By 1921, both the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic were over. Six years of enormous human suffering changed everything: social order, gender roles, fashion, technology, psychology, philosophy, and, of course, the arts.
In 1918, the last year of the WWI, Paul Klee wrote in his diary, “The more terrible is the world, the more abstract the art becomes”. Indeed, few could hope to capture the horrors of reality and remain sane.
Art Deco, a style seen as revolutionary a decade ago, had become mainstream and industrialised. It was OK to built skyscrapers or design interiors in that style. Still, an Art Deco practitioner could hardly be considered a real artist by the intellectual elite. Today, only a few art historians know the names of Art Deco artists. I find it grossly unfair, but I have to google their names too.
Classical or “traditional” figurative art was effectively dead, and not because it simply went out of fashion. It used to illustrate or passively reflect reality, and now art was seen as a tool to actively influence the collective human brain so that another catastrophe could be prevented or avoided. Artists went along the more abstract, surreal, or metaphysical roads to discover “the unseen” and to stimulate minds rather than educate or entertain.
There was one thing that hadn’t changed though: perfume.
Two types of perfume defined society at the time. Respectable ladies went for a single-flower kind of scent, while the more independent demi-monde and courtesans favoured heavy musk-flavoured, sensual aromas. When a courtesan was out, and not in a company of men, she wouldn’t wear any perfume. This would drive Chanel nuts as most of her clientele were what we’d call hi-end escort girls today. They were often smelly, while she, an adept of soap and hygiene, had to attend to them personally in her boutique.
Were she aware of a small American company that had invented a deodorant, the world might end up with a Chanel roller 30 years before Bristol-Myers made the product commercially successful. Fortunately for the history of perfume, she set her mind on the more traditional remedy. She wanted a novel scent that would cater to the newly liberated (or somewhat less of a slave to patriarchy from today’s point of view), short-haired, creative, sexy flapper of the City of Light.
What this new scent should be no one had the slightest idea, and Chanel No.5 might never have become the iconic brand it is, were it not for…the Mother Russia.
It all started with a Polish sculptor whose forte were classical allegories, commemorative statues, and funeral monuments. He was so successful commercially, especially during his years in Russia, that he even bought a quarry in Carrara to secure a steady supply of marble for clients like Felix Yusupov (the future leader of Rasputin’s assassination squad).
His Russian-born daughter was to become globally known as Misia Sert, a 1920s Parisian society star, who was breaking artistic hearts by the dozen.
Misia introduced Chanel to the Russian circle in Paris. It was through Misia that Coco befriended Dyagilev in 1920, and later became a lover of Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich.
Grand Duke Dmitry, like Misia’s father’s major client, was also a part of the team that assassinated Rasputin. His punishment was an exile to Persia, which turned out to be his salvation from the Bolshevik terror.
When Grand Duke learned of Chanel’s fragrance ideas, he took her to Grasse in the south of France to meet Ernest Beaux, a perfumer he knew from his royal days in Russia. Ernest was born in Russia, became a perfumer in Russia, and created a few fragrances for the Imperial Court (one of which was tremendously successful).
When the world war broke out, Ernest, a French patriot to the core (despite living almost his whole life in Russia), joined the French army and ended up in the north of Russia as an intelligence officer, interrogating Bolsheviks at a prisoner-of-war camp. While stationed there, he was enchanted by the scents of arctic water. Northern lakes and streams carried in them an invigorating mix of crispy freshness, arctic moss, and wildflowers.
Back in Grasse, in the world capital of perfume, Beaux tried to recreate that arctic scent using aldehydes on top of flowery scents. Aldehydes can be considered as abstract scents that boost other notes in a fragrance. Beaux created 10 samples, Chanel chose the one numbered 5, and the rest is history.
In a year, the first abstraction-based perfume Chanel No5 hit the shelves (albeit at a limited quantity until 1924). It instantly became the iconic scent for the modern woman (and occasionally a modern man), who valued the absurdity of abstraction, the lunacy of surrealism, the foolery of Dada, and the liberation of jazz.
Chanel No5 epitomises and embodies a whole epoch of artistic search, but if I had to choose a single artist or artwork, I’d say that no scent goes better with Paul Klee (and vice versa). Klee balanced at the threshold between the abstract and figurative, just as Chanel No5 balances abstract aldehydes and real natural essences:
Klee saw a line as a point that went on a journey and a shape as a line gone travelling. He was not drawing the final destinations of his dots and lines, but captured the early history of their travels and left them there, to travel even further, and create new magical worlds. His works from the 1920s leave a train of movement in their wake just as a Chanel No5 wearer was leaving the challenging “scent of a woman” walking the streets of Paris. And, just as Klee, Chanel No5 is abstract enough to successfully reinvent itself even a hundred years after its creation.
Fun fact: Ernest Beaux’s fragrance that was a fiasco back in 1914 (Chypre family of scents) was relaunched in 1925 by the nationalised Brocard factory. Under its new name, “Red Moscow”, it became one of the most popular scents (out of the very few that were available) in the Soviet Union but lost its appeal already in the 1980s.