be so very much left to say in figuring out this art form on its own terms – more, anyway, than the show’s wall texts let on. Sorry, Chandler, but trying to draw parallels between realism and abstraction in painting and the same ideas in perfume doesn’t elevate the smells to art; it leaves them seeming subservient to the older, better-known discipline. Scents can be discussed, I feel sure, as though humans had only ever known the world through their noses. This show is so fine because it's so little like others we've known.
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