Last week several fragrant events took place in Paris during "Les Rives de la Beauté" and I followed them closely, in particular the conference on scents and perfumes given by Annick Le Guérer, the exhibition "Form follows Fragrance" and the conference devoted to the relation between music and fragrances at IFM.
"Form follows Fragrance", curated by Wouter Wiels, was an exhibition of ink drawings done by several designers and based on perfumes supplied by the creative team of Firmenich. The idea was to explore the potential of fragrance as inspiration during the artistic work and the spontaneous graphic expression mediated by odors. The title plays on the famous mantra "form follows function" inherited from architect Louis Sullivan. Firmenich provided a collection of perfumes created for this event, supposed to be the most abstract possible, in order to avoid the interference with familiar scents, emotions and what is called "la madeleine de Proust". Designers, usually working on computer, were facing now the white paper and black ink. It was something called in french "mise à nu". They were given one or several scents, but not names, no descriptions, no explanation of the odor and they did not meet the perfumers before. The idea was to provide a quick and spontaneous reaction based only on the perfume. Some generated the visual sign in less than 10 seconds. There was even one designer who drew with closed eyes and this was meant to cut his visual criticism that would change the form generated through smell. Later, the drawings and the perfumes were presented together.
"‘Form Follows Fragrance’ was inspired by coincidentally cross reading two recent scientific studies on the brain, dreams and perfumes. Starting from the idea that smells have an important influence on emotions and on the creative process in its most intuitive way, beyond any constraints, the designers were asked to react with ink on a white sheet in a spontaneous way."
One of the most particular scents was the creation of Annick Menardo, called "emanation résineuse et boisée à la profondeur mystique". The scent was indeed very profound and smoky, close to the oudh base from Firmenich, with notes of guaiac, incense, vetiver, all burning on an invisible altar of an ancient priestess. Another exquisite representation was "quintessence d'aldéhydes et musc" by Alberto Morillas, a pure soft white aldehydic scent based on several works he did on this theme, starting with an old Armani perfume and ending with his Narciso Rodriguez Essence.
The other scents, also based on contemporary perfumes produced by Firmenich, were created around spicy, green angelica, woody, sweet heliotrope or even the illusion of the famous pastry called Ispahan from Pierre Hermé (a gourmand scent at the limit between fragrance and flavor). The perfumes were presented in drop shaped ceramic bottles with a very long neck. Not all of them were available to be properly tested on blotter and this is a pity for Firmenich because I wanted to insist more on the perfumers and their work, precisely because what is lost for future generations is the scent. They will be able to see the drawings but not to smell or to read a detailed description as we do not know today if Marcel Duchamp's foutain was scented or not in 1917.
Seen together, these 12 drawings look almost like hieroglyphic text or pictorial images of basic signs, though this was not intended. Actually, today there is no specific notation system of odors, visually coded, something that would both transpose a given odor and would be intimately related to its olfactory shape. The GC is to a given scent what the sound spectrogram is to human voice. It says all, less the essential of speech. Alphabet and meaning are something very different than frequencies. When the raw materials of a perfumer will be encoded into "ideograms" (or a system similar to Chinese ideograms) and they will stop being isolate "sounds", this will be translated into the creation of a superior creative language, much similar to what the invention of writing is to literature. The purpose is not to communicate (or to be decoded) but simply to create more than basic associations of scents, through a powerful abstract thinking, expressed through visual signs. Most important of all, its scope is to organize all the molecules into a logic system, beyond the tricky synonyms or chemical names. This type of language and notation of odors will finally reveal the structure of a perfume and consequently protect the ideas.
Back to the idea of the artistic experiment "Form follows Fragrance" it is important to examine it from a pedagogical point of view. This is a type of experiment quite close to the study of forms in Bauhaus where the rhythm of music, the respiration and the rhythm of the body were used to generate visual shapes. It is an excellent exercise to teach the notion of shape and its universal meaning to students. The use of fragrances can be even a more powerful tool because the reaction is immediate and spontaneous. But teaching basic visual design through scents or scents through visual syntax is not enough if there is no method and explanation. Because the scent needs time and volume to express, the idea of a study is more appropriate than mere spontaneity, that reflects only the first approach and not the understanding. A fragrance can be compared to a polyhedron. You can draw it only if you look at it, understand its geometric construction, the number of facets and angles (I'll come back on that with more things on creative thinking and fragrance aesthetics).
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Fragrance is the 8th Art - Octavian Coifan - Le Parfum est le 8ème Art