Perfume and Art: “Sara Berman’s Closet” at the Met

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Have you ever visited someone’s home and wished you could peek into his or her closet? It’s ok; I won’t tell.

The temporary installation “Sara Berman’s Closet” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives us that opportunity, in a staged yet subtly effective way. It’s a recreation of the closet of one woman who lived alone in Greenwich Village from 1982 through 2004, and who happened to be the mother of artist Maira Kalman.

The Met’s website tells us:

The meticulously organized, modest closet in which Sara Berman (1920–2004)—an immigrant who traveled from Belarus to Palestine to New York—kept her all-white apparel and accessories both contained her life and revealed it. Inspired by the beauty and meaning of Berman’s closet, the artists Maira and Alex Kalman (who are also Berman’s daughter and grandson) have recreated the closet and its contents as an art installation.

IMG_20170331_134308649.jpgWe can see Ms. Berman’s monochromatic palette of white and off-white in a cross-section of her wardrobe, which is complemented by some timeworn belongings: a few books, an iron, a jar of buttons, a box of recipe cards, wristwatches designed by her son-in-law Tibor Kalman…


And one bottle of Chanel perfume.

I assumed it was No. 5 until I got closer and read the label. It’s actually No. 19, released by Chanel in 1971. It’s a very different fragrance from No. 5. As I described it to some students when my friend Professor M. and I were giving them a tour of the Met’s American Wing: if No. 5 is a big warm sexy hug, No. 19 is a gracious handshake. It’s cooler and crisper. It’s harder-edged. It smiles yet keeps its distance. I have friends who wear it as a “power scent” when they need to give a presentation, for example.


The Chanel website describes No. 19 as “assertive. . . .audacious, unconventional.”

It makes sense that Ms. Berman, a woman redefining herself after the end of an unhappy marriage and starting a new, independent life, would choose No. 19.

Top photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Installation photos by Perfume Professor.

Further reading: this article at the New York Times has some photos of Maira and Alex Kalman installing the closet.

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