More than functional bottles: Scent & Symbolism

A recent exhibition on perfumed objects and images provides the context for a few remarks on the role of flacons. Even after the finassage the catalogue deserves more attention.

Charles Baudelaire once devoted a poem to the impuissance of the decorative bottles used in perfumery:

There are strong perfumes for which all matter
Is porous. One would say they go through glass…

Apparently, the design of the bottle relates to the power of the ephemeral treasure in a peculiar way. It is this tension and connection between the content and the packaging that brought about a rich and amazing culture of flacons and other objects of scent culture.

Not suprisingly, this culture of artifacts has always attracted the attention of collectors, auction houses and other cultural institutions.  Moreover, exhibitions have occasionally featured this field of cultural production. In this respect, one can particularly acknowledge the merits of museums of applied art (Kunsthandwerk).  Insiders certainly remember the major show at Hamburg (Parfum: Ästhetik und Verführung, 2005), the presentation of the collection Beatrice Frankl at the Osthaus Museum Hagen (Flacons: Haute Couture der Düfte, 2010/2011) or the exhibition at Museum Bellerive (Parfum: Verpackte Verführung, 2011/2012). Actually, our research was also part of this show in Zurich.

More recently, Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis reflected upon the role of scent in the history of art: Scent and Symbolism: Perfumed Objects and Images. The exhibition displayed a selection of 140 scent bottles drawn from the collection of the Umi-Mori Art Museum in Hiroshima, Japan. Dating from the 17th through the 20th centuries, the containers range from commercially produced bottles to flacons created by such legendary jewelers as Boucheron, Lalique, and Fabergé. Accompanying them are works of art depicting the various uses of scent, from the medicinal to the spiritual to the romantic.


What makes this show remarkable even more than a year after its finnisage is the catalogue we have just received. It is a scholarly book bringing together a variety of perspectives and authors. We believe it deserves a broader attention. Enjoy!

Chazal, M. (2017). Scent and symbolism: perfumed objects and images. Memphis, TN: Dixon Gallery and Gardens. 978-0-9972445-1-9.

Moreover, here are some pictures of the Japanese collection.

Exhibition: Scent and Symbolism: Perfumed Objects and Images, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN, April 6-July 2, 2017.

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Image source: Louis-Frédéric Schützenberger, 1825-1903, Jeune fille se baignant, dét., réserves du musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg