February 17, 2015 Repository 169: Perfume No. 31 | How to Scent an Exhibition Posted In: exhibition of note, olfactory art


I just received a package of reconnaissance for my ongoing scent, parfumerie and all things alchemical project. The most intriguing was a recent “art exhibit” fragrance launched by JCrew. They did not go the anemic grass and floral bomb route as other mid-tier retailers have done in the past. Instead they went a more intellectual route by collaborating with a fragrance boutique “Arquiste”, and based the fragrance on the “Exhibition by 31 Women” by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943.

That’s right, a fragrance inspired by the very first modern art exhibit in the United States featuring only women. Awesome!!! Apparently the marketing discussions were around JCrew’s female customer who they see as well-traveled and loves art. Fair. So Peggy Guggenheim came up of course as a role model.

In the high-anxiety time of WWII, Marcel Duchamp gave Peggy the idea to host an exhibition of only women artists. She agreed and had her husband at the time (Max Ernst) do studio visits, one of which was Dorothea Tanning (whom he later married). The women in the exhibition were selected by a jury consisting of Peggy, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jimmy Ernst, Max Ernst, Putzel, James Thrall Soby, and James Johnson Sweeney.

A partial list of the 31 women included in the exhibition:

Djuna Barnes (Portrait of Alice)

Leonora Carrington

Buffie Johnson

Frida Kahlo

the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (a self-portrait)

Louise Nevelson

Meret Oppenheim

Irene Rice Pereira

Kay Sage

Hedda Sterne

Dorothea Tanning

Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Xenia Cage (then married to John Cage)

Peggy’s sister Hazel

Peggy’s daughter Pegeen Vai

Barbara Reis

Now back to the “No. 31” perfume JCrew just launched. “Arquiste” is the brand name for Carlos Huber’s perfumes. He is a trained architectural preservationist, and a very handsome young man. I read about his fragrance efforts and found the concept of marrying history with fragrance was sweet. If not obvious. How can you not love a fragrance attempting to evoke a winter dual in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1837??

So now they are using a woman’s art exhibition as marketing. OK. The focus has turned instead on the party though, and not the artwork or the artists. On JCrew’s web site they declare the inspiration as the “party of the decade” that was this exhibition.  The fragrance is supposed to evoke some bold perfumes the artists were wearing at the time, and have notes of “red vermouth, Bulgarian rose and patchouli.” Hmmm…..could artists at that time afford bold perfumes? I’m thinking Lux or Swan Soap.

So how does “No. 31” smell? To return to the very beginning of their marketing conversations where the creative director and clothes designer were trying to reach out to their well-travelled art loving gal – they actually accomplished this in spades. The well-traveled art lady (I’ll include myself here for fun), would respond immediately to this scent. Right after you leave your plane, enter the airport and relieve yourself from a 6-12 hour flight there is a very specific smell that is ubiquitous no matter where you land whether it be Charles De Gaulle, Heathrow or Schiphol – it’s the duty free!! This scent encapsulates every maddening scent in the duty free. It has the top nose of “I think I’ve gone overboard smelling or trying this on” with a middle and base note of “it doesn’t wash out with soap, I am sorry passenger on my next leg of journey.”

I will not be doing many fragrance reviews here, so not to worry. I couldn’t help myself though with a fragrance alluding to a wonderful moment in women’s exhibition history, if only it wasn’t being remembered in the form of party cocktails.

Kay Sage, "In the Third Sleep", 1944. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

Kay Sage, “In the Third Sleep”, 1944. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. Kay was a featured artist in the “Exhibition of 31 Women”, this work was executed a year after the show.


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