Olfactory Art

The Eyes Have It

The Daily Pic: Jan Brueghel sparks an everlasting debate between vision and scent.

03.05.13 12:16 AM ET

This is an allegory of scent (flowers; a stinky civet cat; a dog of fine nose) versus sight (everything else in the scene, including the images of the flowers, cat and dog). It was painted by the sight-man Jan Brueghel the Elder in about 1620 and is now in the Prado museum. It reminds us of the once-hot debates about the appeal and artfulness of the various senses, and how those debates have now faded from view – or maybe, in fact, not.

This blog has seen a little revival of the quarrel, as I’ve gone at it hammer and tongs with Chandler Burr, curator of the “Art of Scent” perfume exhibition that just closed at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Read on for one last, looooong installment of our head-butting exchange (although, weirdly, here the art critic is the one arguing for the specificity and independence of olfactory creations, and the olfactory curator wants to tie scent to visual art).



Hi Blake,

There are some really interesting comments and some really obtuse comments on the first installment of our debate (you wrote to Shera and Katherine “I don’t know many people who are serious about art who still buy the distinction between ‘pure’ uncommissioned ‘art’, and ‘design’ as something bought and sold”; exactly), but I feel like I should focus on your two points – the question you raise about  placing olfactory art in artistic movements and your second, deeper issue, what I’m going to call the broader “Revolution” point, which is that you think we should do away with those movements in the first place.

I’ll start with your second point: You say you want a revolution. You know, we all want to change the world. The question is: What’s your plan, exactly?

You want to revolutionize the antiquated, inaccurate, conservative art historical regime (which I buy completely; I may be to the left of Obama on health care—I’m for single payer—and the Iraq War, but when it comes to art history I’m pretty conservative). You wrote me, “The very categories you want to ‘borrow’ from art history no longer have much currency among art historians.” You say that many scholars and critics, you among them, reject sorting art into “movements.” “Smart art history and criticism should be much more granular (and innovative).”

We don’t necessarily need to narrow our eyes suspiciously when someone uses the word “should.” But when there is a call for an intellectual/ conceptual/ aesthetic revolution, the burden of proof is not on me, the antiquated troglodyte with my Romanticism and Impressionism. It’s on you to come up with the more innovative alternative. I’m more than happy to take a look. So far all I see is “should.”

When Lennon wrote “Revolution,” media coverage of the Tet Offensive had set off violent clashes between students and police in opposition to the Vietnam War. By spring 1968, student uprisings in Paris had led to a massive strike and riots. Lennon was in the interesting, uncomfortable position of agreeing fervently with the students’ goal of change but being disturbed by the violence: “When you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out.”

More importantly he wanted them to tell him what this change was going to be. He was very pointed about it: “You say you got a real solution/Well, you know/We’d all love to see the plan.”

You say you got ideas for ridding us of an “aesthetic effect” or of “style” and “movement.” Well, we’d all love to see the plan.

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What’s the system that works better than the art historical system? My view, as a reactionary, is that the movements are not outmoded. They’re terms that group together large amounts of data, artists, and works and allow us to talk about them. Which is all a word is anyway—“red,” “bus,” “political,” “hot naked man” are all concepts that differ according to era, experience, etc., but words are useful to talking about things. The Neo-Classicists had a cannon they copied and, in Ingres, a high priest. The Romanticists talked about Romanticism and borrowed from each other. The Impressionists hung out together. The Modernists wrote each other letters. The Surrealists actually had a formal Surrealist Manifesto (convenient) by André Breton. This happened. To be more direct about this, I don’t merely object to the hijacking of my medium of scent in order to found this brave new if-as-yet-undefined system just because so little work has been done on it. It’s that I haven’t seen a better system so far. If “aesthetics” “styles” “movements” are old clichés, as you say, and you say you’ve got a real solution, let us have it.

Which leads us to your specific point about language: “I’m…saying that… that vocabulary was developed for dealing with sets of issues particular to the fine arts…in particular historical contexts. Not every area of human endeavor is going to have the same preoccupations, at the same time, so transferring language from one to another can be tricky.” Yes, it can be tricky. And it can also, sometimes quite easily, be done.

To dispense with the obvious. “Does it make sense to talk about ‘Romantic’ advances in steam engineering, because they happen to occur at the same time as Romantic movements in poetry, painting or music.” Uh, I will allow myself to point out that that is a bit insulting/silly. Steam engineering isn’t an aesthetic medium, that’s why, and you know it. On the other hand it makes sense to talk about Romanticism in photography, an aesthetic medium that was created around the same time. And in scent art.

The scent work “Jicky” is a Capital-R Romantic work not “because it falls at the tail-end of the Romantic period” (this is wrong, by the way; Romanticism in music went up through the 1940s) (why do you keep insisting on identical periods? Romanticism was dominant in literature 1800-1840 and in music 1850-1940; different mediums use different movements & styles at different times; Modernist literature and Modernist architecture were not cotemporaneous) but because like it or not its aesthetics fit the description, goals, and style of the Romanticist movement as expressed by Keats and Byron et al.: the abandonment of the rational to find truth in the sublime surrender to pure, overwhelming emotion. What else would you wear in 1895 to hear Tchaikovsky than “Jicky”? Or in 2013 for that matter because they’re both of that movement.

You read my essay on “L’Interdit” and its Abstract Expressionist style, right? So why do you say, incorrectly, that I use Abstract Expressionism as the reference for discussing a perfume [because it] happens to have arrived in the era of Jackson Pollock? “L’Interdit” is Abstract Expressionism because its aesthetics fall precisely into the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism: the rejection of Realism and of the use of recognizable landmarks, visual or olfactory. The creation of works that, for the first time in history, were their own worlds on their own terms, referencing nothing but themselves, saying to the public, “Accept me or not, this is what I am. I’m new.” And actually yes, aside from the fact that in all the important ways Fabron and Pollock are virtually identical in their aesthetics, philosophies, and techniques, for what it’s worth they were also creating at exactly the same period. No “stretched periodizing.”

I am obviously borrowing fine-art terminology for the prestige and “serieux” it lends to perfume. What you don’t accept is that I’m also using it because of the clear critical dividends it pays. “The question remains,” you say, “does the shoe fit?” Hm, let’s see.

Exhibit A, “Shera Pop”( it will be nice when we all behave like big boys and girls on the Internet and, at least on serious discussion forums,  use our grown-up names) wrote, “Perfumes are nonrepresentational.” This is jaw-droppingly strange since perfumes, like paintings and sculpture, are often hyper-representational. Forgetting for a moment even that virtually 100% of pre-olfactory art, i.e. everything up to 1884 and the first use of synthetics which made scent a true artistic medium, was concertedly and determinedly Representationalist; a perfumer’s highest goal and the standard he was measured by was the recreation, with scent materials, of the perfect real-life rose, the perfect real-life peony, etc. After the advent of synthetics, when olfactory artists could and did begin to create in Abstract (“Eau Sauvage” by Edmond Roudnitska), Deconstructionist (Maisondieu’s ridiculously perfect “Jasmin et Cigarette”), Post-Modernist (much of Vasnier’s work for Adrian Joffe’s commissions), Hyperrealist (Ellena’s “In Love Again”) et al. styles, Realism and Representationalism remained and are still in 2013 hugely important: Roudnitska’s “Diorissimo” (1956) which is a straightforward (metaphorical) photograph of the scent of lily of the valley and Michel Almairac’s “Gucci Homme” (2003), which is a photograph of cedar with zero ornamentation nor commentary (other than the interesting comment by the artist who has produced a work that presents itself as an exact reproduction of the smell of cedar) are the definition of Representationalism. So are the brilliant “Eau de Lierre” by Fabrice Pellegrin and—anyway, I could go on and on. (“Timbuktu” and “Sienne l’Hiver by Bernard Duchaufour, two of the most extraordinary Realist works in any medium.)

Memory of Scent made an excellent observation that disposes with what I think is your central concern and periods. Correctly understood, a period does not equal a style. With a few tweaks of my own for clarity, I simply quote:  “[A]rt movements emerged and then were only used as a reference. A Romantic painter cannot exist today because the Romantic movement does not exist anymore [it was specific to a specific era/ culture]. However, a painter whose work is influenced by the romantic movement can work today. His work would be part of another movement, a contemporary one that references the earlier style to make a contemporary point. In this sense all movements represented in the [Art of Scent] exhibition still exist today [as] reference[s to] a general concept to explain the mood, [style/ aesthetics of the olfactory work].”

Conservatively yours,



Well, Chandler, I think I'll let you have the last word (or 1,500), since I have to turn my attention to serious visual art (just joking). BUT (taking the last word after all), I'll just say that the "revolution" you describe is not that, at all. You'll just have to trust me that, in the world of visual art, it's been a couple of decades since anyone notable has thought that notions of "period" or "style" or "movement" were of any real use for getting at what matters in art. Period terms are still used as vaguely useful heuristics, but always with the knowledge that there's an ever-present danger of turning them into essentialist categories (leading to empty discussions of the "nature of Cubism", the "nature of Romanticism" etc.) I guess that my biggest problem with transferring notions from the visual arts onto scent is that it all seems more metaphoric than not -- If L'Interdit is Pollock-ish, it's via a leap of faith and synaesthetic imagination, rather than because there's the kind of close and obvious correlation there is between Pollock and de Kooning. But now I have to go find a haptic curator to do battle with.

Cheers, avant-gardishly,