There are likely to be extreme reactions to "Scents of Time: Reflections of Fragrance and Society," an intriguing show about the history of perfume from the 18th century to the 1960s, opening today at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Some will be enraged, not only by the subject's irrelevance to the museum's stated goal of "encouraging greater awareness of women in the arts," but, worse, by the seeming tacit endorsement of an already overly perfumed cliche' about primping females.
Others, unconcerned with the museum's still floundering search for meaning, will be edified when they find that it was a man, Louis XIV, who launched the most perfumed court in history, dousing the wings of doves, which in turn doused his dinner guests -- in scent; that George Washington and Captain Kidd shared a fondness for Scent Number Six, made by Caswell-Massey in Newport, R.I.; and that Napoleon splashed himself endlessly in toilet water in lieu of bathing, even carrying cases of Houbigant into battle.
Let it suffice to say that if the museum were a bit older, or its mission more clearly established, this show would be as warmly welcomed and widely enjoyed here as it was at the Museum of the City of New York, where it began its current tour. Handsomely installed in glass cases and accompanied by panels of informative text, the show traces the use of scent in modern society, and actually makes the subject worth thinking about.
The earliest objects date from the 18th century, when scent was created on commission, usually for members of the royal court. Included here are one-of-a-kind, hand-painted porcelain and glass flacons also commissioned from leading makers, like Meissen and Chelsea, along with their specially fitted cases. There are also almost too many handmade and hand-colored engravings that served as labels for fragrances, soaps and powders.
The objects clearly reflect the decorative tastes of the periods represented, from the elaborate lines of the rococo to the elegant curves of art nouveau and art deco, which produced some of the most memorable objects in this show -- especially those created for various perfumers by the great French jeweler and glass designers Rene Lalique and Baccarat.
The tradition of the lavish or unusual signature container -- there are examples here in the shapes of bicycles and steamships, torsos and hands -- continued to produce remarkable examples. Some were for women couturiers like Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin, who, early in this century, began commissioning special scents to be worn with their clothes.
In this respect, the museum seems to have backed into a subject that is relevant to its mission, for surely both Chanel and Lanvin -- and others as well -- were women artists worth talking about. In 1925, Lanvin commissioned designer Paul Iribe to do an elegant stylized logo (and a plaque, also on display) picturing her and her daughter, the future Countess de Polignac, that is a highlight here. It was Lanvin's designs for her daughter's clothes that originally launched Lanvin's career in haute couture. That nugget of information is enough to warm the entire show.
But there is a good deal more to be learned, starting with the first case of objects, which illustrates (briefly) how aromatic substances were used since ancient times, both as medications and in religious ceremonies. There is, for example, an 18th-century silver censer for use in the Catholic mass, and a silver spice container from Nuremberg shaped like a tower, passed around as part of the Jewish havdalah service. There is a Turkish gilt silver rosewater sprinkler, used in Moslem homes to welcome guests, and a 17th-century European silver pomander shaped like a skull, worn to ward off sickness, when it was believed that bad odors caused illness.
We are reminded that primitive sanitation and foul water supplies (and subsequent fear of bathing) had a good deal to do with the search for ways to mask unpleasant odors, and we suddenly understand the reasons for the scented fans and handkerchiefs, the portable pots in which flower bulbs were grown to perfume the air, the bergamot boxes made from molded citrus skin -- even the flowers in a lady's hair, depicted here in a print by Currier & Ives.
It was apparently in the 18th-century French royal court that fragrance first became an issue of personal adornment and status as well as necessity, and that is where this show begins in earnest to lightly sketch out the place of scent in Western social history. It stops after 1960, when fragrance began to proliferate into more than 800 brands that now attack the senses everywhere, from scratch and sniff patches in magazines to crowded theaters, where overperfumed men and women, in equal numbers, now routinely drive allergic neighbors (like me), sneezing and choking, from the hall.
This show is more pleasurable than definitive, and boasts no masterpieces. It also cuts history short at both ends, even though aromatics, such as frankincense and myrrh were rare and precious commodities as far back as ancient times. One misses at least some photographic reference to one of the most extraordinary objects in this history -- the flattened, round glass container made in the ancient Roman colony of Cologne to hold scent and now known as the prototypical "Cologne bottle." That remains safely in the Roman-German Museum in Cologne, where it belongs.
The organizing Fragrance Foundation, which set out specifically "to examine the relationship of fragrance to society," also missed a good bet by cutting off at 1960, when the industry shifted largely to the United States. The explicitly sexual nature of perfume advertising and bottle forms since then will have a good deal to say to future generations about the '80s -- and women of the '80s as well.
The show is accompanied by olfactory handouts that give you an authentic whiff of favored 18th- and 19th-century scents. There is also a hilariously commercialized videotape touting scent and quoting leading authorities like sexologist Dr. Ruth and writer Tama Janowitz, who perfumes her dogs. The show will continue through Feb. 26 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW.