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Philippe Halsman, The Essence of Dali, 1954, gelatin‐silver printCourtesy of Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

N°5 Culture Chanel

A new exhibit goes behind the bottle with Cocteau, Apollinaire, Dalí and Picabia

It was to be a pleasant stroll though the kind of naturalistic, deceptively haphazard vegetation that turned the landscape designer Piet Oudolf into a superstar. But a sulky Parisian sun and unseasonably low temperatures thwarted the Dutchman's plans for the garden that acts like a prelude to Culture Chanel, the new exhibition devoted to Chanel N°5 at the Palais de Tokyo. The garden-in-progress is a donation to the museum, so with time, the 7000 species planted should reach full bloom.

Ironically, the weather showed its capricious side at an event examining a fragrance that somewhat defied nature, by including synthetic ingredients like aldehydes in its formula, thus irrevocably changing the world of fragrances and becoming a legend of almost mystical proportions.

Curated by Jean Louis Froment, the Chanel-sponsored exhibition, effectively puts N°5 in the context of its creation (1921), a landmark after-war period that ushered in modernism and abstraction in the arts. The space itself is a no-frill, dimly-lit rectangle with three rows of rigorously aligned glass cases displaying letters, fantastic works of art, and memorabilia that chase the artistic threads in the mind and life of the enigmatic Gabrielle Chanel.

We learn about Chanel's fascination with Catherine de Medici, a woman who, it happens, shared Chanel's orphaned childhood, covent education and love of black. We realise how important her lover Boy Capel was to her, initiating her to esoterism (she created N°5 while mourning him). The famous interlocking Cs are explained by the little ones she wrote on her books, but also the the stained-glass window at the Cistercian Aubazine abbey where she grew up. We notice that around 1920, the number 5 appeared in many other creations of that era, including some by the Dadaists, whose leaflets clearly influenced the lettering on the label (a letter sent to Cocteau in which she mentions Francis Picabia was found shortly before the exhibition). The N°5 packaging is likened to the collage techniques Pablo Picasso experimented with. Froment, also draws an interesting link between Brancusi's Sleeping Muse, and the classic Richard Avedon publicity with Catherine Deneuve.

Rush to a dark room where all the N°5 commercials can be viewed indefinitely, including Avedon's and Helmut Newton 1970's gems. Interestingly, one of the last mystery-tinged videos occured1993, when Carole Bouquet reprised a scene from the Hollywood classic Gilda, before the brand went on a megastar spree that culminated with Brad Pitt's monologue. Asked about that infamous commercial, the feisty curator Jean Louis Froment said, "I would have preferred Johnny Depp, but I like Brad Pitt, he's beautiful. And I love the fact that a man talks about N°5. Even if his hair was a bit greasy."

N°5 Culture Chanel runs at the Palais de Tokyo until 5th June