Just as in naturalistic oil painting, where there is a subjective rendering of an image using non-living material, fragrances are unique combinations of molecules that are not “naturally occurring.” Some call fragrances “abstract” for this reason, but clearly this is nothing like a Jackson Pollock painting (without any representational content) being viewed as a portrait of a person. Even a “photo-realist” painting can be said to be abstract, IMO, because we look at others or objects as they or we move, even slightly, not as they sit perfectly still. What’s interesting is that there is much less disagreement about what constitutes a great oil painting, at least historically, than there is about assessing fragrances, even if we put aside the scents that are meant to be “experimental” or avant-garde. So, for the rest of this post, let’s focus on naturalistic oil paintings and fragrances without deliberately offensive or harsh elements. Of course, one could just say that it’s all a matter of personal preference. Some would much prefer to frame a poster of a Rubens than a Rembrandt and hang it on their walls, for example.
It is undeniable, though, that Rubens was more “linear” (meaning that he thought more in terms of draftsmanship/drawing), whereas Rembrandt was more “painterly. Rubens created a drawing and then colored it, essentially, whereas for Rembrandt the painting was a holistic construction. Moreover, there is research which suggests that Rembrandt had an even deeper understanding of how to make his paintings “work” than even most “experts” knew:
“A University of British Columbia researcher has uncovered what makes Rembrandt’s masterful portraits so appealing.
In the study, published in the current issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s arts and sciences journal Leonardo, UBC researcher Steve DiPaola argues that Rembrandt may have pioneered a technique that guides the viewer’s gaze around a portrait, creating a special narrative and ‘calmer’ viewing experience.
Renaissance artists used various techniques to engage viewers, many incorporating new scientific knowledge on lighting, spatial layout and perspectives. To isolate and pinpoint factors that contribute to the ‘magic’ of Rembrandt’s portraits, DiPaola used computer-rendering programs to recreate four of the artist’s most famous portraits from photographs of himself and other models. Replicating Rembrandt’s techniques, he placed a sharper focus on specific areas of the model’s face, such as the eyes…
‘When viewing the Rembrandt-like portraits, viewers fixated on the detailed eye faster and stayed there for longer periods of time, resulting in calmer eye movements,’ says DiPaola, who is also an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and adjunct faculty at UBC’s Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre. ‘The transition from sharp to blurry edges, known as ‘lost and found edges,’ also directed the viewers eyes around the portrait in a sort of narrative.'”
In perfumery, at some point, there may be scientific evidence that some of the great 1980s fragrances achieved the olfactory equivalent of what Rembrandt did, but in the meantime it sure seems that way to me. By contrast, many recent fragrances seem to be more like paintings by Rubens. There is some sort of underlying “structure,” such as strong iso e super, which perhaps is similar to his drawings that were the basis of some of his paintings. Then there are strong top notes, which one might equate to Rubens’ use of color pigments. Ask yourself if you think Terre d’Hermes is more like a Rubens or a Rembrandt masterpiece, for example.
Clearly, on a “subjective” level, you can prefer Rubens to Rembrandt or vice versa, the same as you can prefer Terre d’Hermes to vintage Red for Men by Giorgio of Beverly Hills. On an “objective” level, we can talk about complexity in fragrances but not much else, because many don’t even understand concepts such as dynamism and “naturalness” is undeniably subjective. Balance is trickier, though food experts think in terms of how a food item might have “spikes;” again, this may be an area that only a few even understand. With oil paintings, one could objectively say that Richard Estes’ paintings are more complex than Rembrandt’s, but fine art is assessed based largely upon historical “breakthroughs” (or else a person who could paint like Rembrandt today, and there certainly are more than a few such people, would be considered “great” and exhibited in all the major museums).
Fragrances aren’t assessed this way because those commissioning the scents are hoping many people will want to wear them; “variations on a theme” are much more common than experimentation. Just as the men’s 1980s “power” fragrances are no longer popular, Rembrandt’s style fell out of favor within the artist’s own lifetime. It was considered too crude! Sound familiar? And this brings us to who is assessing great art or great fragrances. The art in a major museum isn’t there because there was a democratic vote, and it’s not based upon how many posters of a particular artist’s work are purchased. Curators make those decisions. With fragrances, it’s exactly the opposite (with hardly any representation in museums).
In the fragrance would, we have people like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr telling us how great or terrible this or that fragrance is, but such opinions don’t affect sales in any major way (as far as I know), and they don’t decide which fragrances are on the shelves for you to buy. In Rembrandt’s time oil paintings were much more like the fragrance industry is today, it seems. Perhaps one day at least some fragrances will be viewed as fine art by the masses and there will be classes in the history of fragrance, fragrance as art, etc. at the college level. And it may also come to pass that the great (IMO) men’s 1980s fragrances will “get their due.” So, I hope to have furnished some “food for thought” on this subject; obviously, entire books could be written on this subject, and even then I doubt there would be widespread agreement !