Beyond the Canvas: 5 Fragrances Worn by Frida Kahlo

Beyond the Canvas: 5 Fragrances Worn by Frida Kahlo

What did Frida Kahlo smell like? The Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition dedicated to the personal life of the iconic artist, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” offers some insight.

Perfume bottles, dusty and arranged on a shelf with other personal objects, were among the time-capsule items discovered behind the doors of two rooms that had been sealed off for 50 years inside of Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera’s La Casa Azul in Mexico City.  The expansive exhibition is the first time some of these treasures have ever been shown in the U.S., giving New York audiences greater insight into the artist’s personal taste and style.

“As well as being a show about the art she made, it’s about her overall creative vision, and it’s about the self-constructed presentation that she crafted for herself,” said Brooklyn Museum’s Jessica Murphy, describing the significance of the exhibition. Last week, Murphy — an art historian and the expert nose behind Now Smell This and Perfume Professor — took a small group of perfume aficionados on a multi-sensory jaunt through Kahlo’s intersection of visual art and personal scent.

Divided into five categories laid out by Murphy, here is what we learned about the perfumes Kahlo favored.

Installation view, "Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving," Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.
Installation view of Kahlo’s perfume bottles in the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

“The Traditionalist”
Roger & Gallet’s “Jean-Marie Farina”; Released: 1806
Notes: Bergamot, lemon, orange, petitgrain, carnation, rose, rosemary, neroli, cedar, clove, myrtle, sandalwood, musk, white amber and vetiver

The oldest perfume found in Frida’s collection, Farina’s origin story dates back nearly a century before the crisp eau de cologne’s release date. In 1709, the Italian perfume maker Giovanni Marie Farina debuted his citrus fragrance, which, he gushed to his brother, reminded him of “an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.” Farina named the refreshing citrus creation “Eau de Cologne” (after the city) and, with it, set off a trend that veered quickly into ubiquity.

By the time Kahlo would have worn the fragrance, reintroduced by Roger & Gallet in 1806, multiple generations of men and women would have spritzed the adored formula. “There are some strains of tradition that affect her art,” said Murphy, noting how Kahlo carried forward symbols from her past (such as the cross from her Catholic childhood and, perhaps, the lingering scent of “Farina”) into her life and artistic works.

“The Modernist”
Chanel No. 5; Released: 1921
Notes: Aldehydes, neroli, ylang-ylang, bergamot, Amalfi lemon, iris, rose, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, orris root, vetiver, patchouli, oak moss, civetta, sandalwood, musk, amber, vanille

“Classic” might be the first word that comes to mind now when describing Chanel No. 5, but the fragrance embodied the look, feel and spirit of modernity when it made its grand debut in the 1920s. From the pared-down bottle to a name that conjures labs rather than rolling fields of jasmine (though the formula contains the fleur), the perfume remains emblematic of a movement concerned with, as Murphy put it, “simplifying form, getting to the essence, getting to a more universal material through shape, looking at form in function.”

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As the driving force behind the Chanel brand and ethos, Coco Chanel embodied the modern spirit throughout her life. In an ad featuring Chanel, it states that she is “above all else an artist in living” — a characterization that Murphy posited fits Kahlo as well. “They are very complex, very independent women, who crafted public images that were shocking and very successful,” said Murphy of Kahlo and Chanel, who never met. And though Murphy noted that Kahlo’s work is not formally modern, her use of her own body as a source of her art was still rare in Western art at that time.

A small clue into Kahlo’s personal life, the bottle of Chanel No. 5 that appears in the exhibition has been re-labeled “ACETONE.”

Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo. Photo: Javier Himojosa, courtesy of V&A Publishing.
Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo. Photo: Javier Himojosa, courtesy of V&A Publishing.

“The Surrealist” 
Schiaparelli’s “Shocking”; Released: 1936
Notes: Bergamot, tarragon, aldehydes, jasmine, narcissus, ylang-ylang, rose, white honey, musk, sandalwood, patchouli, amber, clove and civetta 

Designer Elsa Schiaparelli launched “shocking pink” into the lexicon when her design house debuted this animalic, musky scent in 1936.  “It was very un-Chanel,” Murphy explained. “It was a brand with a certain appeal for a type of woman who didn’t mind being looked at, who had a sense of humor and irony.”

Schiaparelli worked with prominent members of the Surrealist movement, an artistic style marked by a preoccupation with dreams and the subconscious. The fashion house made use of that connection when introducing Shocking’s curvaceous, womanly-shaped bottle to customers. “You will love the shocking surrealist container,” reads one advertisement.

It should be noted that Kahlo didn’t identify herself as a surrealist painter. (She once remarked: “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”) Nevertheless, art historians have routinely identified elements of the Surreal in her self-portraits, particularly those that referenced her own struggle with infertility and physical trauma.

“The Escapist” 
Dana “Emir”; Released: 1936 (discontinued)
Notes: Citrus, rose, jasmine, incense, spice, leather 

Emir — a scent that borrows its title from a Persian honorific — has long since been discontinued. Our best indication of its appeal now lingers in vintage bottles sold on eBay and archived advertisements. “Because of this completely new perfume, you dare to dream again,” reads one tagline from the Jean Carles fragrance.“You can almost believe, as you wear the Emir’s perfume, that night — anything can happen,” reads another.

“It’s kind of a cliched line,” Murphy said, critically noting the orientalist stereotyping present in the ads. “Although perhaps it didn’t feel so cliched at the time.”

“The Cosmopolitan”
Guerlain’s “Shalimar”; Released: 1925  
Notes: Lemon and bergamot, jasmine, may rose, opoponax, tonic bean, vanilla, iris, Peru balsam, gray amber.

Along with a legion of Guerlain devotees, Kahlo was apparently enticed by Shalimar’s heady blend of sensual vanilla and lemon. The master perfumer first debuted the scent at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris, a clever unveiling that helped position the fragrance as a luxury item suited for a cosmopolitan crowd.

Of course, the scent may have also appealed to Kahlo’s storytelling sensibilities. Named after the Gardens of Shalimar in Lehore, Pakistan, the fragrance draws inspiration from the love story between Mughal Emporer Shah Jahan and his consort Mumatz Muhal. “It was one of the greatest storytelling perfumes,” Murphy said. “That was one of its powers.”

Top Image: Frida with Idol, 1939. Courtesy of Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives