Sunday, 18 September 2016

Semiotic Spritz Part 7: Estée Lauder's Modern Muse: Ma Muse M'Amuse


The possibility of an olfactory aesthetic has long been denied by Western philosophers. For Kant, smell (olfactus) and taste (gustus) belonged to the order of the ‘lower senses’ – bestial, primative and subjective modalities. By contrast, touch (tactus), hearing (auditus) and above all, sight (visus) he characterised as ‘higher senses’, their supposed objectivity suiting them to universal judgements of aesthetic value arising from the free play of the imaginiation.
This aesthetic privileging of the visual and auditory was, of course, not new even in Kant’s time. Allied to our culture’s deeply rooted oculocentrism is an ontological argument that positively relates status with temporal extension. Thus, olfaction is absent from the sensorium associated with the five fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry – its sense objects being highly ephemeral and incapable of enduring as artistic works.
Kant however, went beyond merely perpetuating this ancient heirarchy. He drove the wedge between the lower and the higher senses yet deeper by articulating a distinction between the merely agreeable (ideosyncratic) and the beautiful (universal); in his conception, aesthetic judgements as concerning pure beauty are devoid of individual interest and give rise to an apprehension of “Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck” (‘purposiveness without purpose’), something smell, which is so intimately connected with the intimate, can never produce.
Kant’s ideas (bridged by Hegel) constitute the foundations of modern aesthetics and more than two centuries later, it is notable that there have been few serious attempts to challenge him in relation to olfaction.
Exceptional was Edmond Roudnitska, creator of the totemic Eau Sauvage (Dior, 1966) and Femme (Rochas, 1943) and author of numerous articles and books including Le Parfum (Presses Universitaires de France, 1980) in which he sets out a manifesto for an an olfactory aesthetic. Having posed the question ‘what are the criteria for a work of art?’, Roudnitska sought to demonstrate how perfumery satisfies Etienne Souriau’s five imperatives before concluding ‘La composition des parfums est l’art abstrait par excellence’ (p.99).
If the Art world yet remains largely unresponsive to Roudnitska’s arguments, his assertion that perfumery can attain to the level of Art has nevertheless found a receptive ear among advertisers. This is illustrated by Estée Lauder’s 2013 publicity for its fragrance Modern Muse:
Shot in the the spiraling interior of the Soloman R Guggenheim Museum, Craig McDean’s image carries a clear echo of Roudnitska’s thesis, situating perfume in an artistic sphere whose Modernity contrasts with the Classicism evoked in Gucci’s L’Arte advert of the early '90s. Although formally depicting the Χάριτες, the Imperial Roman sculpture represented in the latter served as inspiration for Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 1807 work The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon, thereby setting up an intriguing dialogue between the two texts.


Like the Charities, the Μοῦσαι constituted a group of minor goddesses of variable composition. The Muses were also considered to be the source of inspiration and knowledge for certain of the sciences and arts, including astronomy, history, dance and poetry. Later, they became shorthand for artistic inspiration in a general sense, thus allowing Lauder to place perfumery under their influence.
Visually, this elevation of perfumery is reflected both by the (aptly named) model Arizona Muse’s upward gaze and by the downward rays of light suggestive of divine illumination. Frank Lloyd Wright famously conceived of the Guggenheim as a ‘temple of the spirit’ and here the religious connotations dovetail with a linguistic play on the etymological link between Muse < Gr. Mοῦσα and museum < Gr. Μουσεῖον meaning ‘seat of the Muses’. Meanwhile, Ms. Muse’s hand-to-temple gesture (that not-so-subtly turns her arm into an arrow pointing towards the product) recalls for us the common assumption that Mοῦσα is to be connected with the Indo-European root *men- ‘to think’. Muse the perfume then, is inspired, artful, thoughtfully fashioned; in short, everthing other perfumes sold with images of semi-naked, lustful bodies are not.
Of course, Lauder’s positioning does nothing to further the actual debate and other industry voices, including those of perfumers like Francis Kurkdjian1, will continue to insist that what they do is not Art. Perhaps then, what is needed to move the discussion along is a reframing of the issue. For this, we could do much worse than follow the suggestion of Grayson Perry who, in his 2013 Reith Lecture, argued that the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘is it Art?’ but rather ‘is it any good?’.

[1] “It’s a very romantic vision of creation — the tortured artist — but perfume is not art. You can have an artistic touch doing it, but it is not an art. Even if you try to infuse it with uniqueness and creativity, at the end of the day, perfume is a commercial product.” Interview with Francis Kurkdjian, 4/2/16 published at: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-life/luxury/exclusive-a-chat-with-the-my-burberry-perfumer-francis-kurkdjian (accessed 18/9/16).
Perfumer Annie Buzantian has similarly rejected the ‘Art’ tag, insisting what she engages in is Craft. See Cathy Newman’s work “Perfume: The Art and Science of Fragrance,National Geographic Society, 1998, p.116.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Balenciaga Pour Homme Review


Launched in 1990, Balenciaga Pour Homme is a spicy, aromatic fougère that smells every bit its 26 years (and then some).
A larger than life fragrance that’s bursting with character, BPH opens with a riotous mix of dark chocolate, soapy aldehydes and bergamot that links to a spicy, herbal heart dominated by patchouli and incense. The affinity with Y.S.L.’s Kouros is most keenly felt at this stage, though it lacks the darkness that the costus heavy Animalis base lends the latter, while acquiring a powderiness that’s its own. Sweet, oriental balsams including labdanum augment the patchouli’s natural ambery side, whilst pale woods and moss consolidate the powder in the perfume’s base.
As expected, Balenciaga Pour Homme is immensely tenacious and radiant.

Nose: Gérard Anthony
House: Balenciaga
Release date: 1990
Notes (per Fragrantica): coriander, bergamot, laurel, cardamom, cinnamon, galbanum, pepper, thyme, cedar, patchouli, sandalwood, cypress, oakmoss, musk, vanilla, honey, labdanum.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Frangipani Review (EdP)


When Arctander wrote his entry on the Frangipani/Plumeria blossom in 1960, commercial quantities of the flower’s concrete were unavailable. Until this situation was remedied, he lamented, ‘the “Frangipanni” perfume must remain a fantasy type with little, if any, relationship to the fragrance of the beautiful and delightful Plumeria flowers’. 
To judge by Ormonde Jayne’s Frangipani, not much changed in the half century that followed for the perfume is an unconvincing portrait of the Plumeria’s scent. Schoen’s composition starts out sharp, waxy green in the direction of Octanal from underneath which develops a lactone heavy, white floral complex rendered sheer with Hedione and supported by light woods and musks. 
Overall too green and not nearly heady enough to transport me back to my days living in the tropics. 

Nose: Geza Schoen
House: Ormonde Jayne
Release date: 2003
Notes (per Fragrantica): lime, linden blossom, magnolia, frangipani, rose, tuberose, water lily, plum, amber, musk, vanilla, cedar. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Dr. Vranjes Terra Review


As the global air care market continues to grow (scented candle sales in the UK alone are now said to exceed £90 million p/a), fragrance companies are ever looking for new opportunities to expand their reach. Whilst niche houses such as Diptyque have long offered their customers the opportunity to match their own perfume to their home’s, the recent announcement by Thierry Mugler of a new line of scented candles, including their most iconic perfume Angel, marks a new era. 
At £39 for the 6.4 oz wax version of Angel and Alien and £49 for the others, Mugler have positioned themselves at the lower end of the premium candle market. Yet, for all my admiration for Angel, it would have to be the sole surviving candle in the wake of a power grid collapse for me to put flame to its wick.
Which brings me to Dr. Vranjes’ home fragrance Terra. The company describes Terra’s scent as including notes of ‘Syberian (sic) Pine, green brush musk, Occitan lavender, vanilla, wild mint leaves’. I however, experience the fragrance as a mix of bright, terpy incense with woody, green accents and warm, oriental balsams and vanilla.
Available as a room spray and as a reed-diffuser, the blend works exceptionally well: in its diffuser form, throw is sufficient to comfortably scent an average-sized living room; the evaporation rate is very acceptable: a 250mL bottle lasts me around five months; and the supplied bamboo reeds do not clog with resins. The faceted, clear glass bottle with white labelling meanwhile, makes an elegant addition to the mantelpiece.
Price is also £49.
Sorry, Mugler.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Boy Review


If asked five years ago which perfume line I most admire, I’d have unhesitatingly said Chanel’s Les Exclusifs. In it, classical masterpieces like Cuir de Russie and Bois des Iles sat, reformulated but recognisable, alongside creative success stories such as Coromandel. Recent releases however, have given me pause for thought: Jersey, I felt, was too apologetic (and for all the wrong reasons); 1932 too self-referential (as a Chanel perfume). Now with Boy, it seems that the very polished aesthetic Chanel has come to define itself by may well be undermining its potential for future greatness.
As openings go, Boy’s strikes me as actually somewhat unpleasant and includes a mix of fresh, methyl pamplemousse-type grapefruit and waxy, green, lower-numbered aliphatic aldehydes. The latter  help introduce the geranium themed floral heart that complements a classical fougère accord. Rather than being a glossy, bright geranium however, the one offered here comes in a powdery, pastel hue and is supported by a host of musks, sweet heliotrope and vanilla, a little, grainy Evernyl-like oakmoss replacer and light, sandalwood-ish woods. Advertised as an EdP, I found Boy to wear fairly close to the skin and have only average longevity; once the lavender notes faded, it was rather a linear, sweet-powdery-floral affair. 

Nose: Olivier Polge
House: Chanel
Release date: 2016
Notes (per Fragrantica): lavender, lemon, grapefruit, rose, geranium, orange-blossom, sandalwood, heliotrope, vanilla, musk. 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Lentisque Review


A woody-green composition, Lentisque starts off with the crisp, verdant tones of galbanum allied with some weedy, balsamic notes courtesy of mastic oil. To the perfume’s (and perfumer’s) credit, it transitions smoothly to a lightly smoky vetiver fragrance that’s underscored by some dessicated, pale, cedary woods. Overall however, there’s little here to excite.

Nose: Pierre Guillaume
House: Phaedon
Release date: 2013
Notes (per Fragrantica): lentisque, galbanum, labdanum, woody notes, cedar, vetiver.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Allure Homme Sport Cologne Review


Confusingly named flankers and re-launches aside, Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport Cologne 2016 is a nice take on the genre that opens with a mandarin fronted citrus accord which has a pleasantly tart, pithy, green and lightly spicy quality as well as a natural freshness that avoids several ‘sport’ clichés. With no distinct heart-notes to speak of, what’s left of the fragrance after the above disappears is a monolithic, Iso E Supery- powdery- hot iron- starchy musk base that smells modern, clean and fresh. 

Nose: Olivier Polge
House: Chanel
Release date: 2016
Notes (per Parfumo): sicilian mandarin, lovage, elemi, cedarwood, amber, white musk.