The No.5 Culture Chanel Exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Paris

by Katie on May 9, 2013

“She has, through a sort of miracle, worked in fashion, following rules that only seemed valid for painters, musicians and poets. She imposed the invisible; She imposed the nobility of silence on social commotion.” Jean Cocteau, ‘Le retour de Mademoiselle Chanel.’

We had visited Mlle Chanel’s apartment the night before. Now, it was time to take in the exhibition celebrating her most famous creation, No.5, while also chronicling Gabrielle Coco Chanel’s unusual life and influences that was the groundwork for the Chanel empire we know today.
The No.5 Exhibition at Le Palais de Tokyo in Paris is a modernist vision to Chanel’s raison d’etre. This temporary shrine to the history of Gabrielle Coco Chanel’s most famous perfume may use the most recognisable number in the world as its starting point, but gives an illuminating history of Chanel’s early life and her pioneering stance, her indelible connection to the art world and how she used many of these influences and the Belle Epoque period to re-invent fashion from a woman’s standpoint. She not only revolutionised women’s clothing, she reconstituted how a woman should smell – not of flowers but of woman – “a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” 
Chanel, ruled by superstition and heeding ‘signs’, chose the fifth test perfume sample presented by perfumer Ernest Beaux and the legend was born. This new fragrance was an anomaly. Constructed like an haute couture dress, Chanel No.5 was the first perfume to be abstract in spirit like so much of the modern art and ideas from her friends of the time such as Modigliani, Cocteau, Dali, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso. No. 5 was composed of more than 80 ingredients that blended both synthetic aldehydes as well as jasmine, rose and chypre. What we have to this day is a complex fragrance that defines modern womanhood – still regarded as classic yet daring in its unmistakable, powdery, skin like sensuality.
The exhibition takes a No.5 garden as its starting point. Created by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf who sought inspiration from the artworks and letters on show, Oudolf wanted the garden to be a living testimony to Chanel No.5. On a wet overcast day in Paris with the plants only having been planted so not yet in bloom, I’m not certain visitors will quite experience this to full effect. In a year’s time, this may change.

The exhibition is as complex and detailed as the fragrance. The works, set inside plastic cases in a pure white room, reflect the cubist minimalism that Chanel so loved.
The event guide is detailed and a definite must-have to explain the exhibition as this is primarily educational, though the inspirational takes place later.
The event contains artwork by Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau and Warhol as well as letters from the artists and musicians of her time. From gilded Venetian bindings and the influence of the powerful Queen Catherine de’ Medici (an ancient book on display shows Queen Catherine’s monogram – the first sign of the interlocking C’s of Chanel) to original scores of music from the Ballet Russes and Stravinsky’s ‘The Right of Spring’, this exhibition takes you on a journey – one that traverses time and retains its relevance to the 21st Century. Fashion and art go hand in hand.
No. 5’s story is documented in detail. From its drastically radical composition to the first simple, square clear bottles, it is apparent that Mlle Chanel’s brilliant vision in terms of symmetry, clear lines, simple colour variations (black, white and beige) and elegance of taste  is still as cutting edge today as it was in 1920s Paris. Little has changed save from the hexagonal stopper, re-designed as a more sturdy way to transport the fragrance without leakage.
Chanel was a vanguard of the deco period, the controversial art, the artistic thinkers and their approach, new ways of doing and being that catapulted a post WW1 Europe into a new age.
For those seeking visual recompense, there are drawings and works by Man Ray, Picasso, Warhol, Cocteau, Dali, Horst P. Horst and Francis Picabia. There is jewellery (such as the glittering No.5 necklace draped across the back of Nicole Kidman in a recent ad). And, No.5 ads through the ages, with particular reference to New York, the new frontier for Chanel’s vision in the ’30s and images of great beauties like Marilyn Monroe (“What do you wear in bed?”) and Catherine Deneuve.
Then, there’s the fun interactive part – a huge room carpeted in beige with videos, a ton of Chanel reference books, scent drawers that appear empty but each containing a raw material of No.5 and two interactive olfactory workshops – one for adults and one for children, that explain how important scent is to memory and that allow the participant to learn about No.5’s composition through experience.
The missing link in the exhibition is Chanel’s lost love, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. One feels that Chanel may have led a very different life if he hadn’t been killed in a car accident in 1919. Yet, he remained in her heart always despite her numerous influential beaux. Perhaps Chanel’s obsession with numerology and symbolism was a way to deal with the loss and to make sense of her future? Did she know the huge global legacy she would leave?
As she would like, perhaps the best is yet to come.

The No.5 Culture Chanel exhibition is held at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris from 5th May-5th June 2013, 13 Avenue du President Wilson, 75016 Paris – Midday to Midnight. Every day except Tuesday.

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