Summer is a Color Field
Summer is a unique time of year for perfumers. Naturally we think of fragrances that suit the season each year at this time. As the sun’s warmth nurtures spring’s green tendrils towards maturity, branches laden with bloom turning to fruit—in the Northern Hemisphere, at least—it’s also a time of inspiration. A good perfumer, after all, has the ability to create fragrances that let us experience summer all year round.
So, it was instinctive that an artist-run house looked to art for inspiration. More particularly, we looked to the legacy of “Color Field painting”. Why? Again, it was as much intuitive as it was conscious.
Most agree the term “color field painting” was coined by the American art critic, historian and educator Irving Sandler. An early champion of and commentator on post-WWII American art and more specifically Abstract Expressionism, Sandler first used the term to differentiate a more recent movement of abstract painters whose work was characterized by solid fields of colour, sometimes painted with hard edges and precision. To Sandler, their work stood apart from the emotive, gestural styles or latent symbolism in the work of the first wave of American Abstract Expressionists.
Sandler and others saw this tendency in painting as having developed in parallel with the more painterly styles of De Koenig, Jackson Pollock or Arshile Gorky, citing Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still as seminal examples of painters working in this mode. Writing about the legacy of Abstract Expressionism in 1970, Sandler used the term to group the work of painters since 1960 such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam, among others.
What was notable about their work was the way they attempted to get to a “pure” abstraction in which representation was absent and in the way that they seemed to deny the deeply personal, overtly gestural style of painting of the first wave of Abstract Expressionism.
It’s precisely this question of whether the artist can entirely eschew the emotive or narrative and reach a pure abstraction that is one of the things that interests us. After all, on one level, perfume is an abstraction. Sure, it might smell “like” something or you might even be able to detect the aromas of actual materials. But, perfume, certainly good perfume, is a gestalt in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as a great Color Field painting is greater than the fields of a single colour from which it is constructed.
This seemed a very good fit to us. We didn’t want to illustrate the smell of summer, we wanted to convey it and convey how it is in our fragrances. And that’s what we’ve tried to do.
In our little journey, there have also been some other delightful connections. For one thing, it’s been a reminder of how many vaunted Color Field and later abstract artists have had a great influence on the design traditions of the 1960s and 1970s that we love. Looking at seminal works of an artist like Frank Stella, for example, it’s easy to see how his work and the work of other Color Field painters informed designers such as American graphic designer Lance Wyman who won the international competition to design the logo and identity for the Mexico 1968 Olympics. Or the designs of Italian Ettore Sotssass and the textile designs of Zika Ascher.
In some cases, these later designers take lessons learned from Color Field painting and merge them with highly stylised, logo-like illustrative motifs, a notable aspect of Canadian graphic design from the 1960s, perhaps most clearly seen in the work of Burton Kramer or Rolf Harder.
There is also something beautifully circular about the evolution of abstract art that traces back through the graphic design of the 1960s, via the Color Field painters, all the way to Impressionism. Follow the trail of art historical breadcrumbs back from Color Field painting, via the machine-age abstraction of Modernism or Bauhaus artists like Kandinsky and Schlemmer and carry on yet further back, past Picasso and Braque. Keep going past the sweeping gestures of the Expressionists and Fauvists. Park the car at late Impressionism; what some call Post-Impressionism.
There is no shortage of non-naturalistic imagery dripping in powerful evocations of worlds we can veritably smell; from Van Gogh and Redon to Rousseau and Bonnard. But, if there is any one painter that makes the bridge between Color Field painters and 19th-century art clear, it’s surely Claude Monet.
Monet is perhaps best known for his paintings of water lilies. And quite rightly so. He produced some 250 paintings over a 25-year period of one subject: the water lily pond in his garden and its surrounds in Giverny in Normandy in northern France. Monet, who was most decidedly an Impressionist when his career first started, progressed so far in his exploration or capturing light in oil on canvas that it ended up way past painterly efforts associated with Post-Impressionism. He arrived at a prototype for abstraction by the time he completed this astounding body of work.
Monet’s painterly journey testifies to a man who never denies us the possibility of understanding his paintings as depictions of flowers on water. But, through an almost obsessive commitment to his subject, he leads as we follow him, discovering that an artist can use paint to construct an image of light reflected on a pond of water lilies that is the painterly equivalent of taking dictation in shorthand or furiously creating the notation for some great symphony yet to be played by an orchestra. Especially in the later paintings, Monet finds that place where the line between the pictorial, sensorial and abstraction is almost impossible to discern.
And that, dear readers, is a thing of beauty, least of all because one of the overlooked aspects of Monet’s work is seasonality.
Giverny has a relatively temperate climate, seldom seeing the mercury drop below zero despite being steadfastly in northern France. Yet it’s easy to spot how Monet painted throughout the year’s full seasonal cycle through his paintings. The pond, devoid of purple in the colder months, reflects the sky, a series of greys mirrored in the water. But, there is also spring and summer. The water lilies are still only accents of deep purple here and there, not yet the raucous blanket of blooms they will be in high summer. Yet the evening sky is the most beautiful field of dusky mauve, showing the evening light once more returning to the garden. The pond is almost entirely a field of one colour, the lily pads another, and so on,
More importantly, we sense the entire garden within these almost pure fields of colour. We can see the views beyond the pond or behind the painter’s back in our mind’s eye that he never showed us. In the image of the pond with its pared-back palette, we smell the green; smell the burgeoning irises, narcissus, daffodils and daisies as they lurch through the cycle of blooming.
Perhaps we feel the change in light and shadow as the cherry trees burst into blossom seemingly overnight. Yes, we know this is not an imagined detail because the gardens are maintained even today according to Monet’s own preference for plants and flowers. Even if we never travel there, never see them, we sense them in his images that so skilfully convey so much with such restraint of palette and form.
It is in this long tradition, following that same trail of art history breadcrumbs back in the other direction, that we hope to convey not so much how our fragrances are great for summer (though of course they are) but how summer is great in some of our specific fragrances, whether that unique marine scent in the air when the sun falls behind a warmed Mediterranean in Greek Keys or the variously different greens of grass and vetiver in Bascule; the shifting colours of the sun over a spring pastoral landscape in Far from the Madding Crowd or the forked roads and circuitous journeys through different smellscapes abstracted in even a small piece of Lace.