Edmond Roudnitska on The Art of Perfume

Roudnitska

“Not all perfumes are works of art (no more that all musical compositions are masterpieces) or incline one to grant them artistic status for the simple reason that they are more and more composed industrially and less and less by professional artists. As a result of this industrialization, which tends to replace true creative perfumers with prolific “mixers” and also vulgarizes the product, we have entered a period of artistic decadence with profit being the excuse for any kind of deformation of the product no matter how blatant” (see the full article here).

This statement by Edmond Roudnitska, a perfumer who was, first and foremost, an artist, inspired me to ponder, if perfume has a status of art, what are the criteria to judge its artistic merits? If the formula is an artwork, can it be reformulated?  Or is it just a luxury commodity good? These are tough questions, and I do not have ready-made answers, however I would love to hear other opinions and to explore this topic further.

If you were to name a fragrance that should have a status of art, what would it be?

Photograph: Edmond Roudnitska, from art-et-parfum.

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45 Comments

  • Octavian: Like in music – melody and harmony would be the first. translated into fragrance I would say the “olfactive concept” / the idea / the message and the way it is expressed, the orchestration. During my fragrant explorations I found many interesting perfumes with very nice accords but badly constructed, badly conducted to the end.

    Then, the originality of both concept and technique. This means that inspiration should be creative not photorealistic.

    Then, the capacity to create emotions and deep feelings. A good smelling composition are “deodorants” or just good smells but one that goes beyond hedonic quality and gives both intellectual and emotional “pleasure” is a fragrance

    After that would be the “morphing” quality – the ability to change its “appearance” and offer different perceptions. Only a complex perfume is able of this, not by the number of the ingredients but by the way they are blended in order to constantly melt into new accords.

    Another quality is about descendents, if it is able to create new paths, directions in perfumery. September 22, 2005 at 3:03am Reply

  • parislondres: Love that statement by ER! Another genius of a perfumer.

    I cannot express as well as Octavian did. Bravo Octavian!

    Like Octavian, I have found that there are various interesting perfumes with perfect notes for me that do not seem to be complete or complex enough for me. Then again I also love simpler perfumes like the ones I have created. They are not complex but pleasant because I love most notes.

    I suffer a lot when testing some new perfumes that sound picture perfect (note wise) and then they just go totally strange, almost out of harmony and they seem to lack the ability to arouse any deep feeling for it. Some of my most favourite perfumes are ones that I think about and these fragrances make me think about things, places, people and are true memory makers. Being a sentimental person, I am drawn to notes (with the exception of Patchouli) that I remember since my childhood till now. It is a journey of sorts when you can identify with some notes or fragrances that remind you of certain times in your life and some that can even help you refresh your memories (good and bad). Some perfumes can therefore comfort me and some make me very uneasy.

    Anyways – about “mixers” – there must be MANY perfumers out there who are not “artistic” enough to get the idea of how to evoke the right emotions or are bound/bullied by large companies who want to make quick bucks with cotton-candy, fruit and bubble-gum flavoured perfumes. 😉 I need to stop now. September 22, 2005 at 4:55am Reply

  • Christina H.: I think that Isabey Gardenia is a old fashioned but still extremely beautiful , elegant fragrance that still qualifies as art. It is a shame it is not readily available here in the U.S. September 22, 2005 at 8:17am Reply

  • Marina: Good question! I think the ones that stood the test of time, the classics, like so many Guerlains and Carons, should not be tampered with. When they are, it is akin to heirs of Tolstoy deciding that War and Peace should be changed a little to suit modern times better. Impossible to imagine, right?
    Of course the answer to your question of what perfume is art and what is mass-produced product would always be very subjective. I don’t have any clear criteria to offer based on which we could judge…but I will say this: Bois des Iles is a work of art and Chance is a luxury (?) commodity item. The same applies to L’Heure Bleue vs. L’Instant.
    My word, Vikochka, this is a lot to ask from your reader this early in the morning 😀 September 22, 2005 at 9:06am Reply

  • Marina: Oh, just read the comments, I couldn’t agree more with Octavian when he says that one of the criterias is the fragrance’s capacity to create emotions and deep feelings. Absolutely! September 22, 2005 at 9:08am Reply

  • Laura: What a thought-provoking essay. I don’t have time to adequately answer your questions, but here are a couple of criteria: the ability to retool reality/the ordinary into something not seen before. Doesn’t have to an earthshaking or shocking Something, just a twist of the world’s kaleidoscope so that a new arrangement of already-seen and known elements is created. I agree that another criterion is the ability of a scent to evoke strong emotion. My votes: Ormonde Jayne’s Ormonde, her Champaca (which I don’t like personally, but ackknowledge it as a work of art), Guerlains’ Vol de Nuit and l’Heure Bleue, Chanel No. 5 and Cuir de Russie, Caron’s Nuit de Noel and several others of that house, many Olivia Giacobetti scents including Dzing, En Passant, Hiris, and others. Jardin sur la Nil almost makes it, but J-C E jettisoned his chances for immortality at the last minute and blanded out that fragrance. Will think more about this through the day. September 22, 2005 at 9:47am Reply

  • Robin: Will vote for anything by ER, of course, as a work of art, and agree with Laura about Ormonde Jayne. Michel Roudnitska’s perfumes are also beautifully crafted. Jean Claude Ellena’s Hermessences, and all of the Frederic Malles. Probably many more… September 22, 2005 at 10:40am Reply

  • Tania: I feel about art the way the Supreme Court feels about obscenity: I know it when I see it.

    I do agree that in the case of perfume, you want to be moved. But I can also appreciate that some perfumes that don’t move me are beautiful (Chanel No. 5, for example), and that I’m frequently moved by something you might consider artless (the sickly odor of rancid ice cream on a grubby favorite nephew’s t-shirt).

    I find it the highest expression of perfumer art when something moves me for no figurative reason at all—it doesn’t cheaply remind me of mom, or of walks I took once upon a time, or of long-lost meals, nothing in personal memory, but instead seems to reach into the actual works of smell itself and seize my attention. I think of perfume as art when it seems to embody something strange and beautiful that I have never smelled before, but once smelled, seems utterly necessary and familiar, as when you hear a melody you’ve never heard before but you feel like you’ve known it forever. Art creates its own ideal, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.

    There is always a wall of snobbery between those who want to say they are artists and those who are considered craftsmen, but that wall is permeable. It’s a necessary fiction to keep up, though, since so much of the artistic act is ego. So let the Roudnitskas rail and rant against the lowly mixers. It’s probably good for them. 🙂

    As for a scent I’d say was art, I’m trying to think of things that grabbed me thoroughly, the love of which I felt in my bones—in my marrow! It’s easy to revere the classics, so something recent…

    Ah! Ormonde. September 22, 2005 at 11:29am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Octavian, the triptych of “olfactive concept” / the idea / the orchestration is definitely how I would envision starting out to answer the question. I think that you captured the essence really well. The question what is art has always been a controversial one. By the way of example, what makes Marcel Duchamp Readymades an art? However, what you refer to as the capacity to stir emotions is central. Of course, it would be different from different people, but nevertheless, art must awaken the emotional response. September 22, 2005 at 11:37am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear N, thank you for such a thoughtful response. Like you, I like various kinds of perfumes, from simple and just pretty to those that are truly works of art. Perhaps, my question is misstated, because perfumery really encompasses both.

    I also begin to understand that it is difficult to judge perfumer’s talent by purely commercial releases, because those do not tend to leave room for creativity.

    Here is another quote by Roudnitska (from the same source), “The choice of a perfume, can only rest on the competence acquired by education of olfactive taste, by intelligent curiosity and by a desire to understand the WHY and the HOW of perfume. Instead, the public was given inexactitudes and banalities. The proper role of publicity is to assist in the formation of connoisseurs, who are the only worthwhile propagandists for perfume.” and it is up to the perfumers to enlighten, orient and direct the publicity agents.” Isn’t it so true?

    Your perfumes are wonderfully creative, and I only hope that you continue making them. Moi Meme is such an elegant fragrance! September 22, 2005 at 11:44am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Christina, thank you for mentioning this fragrance. Your comment definitely prompted me to sample it! I love gardenia, and your mention that Gardenia is old-fashioned only increases my interest. September 22, 2005 at 11:46am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marinochka, yes, to me, tempering with classics is such a contentious issue. Your Tolstoy analogy is spot on. At the same time, one has to recognize that some things have to change, like the use of unethically farmed ingredients, etc. I still feel very sad about the reformulation of certain fragrances, like classical Diors. Diorissimo was my mother’s only fragrance for a period of time, when I was 4-5, and I still remember it vividly. The version I can find today is just not the same. Not to say that it is not worth considering (it is still lovely), but to me, it does not seem to elicit the same emotional response. However, I recently found some vintage Diorissimo, and we shall if it is going to do so!

    Of course, I cannot agree more on Bois des Iles as art! September 22, 2005 at 11:55am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Laura, “retool reality/the ordinary into something not seen before” is a great criterion. I would imagine a number of fragrances that would fall under it. By way of example, Serge Lutens (I know that you do not like any of them, but please bear with me) retool the reality (cedar) into a dramatic composition, emphasizing its unexpected elements. On the other hand, Roudnitska created a perfect lily of the valley in Diorissimo, the scent that is even truer to the essence of lily of the valley than the flower itself, if one can imagine it! September 22, 2005 at 12:06pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, I second everything you mentioned! I will never forget my first experience with Edmond Roudnitska’s creations. I love his writing on perfume as well. What a remarkable individual! September 22, 2005 at 12:13pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tania, merely scratching the surface of memories is not enough. It is the same thing that separates photos I took during a stay in London from Monet’s paintings of the Waterloo Bridge. Both depict the same thing, but one is moving beyond the mere trigger to an emotional response of its own. It creates a new yearning and a new vision, separate from the one it awakens.

    I agree that it is easy to revere the classics. The passage of time is already an indication. Ormonde is certainly a fragrance that would qualify as art. September 22, 2005 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Marcello: Tania said: “There is always a wall of snobbery between those who want to say they are artists and those who are considered craftsmen, but that wall is permeable. It’s a necessary fiction to keep up, though, since so much of the artistic act is ego.”

    In Roudnitska’s case it wasn’t just snobbery… he had very pragmatic reasons to make his point. He desperately wanted to preserve the masterpieces of French perfumery from plagiarism, which he regarded as a serious threat. In the intro to his book ‘Le Parfum’ he urged the French governement to legally recognize perfumery as an art form; that way it would be protected by their national law on artistic property (dated March 11, 1957). September 22, 2005 at 1:31pm Reply

  • Liz: They’re all art. Some of them are great art, some of them are good art, and some of them are bad art. Sorry; I’m a Duchampian. 🙂 September 22, 2005 at 1:37pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marcello, excellent point. In the article, Roudnitska starts out with the reference to the legal status of perfume if it is to be recognized as art. His wife, Therese Roudnitska, led the movement until her death, and his son, Michel Roudnitska, is continuing it. September 22, 2005 at 1:40pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Liz, I welcome a Duchampian! Needless to say, I would not have written so extensively on the topic, if I did not feel that perfume is art. September 22, 2005 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Liz: I think it’s also interesting that Duchamp preferred the word “craft” to “art.” In any case, my feeling is it’s all art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t often terrible. I personally dissociate the word “art” from any judgment of the value of the work of art. People think “art” means “good,” “elevated,” etc., when really it doesn’t carry any value per se (to me).

    But I am getting off track. 🙂 Bandit is my favorite work of olfactory art. Every time I wear it, it plunges right into my depths. September 22, 2005 at 1:48pm Reply

  • Tania: Hmm, interesting about the idea of plagiarism. As I so often do, I will now link to a Malcolm Gladwell article.

    http://gladwell.com/2004/2004_11_25_a_borrowed.html

    Gladwell has had a brush with issues of copying and derivative works, in that a playwright lifted her material for an entire play from one of his (nonfiction) articles, and even took some of the quotes verbatim in creating her own fictional work. But his conclusion, after mulling over the issue for some time, was surprising: he was glad she did it. The play was good.

    I have a stance against over-regulation of copyright. Obviously, what we need is a happy medium in which artists can build on other artists’ work, but they can still make a living selling copies of their own. There’s no bright line test defining what’s plagiarism and what’s fair use or influence, so we are always shuffling around, trying to define it, but there’s no doubt that some great works of art show obvious influence. This applies to all arts, everywhere, IMO.

    The French do seem (if you’ll allow me to make a generalization) quite concerned about the issue of knockoffs. I think I remember reading that they’ll arrest you for carrying a knockoff LV bag. (I’d arrest someone carrying the real deal, but that will only happen in Tania-stan, my imaginary ideal empire.) As someone firmly in favor of the democratization of taste (who loves Pottery Barn knockoffs of hoity toity furniture, Old Navy versions of Marc Jacobs skirts, etc.), I firmly believe the French are being silly. But I also believe it’s a necessary silliness, because *someone* has to put forth the idea that art matters, and is noble, and that originality and skill should be rewarded. Because it’s true. September 22, 2005 at 2:03pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Liz, you are right. The word “art” carries very specific connotations, and I think that Duchamp preferred “craft” in order to dissociate what he did from the established norms. Artist vs. craftsman division must be very old, and while it is artificial in some ways, it is certainly very pervasive.

    Cannot agree more about Bandit. Cellier was definitely an artist ahead of her time. September 22, 2005 at 2:06pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: The discussion is getting interesting! Thank you everyone for such fascinating comments. I am glad that I brought up the topic.

    The protection of intellectual property is an issue that as someone tied to academia I have certain ambivalence about. On the one hand, without any guiding principles and protections, one does not have an incentive to be creative and innovative. If what you produce might be copied straight away, thus diluting the effort, then one would not bother investing much time in the project. However, there are so grey zones. What about the companies that file patents in the developing countries on the usage of local floral for pharmaceutical purposes? Clearly, it is getting a bit off the topic, but still, the point is that it is difficult to create solid boundaries.

    I want to say that art must have some sort of protection, whether it is intellectual (as Tania says, our conception that the skill of creativity must be rewarded) or legal (not being able to develop the historical zones freely, as takes place in many parts of Europe). I am still wondering how it is possible to protect fragrance from being copied. In some sense, many great fragrances possess elements from others. Like Cezanne being influenced by Pissarro. September 22, 2005 at 2:21pm Reply

  • Tania: I’m also reminded of the terrific anecdote told in “The Emperor of Scent,” about how Guy Robert came up with Dioressence—washing his hands with a knockoff Miss Dior soap after handling some seriously primo ambergris. Think of it—without the knockoff soap in the gas station washroom, no Dioressence! September 22, 2005 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Tania: (OK, probably not a gas station, but a washroom nonetheless.) September 22, 2005 at 2:31pm Reply

  • Tania: And P.S. I suspect Duchamp was being sly, because his work is all art, no craft! September 22, 2005 at 2:33pm Reply

  • Liz: Tania, you just reminded me I have to try Dioressence!

    This type of play is crucial to an artist’s development. I believe in protections, but on the other hand not only influence but in some cases flat-out stealing has often been the backbone of great art – influence and appropriation in art have a long and entertaining history. But going back to a 20th century example in Duchamp – I suppose LHOOQ is pretty well-known, in which he drew a mustache and beard on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa – but I actually prefer LHOOQ rasee (LHOOQ shaved) – which is, in fact, nothing more than a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Attributed to M. Duchamp. 🙂

    This makes me laugh and laugh. As long as everyone is appropriately cited and credit is given where credit is due, I say appropriate away, dear artists. Of course, in the world of perfume the artists themselves are often hidden from view, which is unusual and antithetical to the modern idea of the Creative Individual. The world of perfume in that sense seems to exist in a time warp. September 22, 2005 at 2:43pm Reply

  • Tania: Liz, you reminded me I need to buy some Bandit next paycheck. My sample is out!

    Duchamp is always good for a laugh. And a laugh is a rare thing in the artworld.

    Unfortunately, IIRC, the anecdote in TEOS about the creation of Dioressence is immediately followed by an elegy delivered by LT—in that the formula has since been cheapened and it’s not what it once was, at all. I’m on the eBay prowl for vintage Diors, myself. I got a decant of the current incarnation of Dioressence in a swap recently, and it was eh. Just…eh. Belongs in Rite Aid with a $15 price tag. September 22, 2005 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Liz: Tania: I agree, Duchamp was almost always being sly. With nearly everything he said, you can either choose to believe it or you can opt to believe the exact opposite!

    I bought vintage Cabochard on Ebay because of the esteemed Dr. Turin. He has a tremendous hold over the minds, hearts, souls, and pocketbooks of a rather significant number of women, doesn’t he? 🙂 September 22, 2005 at 3:10pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Art that makes you laugh is priceless!

    Speaking of Duchamp, I saw a short film at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Homage to Duchamp (Part I). It was conceived by Yasumasa Morimura, a Japanese artist, who was inspired by both Man Ray and Duchamp.
    Here is a link that talks about the film:
    http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/video/morimura.shtml
    My favourite part is when the artist is lying face down inside a crowded Kyoto mall. People’s reactions to such unconformist behaviour are fascinating. September 22, 2005 at 3:22pm Reply

  • Tania: Now I’m really LOL—I bought vintage Cabochard off eBay a few weeks ago because of that bastard (term of endearment) too.

    Add to list of works of art: Cabochard, as it was.

    Even though every time I see the name, I think of

    1) Cabo San Lucas
    2) swiss chard. September 22, 2005 at 3:25pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: And I just bought some because of you, T! Ok, you made me think of Eau d’Hadrien as Yo Adrian, and now you want me to think of Cabochard as Cabo San Lucas?! September 22, 2005 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Liz: I can’t believe three of us bought vintage Cabo(San Lucas Swiss)chard because of a Lucaism. I am really cracking up here. And of course I remember that particular Lucaism vividly. Vividly!

    That said, vintage Cabo(San Lucas Swiss)chard is pretty fantastic, isn’t it? September 22, 2005 at 3:36pm Reply

  • Tania: Some people are artists with scents. Some people are artists with paints. And some people are artists with stupid nicknames based on truly idiotic word associations.

    Cabo chard: a green leafy vegetable braised in tequila September 22, 2005 at 3:50pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Hey, don’t sell your wit so short! 🙂 September 22, 2005 at 3:58pm Reply

  • Liz: Oddly, that’s a not entirely innacurate description of Cabochard. September 22, 2005 at 4:03pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Yes, I agree. Especially if you envision that mixture inside a fine leather handbag. September 22, 2005 at 4:06pm Reply

  • Tania: Can’t help it. At 4’10”, I can’t very well sell it tall, can I?

    *rim shot* September 22, 2005 at 4:12pm Reply

  • Tania: *gasp* That’s no way to treat a handbag. September 22, 2005 at 4:15pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: LOL! From high art to puns–we have taken this discussion everywhere! September 22, 2005 at 4:16pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: What if it is a LV? 🙂 September 22, 2005 at 4:16pm Reply

  • Liz: Duchamp loved puns! September 22, 2005 at 4:22pm Reply

  • Tania: That’s no way to treat Lenin!

    (inside joke, everyone, please forgive) September 22, 2005 at 5:13pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Clarification: Taniastan is open to those who own LV bags, as long as they do not have logos and as long as they contain Bolshevik texts. September 22, 2005 at 5:30pm Reply

  • James: Posting rather late on this topic about whether certain perfumes are works of art and their compositions preserved immortally. At its face, it would seem that there is a direct comparison to music or visual art. However with fragrance, there is a quality of “familiarity vs. naivete.”

    Unlike a picasso or Dvorzak’s New World Symphony, motifs of perfumes can be infinitely reproduced and become in vogue. Once they are come upon too often, they are hackneyed and lose any allure they once posessed, reformulated or not. I know that once I figure out a fragrance, it can often turn into “white noise” of a lot of familiar scents, which are never quite perceived in the same enticing way. Cases in point: CK One, Abercrombie “Fierce,” Giorgio, Aramis, and sorry to say, Chanel No. 5. Should they be reformulated? No, I would simply say they should be enjoyed alone. August 27, 2006 at 3:44am Reply

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