Remember when, in Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume, the murderous 18th-century anti-hero preserved the distinct, prized scent of his victims by wrapping them in rags drenched in animal fat? Perfume has moved on since then, but the sensuality and intrigue remain.
Unfortunately, nowadays our experience of perfume often begins on those crowded floors in the lower levels of department stores, or with celebrity endorsements – of Scarlett Johannson pouting and saying, infuriatingly, 'I like my lips... for kissing' (for Dolce & Gabbana, 2011). Last month, Ivanka Trump's perfume became an Amazon bestseller. Selling perfume has become an art of smoke and mirrors – of celebrities peddling metaphors and store assistants armed with cardboard strips.
In the midst of all this, we rejoice that Somerset House is bringing us an intelligent and science-aware exhibition focusing on scent, showcasing fascinating breakthrough examples of contemporary perfume. The exhibition, in the east wing of Somerset House, includes a working laboratory. Gender stereotypes and big branding are done away with, so we can celebrate 'unseen works of art worn on our skin'.
The making of perfume is deeply scientific, but also profoundly artistic and intensely personal. Scent is the hardest of the human senses to crack – it has direct links to our subliminal selves. The brain's amygdala and hippocampus are very close to the olfactory bulb, so smell triggers memory far more immediately than the other senses.
To explore all that perfume is, 10 scents will be showcased in the exhibition, of which five are already announced. They are:
Sécretions Magnifiques – this shocked us in 2007 by presenting the smell of semen, sweat and blood in a bottle. Molecule 01 – launched in 2006 by Geza Schoen, and claimed to enhance the wearer's own natural smell. Not everyone can detect a difference, leading to rumours that it is a placebo. It has one ingredient, and many love it. Purple Rain – this used the scent of iris to bring floral back into fashion in 2015, and is from Prada's Olfactories range. El Cosmico – from D.S. & Durga, this is a 'scent landscape' that supposedly re-creates a portrait of Marfa, a small town in Texas that has become and artists' hub. Charcoal – by Lyn Harris, is from her own venture, Perfumer H, and evokes the scent of a smoky Scottish cottage through a blend of wood, balm and resin, including frankincense, cedar and juniper.
In Somerset House's adjoining lab, you can meet perfumers and create your own 'juice' (we're intrigued), as well as discovering modern techniques. The exhibition is co-curated by 'scent event' organiser Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, who has run, among other events, fragrance tours of the Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelites exhibition.
Look out for talks and workshops on the Somerset House website.
|What||Perfume: A sensory journey through contemporary scent, Somerset House|
Strand, London, WC2R 1LA | MAP
|Nearest tube||Temple (underground)|
21 Jun 17 – 17 Sep 17, Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays 11:00 - 20:00
|Price||£9 - £11|
|Website||Click here to read more via Somerset House|