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When Art Met Commerce: The History Of Chanel No. 5, Now On View

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“Chanel herself always said, ‘I am not an artist. I am a craftsman,” the curator Jean-Louis Froment explained in a crowded room at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo on Saturday, where international journalists and friends of Chanel had gathered to fete the highly anticipated No. 5 Culture Chanel exhibition, which opened its doors this weekend. “But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t influenced by the arts,” he continued. “Hers was an applied artistry.” Offering an extensive look at the making of Gabrielle Coco Chanel’s iconic No. 5 fragrance—how its creation in 1921 was influenced by the collaborative, avant-garde art movements of the day, and how it came to influence so many works of art that followed—the show is comprised of over 200 rare manuscripts, drawings, and photographs, among other things, that illustrate the link between the rich fabric of Chanel’s private world and her very public perfume that remains a best seller nearly a hundred years later, one Plexiglass-encased white podium at a time.

The last of five samples perfumer Ernest Beaux presented Mademoiselle Chanel with nine decades ago, the ylang-ylang, aldehydes, jasmine, and vetiver eau wasn’t just the first fragrance to use synthetic notes, but also the first to bare the name of a brand; Chanel’s interlocking CCs appeared for the first time on the top of the bottle’s cap, and the logo—not to mention the scent itself—became the stuff of legend shortly thereafter, popping up in the works of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and pop superstar Andy Warhol, and, perhaps even more memorably, on the naked body of Marilyn Monroe. (The famous Ed Feingersh photo of Marilyn dabbing the curve of her neck with No. 5 is prominently displayed not too far from Warhol’s 1959 silkscreens of the bottle.)

Running off a list of his favorite pieces in the exhibition, Froment singled out a particularly good example of how art influenced the life and work of Chanel—the woman and the brand—highlighting a case that contained Constantin Brancusi’s famous Sleeping Muse, which sits next to a Man Ray-lensed photo of Kiki de Montparnasse inspired by the sculpture, alongside the famous Richard Avedon-lensed No.5 ad campaign starring Catherine Deneuve in a similar pose.

“For me it’s the flacon. The shape and the legacy of this object—it’s magical to have it,” another one-time No. 5 face Audrey Tautou exclaimed of her favorite piece on display, motioning toward the original No. 5 bottle that is a near identical match to the vessel we know today. Letters, news clippings, and rare books from Chanel paramours, like Arthur “Boy” Capel and Igor Stravinsky, drawings by Pablo Picasso, and even original texts penned by Jean Cocteau for the Ballets Russes, a project for which Mademoiselle Chanel served as patron, coalesce to further demonstrate the entangled relationship between art and commerce—a point that is hammered home by an experiential component that allows visitors to explore the olfactory elements of the scent. There’s even a best-of reel showcasing No. 5 TV commercials on loop, like a 1950s spot, titled, “The Spell of Chanel,” which features a model Samantha Stevens’ing herself from drab to fab with one simple whiff of fragrance; Ridley Scott’s early eighties-era immortalization of Carole Bouquet; Luc Besson’s irresistible “Le Loup” starring Estella Warren; and yes, even Joe Wright’s infamous Brad Pitt soliloquy, which, in all honesty, isn’t all that dissimilar in concept to some of Avedon’s early short films with Deneuve, albeit more abstruse and meandering. “Chanel: It’s one of the pleasures of being a woman,” Deneuve affirms at the end of a 1973 monologue. It’s as true now as it was then.

No. 5 Culture Chanel, through June 5 2013 at Palais de Tokyo, 13 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75 116 Paris; +33 01 81 97 35 88, www.palaisdetokyo.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

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