A bottle of Dior Diorama perfume

Bach for the ears, Picasso for the eyes – Tommy Girl for the nose? Can scent actually be considered an art form?

“By any reasonable and rational definition that applies to an art medium, scent is one – and clearly so,” says Chandler Burr, author, perfume expert and olfactory curator for New York’s Museum of Art and Design.

Burr believes that the olfactory arts belong in museums and galleries as much as they do on a woman’s dressing table. “Works of art must elicit emotion, thought and some reaction,” he says. “At their best they make their audience perceive reality differently than they did before experiencing the work. Works of scent do all these things brilliantly.”

Indeed, while the idea of perfume as an art form is accepted in the Middle East and Asia, the concept is fast gaining traction in the west. The London-based perfumer Illuminum (whose White Gardenia Petals fragrance was chosen by the Duchess of Cambridge for her wedding day) is so devoted to the idea that it even commissioned a “perfume curator”, Anastasia Brozler, for its core collection.

Brozler says, “Thirty years ago, photography or film was never viewed as an art form – and now both are very much considered as such. We feel the same way about scent. The problem is that, historically, perfume was for the elite only, from kings to gods to priests – unlike paintings or architecture, which could be accessed by all.” As such, she adds, there is no universally accepted vocabulary for fragrance: “We are trying to change that.”

Burr, who also publishes a number of intriguing top 10 lists of fragrances (among which you will find Paris by YSL and Chanel No 5 as well as some surprising choices, such as Clinique’s Happy for Men and Hilfiger’s Tommy Girl), often uses artistic terms to describe perfumes: “Guerlain’s Jicky is a work of romanticism – it’s very Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – while Diorama is one of the greatest abstract expressionist perfumes in the world.”

“Obviously perfume is not a fine art, because there is a very tight definition as to what that is, but can it be considered an applied art? That depends on what your definition is,” says James M Bradburne, director-general of Florence’s “cultural laboratory”, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.

“I do believe that someone such as the perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi is a genuine artist because what he does is such a deliberate attempt to provoke.”

A bottle of Guerlain’s Jicky perfume
Guerlain’s Jicky

(In 2010 Villoresi – winner of the 2006 Prix François Coty, the “Oscar” of the perfume world – created a series of “olfactory illusions” for Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition Art and Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe l’Oeil from Antiquity to the Present.)

But might this not also mean that Pierre Hardy’s shoes or Chanel’s haute couture should also be considered as art? And what about Ferran Adrià’s extraordinary cuisine?

“It all depends on where you place the tent pegs when defining art,” says Bradburne. “I do believe that in time the public will come to understand that the intellectual activity of perfume is worthy of recognition as an art form. At the very least, it is owed a critical discussion.”

Don’t count on it, says Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London: “The economist Thorstein Veblen had a theory that people throughout the course of history liked to call themselves artists to elevate their status in life – even if they weren’t.

“There are certainly elements of design in perfume-making but it is not art. However, there is something very technical about perfume – the language, the science and ritual behind it – that, in my opinion, puts it in the craft or design category, in much the same way as cookery.” 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Trudi Loren, Estée Lauder’s vice-president of corporate fragrance development, disagrees: “Your scent memory is so much stronger than sight. That makes it art.” Loren also notes that a perfumer undertakes years of intensive training followed by an apprenticeship. She likens the process to musicianship: “Anyone can take piano lessons but there are few that excel and fewer still that are masters, and that is where the artistry comes in.”

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