Estee Lauder’s Dazzling Silver and Chanel’s No 5 share a similar compositional approach. They both play with the notion of an abstract bouquet by using aromachemicals known for their specific nose-tones or qualities, not for any specific floral traits. No 5’s famous aldehydes, Dazzling Silver’s helional. In each perfume, flowers are the start, but not necessarily the goal, and the use of aromachemicals that have no intrinsic floral facets allows for greater abstraction.
This brings me to a nagging point. Is it simply my bias, or is abstraction superior to representation in floral perfumery? Is the olfactory artistry of allusion better than that of mimicry? My own likes and dislikes tell me yes, abstract floral perfumes are better.
But here of course is another nagging point, likely a larger problem with our current discussion of perfumery. Opinion vs. thoughfulness. Who the fuck cares what I think? Terms like better and worse obviously carry more judgement than consideration, and I use them as placeholders until I can concoct something more effective, but I am looking at the efficacy of forms. Is abstraction in perfumery more successful than depiction? I try to keep a degree of disinterest as a check on the fact that I prefer a high degree of abstraction almost universally in art.
Again, my bias, but abstraction seems necessarily to include the audience as a co-creator of work, a collaborator in the creation of meaning in the work. The object of art (perfume, dialogue, movement, painting) is actively considered, modified, discarded, modified by the recipient. Representation alone seems more like a transaction, an attempt to sidestep the complications. Routine theatrical constructions such as the big Las Vegas shows aren’t intended to provoke or to complicate, they are for us to consume and gather as identifiable reference points. Audience members years apart want to be able to discuss a show with the expectation that they effectively saw the same thing. Interestingly even these Las Vegas shows, through strict repetition and adherence to set choreography, have taken a fairly abstract form such as acrobatics and turned it into performed hard data. The show is executed and the audience is witness. It is performed correctly or incorrectly (a fall, a missed cue, a stumbled entrance.) The meaning created by audience members is that of a tourist who has seen a site discussing the experience with someone who saw the same site a few months later.
So what does this mean for perfumery?
I’ll leave that question out there for now, throwing in just one last bit to be my own devil’s advocate. Fracas, held out as a definitive soliflor, is both beautiful and thought-provoking. It is also a categorical example of representation in perfumery. Beyond Paradise shows a mind-shaking degree of targeted abstraction in its construction, yet requires as little thought on the part of the wearer as a Glade plug-in.
The complication of these two perfumes is that, as far as perfume criticism goes, form is easy. The real motherfucker is intention. How can we distinguish intent, as a product of the mind of the perfumer, from function, which arises from the creation of a commercial product?Germaine Cellier gave us Fracas, a supposed flower, yet it remains a puzzle to perfumers and wearers 65 years later. Beyond Paradise purports to be an ode to beauty with flowers as muses, yet given its use of abstraction in design, is ultimately little different than the scenting of laundry soap.