Roger & Gallet
Paquerettes – 1908 • “Paquerettes” flacon • Design by R. Lalique – 1913 • Transparent glass • Umi-Mori Art Museum
To borrow from Robert Browning’s famous “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there,” it is equally wonderful to be in Memphis at this time of year.
Capitalizing on our glorious season, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is mounting a “scent-sational” exhibit, one which imaginatively marries antique perfume bottles in the museum and fragrant flowering plants in the garden. The exhibition will run from April 6th through July 2nd.
“Scent and Symbolism: Perfumed Objects and Images” has been organized in collaboration with the Umi-Mori Art Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, and will reflect upon the role of scent in the history of art, through displaying a magnificent collection of 140 scent bottles, dating from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.
This multidisciplinary exhibit will also feature paintings that will explore how the sense of smell has been described by painters through the ages with such works as Jean-Louis Forain’s Woman Breathing in Flowers and Henri Fantin-Latour’s still-life, Carnations without Vase. Also included are engravings by the great Pierre-Joseph Redouté and humorous lithographs by Honoré Daumier. The paintings and works on paper in the exhibit are both borrowed from other museums and galleries and taken from the Dixon’s own collection. Pieces from the Dixon’s antique porcelain collection will also be featured. The garden component of the exhibit will provide a chance to experience the origin of perfume in some of its fragrant plants.
The genesis of this exhibit goes back to the Dixon’s close relationship with Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais in Paris, which led to the Jean-Louis Forain show in 2011 and the Bijoux Parisiens exhibit at the Dixon two years later. It so happens that Chazal’s wife, Martine, an internationally recognized decorative arts expert, has advised the Umi-Mori on its collection of perfume bottle masterpieces.
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Perfume Flacon with Ring
Switzerland - ca. 1820 • Gold, enamel, garnet • Umi-Mori Art Museum
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Femme De Paris – 1925 • “Jerrican” flacon • Design by G. Chevalier – 1925 • Purple crystal, enamel, gilt metal • Umi-Mori Art Museum
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Coque D’Or – 1937 • “Nœud Papillon” flacon • Design by R. Guerlain and J. M. Franck -1937 • Blue crystal, gold • Umi-Mori Art Museum
One thing led to another, and Kevin Sharp, director of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, traveled to Japan and was excited and dazzled by the collection. He and the museum’s director, Michio Umemoto, got along famously — bonding over their favorite vintage American television shows — and plans for the Memphis exhibition were set in motion. Sharp found the experience of being in Hiroshima intensely moving. Mr. and Mrs. Umemoto as well as the Chazals will be in town for the opening of this particular exhibition.
In the course of a roundtable interview for this article with Dale Skaggs, director of horticulture; Julie Pierotti, curator; and Chantal Drake, director of communications, Sharp pointed out that the experience of scent is one of humankind’s most powerful yet enigmatic senses. Vladimir Nabokov famously said, “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
To demonstrate this universal link, each of us weighed in with a favorite memory of scent. For Sharp, it was the smell of baking bread. For Pierotti and Drake, it was Avon’s Skin So Soft. For Skaggs, it was Bay Rum cologne. And for me, it was orange blossom perfume from Florida’s groves.
Sharp explained that perfume-making in the eighteenth century was an endeavor undertaken by skilled artisans, and their products were only for the wealthy. Of course, modern perfume making is a most elaborate industry, although now it appears that artisan perfume makers are making quite the comeback, creating more natural perfumes touted in small, less synthetic batches. Consider the wildly popular scents of UK-based fragrance designer and cosmetics superstar, Jo Malone, who began her career as a florist. Malone has created straight-from-the-garden scents, using for example peony, woodsage, bluebell, freesia, mimosa, and lavender.
Skaggs noted that in Hugo Dixon’s correspondence with his sister, Hope Crutchfield, when first creating his estate, it was agreed at the outset that “this garden should be a garden of fragrance.” With that in mind, it is clearly not an easy job to make the 17-acre garden bloom on cue, especially with the very mild winter we have had this year.
As Skaggs says, “putting Mother Nature on our calendar is humbling,” and the museum faces a moving target when trying to ensure fragrance for all 12 weeks of the show. The good news, however, is that this olfactory kaleidoscope will hopefully keep people coming back to enjoy new garden experiences. There will be a discovery room for families to compare and contrast scents and aromas, as well as a full display outlining and informing visitors on extraction methods that are used to make perfume from plants.
This Dixon exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful, full-color softcover catalogue, with contributions from Paris’ Martine Chazal, as well as from Kevin Sharp and Dale Skaggs. “Chazal does a great job of walking us through the history of perfume,” says Sharp. Interestingly, the evolution of fragrances usually reflects periodic cultural shifts. For example, in the suffragette era, scents were muskier and more “manly,” while after World War II, they became more feminine.
The perfume bottles on display themselves are so exquisite they will take your breath away. Visitors will see pomanders, flacons, atomizers, and vinaigrettes (ladies used these containers for aromatic substances to combat unpleasant city odors) artfully made through the ages of silver, enamel, porcelain, and glass.
For example, the “boule” shape of Lanvin’s famous “Arpege” perfume bottle is familiar to many of us, and the exhibition includes many other whimsical and beautiful late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century items from France during its Art Deco design heyday. These bottles are small works of art in and of themselves, from legendary makers such as Baccarat, Lalique, Daum, Gallé, and Fabergé, brilliant treasures created for perfumeries such as Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Boucheron, Coty, Houbigant, Caron, Guerlain, and Lubin.
Says director Sharp: “This unique show is a complicated and rich experiment that blends the worlds of art and nature.” I should add that upon leaving The Dixon Gallery and Gardens after my visit, I was graciously presented with, of course, a fragrant arrangement of freesia, stock, and snapdragons from the Dixon’s gardens. All of which whetted my appetite for the upcoming “scent-illating” exhibition.