November 2, 2012 6:29 pm

On the scent of the masters

A new exhibition showcases the great perfumers
A photo of Aimé Guerlain

Since the Metropolitan Museum’s Alexander McQueen show, it has been clear that fashion is a viable – and lucrative – subject for a museum show. But what about fragrance? Now, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design will test the hypothesis with “The Art of Scent”, a showcase of 12 great perfumers and their works.

Holly Hotchner, the museum’s director, says it will be “the first major museum exhibition to explore olfactory art as a distinct and individual medium – to position it alongside the fine arts and design”. She explains that, “Olfactory arts became a full-fledged artistic medium more than a century ago ... with the innovative use of synthetic molecules to achieve artistic effects – when Aimé Guerlain created Jicky, the first great work of modern perfumery, using synthetic molecules.”

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The show might sound like an ambitious attempt to create a fragrance hall of fame but curator Chandler Burr, author of several books on perfume, disagrees. “Everyone knows de Kooning and Rembrandt ... but they don’t know the great olfactory artists,” he says. “That, more than the works of art themselves, is the point.”

Burr also aims to contextualise the perfumers and their work by placing them within “aesthetic schools”. He resists the temptation to rely on the immediate glamour of packaging, decorative bottles and advertising, opting for something more pure and minimal. Each fragrance, for example, is presented via an atomising machine built into the gallery walls; all that the viewer sees are indentations.

This is not the first perfume exhibition or museum – precedents include the Osmothèque in Versailles, which is both perfume museum and research library, while French perfume brand Fragonard has established museums in Grasse and Eze in the south of France, as well as in Paris. But it is the first in a major publicly funded space, with Burr hoping that “people will now know the names of noses such as Annie Buzantian, Jacques Cavallier and Ernest Beaux – and why they are great artists.”

‘The Art of Scent 1889-2012’ from November 13 at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design www.madmuseum.org

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