When I was 11, I shared a bedroom with my sister in a singlewide trailer in the country. On the wall above my bed I’d tacked up a poster I thought was truly beautiful: three fluffy, gray kittens sitting in a purple basket. By the time I was in high school, the kittens seemed cheap and precious. I was ready to move on to beauty that was a little less predictable, even if just to a Renoir poster of a girl with a kitten. Perfume is like that, too.
Beauty without ugliness is boring. For instance, grown-up versions of the kitty poster are the paintings of fire-lit cottages strung with wisteria that you see in malls. You look at them, you know what they are about, and you are done with them. They can’t engage you or hold your interest. Lucien Freud once said "I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be." Maybe that’s why his paintings are so beautiful — they are true, so they contain ugliness, even if it is ugliness managed by a genius. But that’s what gives them soul. (Wouldn’t you love to see Lucien Freud and that mall painter guy talking art?)
Except maybe for single flower compositions, perfume is more abstract than figurative painting. Still, the idea of creating beauty through imperfection is valid as ever. Imagine Annick Goutal Songes without the funkiness of the indolic jasmine. It would be pretty, but after a few sniffs you might lose interest. It’s that hint of a strange, almost cumin-like odor that hooks me. The disturbing, animalic base of Frederic Malle Le Parfum de Therèse is a big part of what makes it so beautiful. Serge Lutens has taken this principle to a whole new dimension by lacing many of his fragrances with skank or galling sweetness, but without them his perfumes would lose much of their beauty. As balanced as they might be, they would be unremarkable.
For me, real beauty is messy and unexpected, often intimidating, sometimes quotidian, sometimes disturbing. As I experience more in life, my perception of beauty grows deeper. The crows clustering on power lines across from the body shop are beautiful. The demanding leather of Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles (bordering on the smell of the stuff the bus driver used to sprinkle when a kid threw up on the bus) is beautiful. The goofily leering Paul Bunyan statue on the north side of town is beautiful, as is the rhythmic chopping of the sprinkler at the schoolyard. And let’s not forget Mitsouko.
Note: image is Ragazza Con Gattino, 1947, Lucien Freud, via palazzoruspoli.it.