Culturalising the Smell of Death? – From Warzone to Pedestal

A nose witness report of the worst smell in the world

War correspondent Robert Dulmers (Amsterdam) is one of the few people that encountered it. A smell that is banished from our daily lives and society. Only in rather extreme circumstances, such as war, one is faced with it. With a horrified facial expression, eyes fixated on an invisible distant scene, he described it to me:

“The first time I smelled it, I automatically flinched and stepped back. It’s as being stung by a wasp. And even though I had never smelled it before, I knew…. This is the scent of a human decomposing body”

Dulmers – who is also a scholar and an author – continued talking about his experience by comparing it to a famous literary scene:

“What struck me was how immediate and unmediated my reaction was. Like the main character in “À la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust who suddenly recalls his early childhood after dipping a madeleine in lime blossom tea, as he had done numerous times in the past. But the difference was: I had no recollection of this smell. Yet my whole body, my whole mind knew… or rather felt [slowing his pace of speech] this… is… death…”

After my question how he would describe the scent, and not the experience, he gave a rather surprising answer:

“I had smelled rotting animal flesh, and cooled bodies placed on biers, but that’s different. The smell of putrefied bodies is sickly faint and sweetish. It is extremely repulsive. If I had to compare it, it’s a bit like mashed baby food, but much worse”

Dulmers – after a multitude of experiences – realized there is no such thing as ‘the’ smell of death. There are several:

“It depends on how someone died. If there was struggle and agony – so called ‘death sweat’ – bodies can smell more sour and salty. Like the body odour of a runner but a hundred times stronger. It also depends on age”

The smell of death in art

In ‘normal’ circumstances, bodies would never start to reek to the extend described by Dulmers. They are cooled and then buried or cremated within a limited amount of time before the miasmas can reach the noses of the living. A rare historical example of a smelly rotting corpse, was handed down from the biblical and art historical tradition. But this too was a very extreme (and unlikely situation). When Jesus planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, bystanders objected: ‘but the body already reeks!” Yet Jesus performed this miracle by both overcoming the worst enemy of humanity, and the malodour that comes along with it. In some works of art we see the disgust manifested in the pinched and covered noses of those present. Christ however, as a supernatural being, always remains unaffected.

blog dood giotto lazarus padua

figure:  In this fresco only the ‘faint-hearted’ women cover their noses. Giotto, Raising of Lazarus, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.1304 – 1306

Smell control

But even before bodies start to decompose, cultures all over the world (subconsciously) practice some sort of smell control rites. Certain rituals such as putting flowers around graves and caskets are actually driven by the sense of smell. Have you ever wondered why the lily is a funerary flower? It contains a lot of indole which doesn’t just mask putrefaction, but actually perfectly blends in with it.

lily blog death

‘A God walks into an exhibition…’

Unlike in chaotic warzones, in rare cases this extreme smell is framed in an organized way and displayed in a museum. In 2016 olfactory artist Peter De Cupere (Belgium) organized the exhibition ‘The Smell of War’ commemorating the centennial of the first gas attacks during The Great War, which actually took place around the venue in Poperinge (Belgium). De Cupere invited several artists and perfumers (such as Gayil Nalls, Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser) to reflect on the smell of war (which isn’t always disgusting but can be quite pleasant at times) and some participants even created new work.

the smell of war poperinge blog death

Figure: the venue for ‘The Smell of War’, curated by Peter de Cupere, Poperinge

The Juice of War

Maki Ueda (Japan, Netherlands) was one of the participating artists. Ueda recreated the scents of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for her work ‘The Juice of War’, which was actually based on a visual memory:

“When I was a child, my bedroom contained a shelf of my mother’s books and one of these book was about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Inside I found photos of burned and rotten bodies.[…] . It was in the high summer season so the bodies would quickly rot… The photos were so shocking to me that for nights I was afraid to go to sleep”

The artist (a vegetarian) distilled burnt and rotten meat in order to obtain the right odour. I asked her about the process of working with these disgusting scents. Her reaction is comparable to that of Dulmers:

“I didn’t want to overreact to the scent, but it was so powerful that it gave me a headache and made me vomit in the process. It was more of a biological reaction, like when I was pregnant I could not stand the presence of garbage”

So it turned out the scents were even more shocking than the images. Maki had to alter them in order to make them presentable:

“….when the scent was extracted with alcohol […] it did not have the power as I smelled it before. However, if I would have brought the original smell, there would be flies permanently and the exhibition would have had to stop. (Actually it once happened at Lakenhal, where I exhibited the smell of meat as one of the Dutch scents that Geisha’s encountered in Deshima. So I was a bit afraid….)”

ueda juice of war flemish prime minister

Figure: the Flemish prime minister smelling ‘The Juice of War’, 2015

We tend to contemplate and react more intellectually in the dystopian atmosphere of the museum. But is this actually possible when it comes to the smell of death? Even by culturalising, framing and trying to control it, the real thing remains too disgusting, too immediate, too primal as the reactions of these nose witnesses confirm.

Maybe only gods can visit exhibitions about the smell of death.

 

 

 

 

Spring is Fragrant and so is Venus – Botticelli’s Primavera Explained by the Sense of Smell

la primavera botticelli

In 1481/1482 renaissance artist Botticelli finished the immense painting ‘La Primavera’, which he created for the occasion of the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world and can be admired in its place of ‘birth’ Florence.

The flowers and plants in Primavera (spring) are an important and very striking part of this work of art. The antique gods Mercury (to the left) and Venus (in the center) are surrounded by colourful fruit trees with juicy oranges that arise from a fresh green meadow, and flowers in bloom scattered all over the place. Botticelli portrayed these flowers with such great care and detail that they are actually recognizable as real specimens. Guido Moggi – former director of the Botanical Garden in Florence –and Mirella Levi d’Ancona identified almost  200 of them in 1984.

Aromatic symbols

These and most other scholars discuss the visual beauty of the botanical specimens and the myths they were mentioned in as an explanation for Botticelli’s choice of depicted flora. But what about their aromatic dimension? This painting is one big open window exuding the most wonderful and characteristic scents of Tuscany in spring. Is there an olfactory iconography to this work of art? There is proof Botticelli was intentionally added aromatic symbols.

Botticelli most probably took several renaissance texts as a starting point. In ‘De Rerum natura’  by Lucretius, there is a very clear reference to both the visual and olfactory appeal of spring, which is represented by the goddess Venus. I found a good English translation:

“Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus’ boy, / The winged harbinger, steps on before, / And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora, / Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all / With colors and with odors excellent”

In another Latin (sorry) contemporary poem called Rusticus by Poliziano – which the painter most probably also used as a source of inspiration – again, Venus’ fragrant exalations are central:

“Semper odorati Venerisque stipendia flores. Vitarumque altrix urbi male nota voluptas”

Venus is always fragrant, it says. It is clear that the poems visually quoted by Botticelli do not just revolve around visual beauty. Taking that into account, we take a closer ‘look’ at the flowers. In fact, ALL (!) of them aren’t just colourful, but highly fragrant. Coincidence?

Love is fragrant, and so is Venus

primavera mirte blog spring smell

Venus in the centre of the painting, is surrounded by myrtle, beautifully defined against a pale blue sky. This a a smell informed choice. This plant with its very strong scent was well known in ancient Greece and Rome for its healing properties and associated to the island of Cyprus, the birth place of Venus. Myrtle was used as a fragrant offering to statues representing the goddess of Love, known in Greece as Aphrodite. Its perfume is fresh and warm at the same time, sweet yet savoury, and smells slightly medicinal or anti-septic (which it actually is).

In 2006 archeologist Maria Rosario Belgiorno excavated an ancient perfume factory on Cyprus in which she found several traces of the essential oil of this plant. Many of the oils and perfumes produced there, probably had both esthetic, medicinal and spiritual purposes. She reconstructed some of them by doing chemical analysis and replicating ancient maceration and distilling techniques. This ancient heritage eventually lead to one of the modern perfumes categories ‘Chypre’.

The other very fragrant flower dedicated to Venus is the rose. It is very (very very) likely that this flower was chosen as an attribute of the goddess exactly for its aromatic properties. Aromatic plants were thought to be a manifestation of divine presence in ancient Greece and Rome. The attar of roses was one of the most costly perfumes. It was praised by the likes of Pliny the Elder for its sweet, long lasting scent. Until the present day lovers still give each other roses.

 

In the hair, dress and hands of Flora – standing right next to Venus – we encounter the same flower, in addition to  tiny blue myosotis flowers, also known as ‘forget-me-nots’ or in Italian ‘non-ti-scordar-di-me’. It goes without saying they are strong smelling. This would certainly help with their memorability.

 

On Flora’s dress we also see embroidered carnations (representations of representations of flowers, clever Botticelli), which exude a somewhat green, sweet, yet bodily scent. Both the light pinkish colour and scent refer to sensuality. How these flowers are placed on her body, along with the position of her hand, definitely has an erotic touch to it.

The Smell of Victory

Other very strikingly scented flowers exit from the mouth of Chloris on the extreme right. Chloris was a nymph chased by Zephyrus, one of the winds. The moment he catches her, she turns into Flora. This transformation is depicted by Botticelli by placing Flora and Chloris right next to each other. The flowers she seems to exhale are probably sweet smelling roses or anemones, strawberry flowers and cornflowers. Zephyrus is surrounded by laurel, which gives of a very sweet and refreshing scent. This freshness was the reason for Romans to coronate heroes with laurel wraths so they could literally breath the sweet smell of victory, as could fellow soldiers.

 

In the field below the feet of all these figures we find a whole amalgam of flowers that have been used in perfumery for thousands of years, such as the iris, jasmin and the grape hyacinth.

 

Figure showing a very small depiction of a grape hyacinth, almost absorbed in the background.

 

Depiction of iris flowers, very precious perfume ingredients, and also the symbol of Florence.

An allegory of the senses?

Furthermore art historian Marieke van den Doel, came with an interesting analysis of the painting as the representation of the hierarchy of the senses as a whole. The pleasure seeking Zephyrus, Chloris and Flora represent the ‘lower senses’ of smell, taste and touch, whereas Mercury and two of the three graces (the dancing figures) stand for the higher senses of seeing and hearing. The lower senses were associated to youth, lust and foolishness, whereas the higher senses were linked to the intellect and to true beauty, according to renaissance humanist Ficino. Venus, symbolically located at the center, supposedly forms a bridge between these opposites.

So what we have here is the visual representation of all the senses, which together might lead to the marriage, not just of two people, but also that of the senses, of love and carnal desire, through a synthesis of seeing and smelling.

  1. Marieke van den Doel, Ficino en het voorstellingsvermogen. ‘Phantasia’ en ‘imaginatio’ in kunst en theorie van de Renaissance’, 2008
  2. Mirella Levi d’Ancona, Botticelli’s Primavera. A botanical interpretation including astrology, alchemy and the Medici, Olschki, 1983

 

 

Smelling Can Make You a Better Scholar and a More Sociable Human Being – If You Educate Your Nostrils

blog nose institute art and olfaction materiality course

Studying fragrant materials at the Institute of Art & Olfaction, L.A., Courtesy  IAO

In a recent article in Time Magazine Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell.

But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced perfumes) is somewhat limited.

Luckily, educating our nostrils in a conscious way has become more accessible and meaningful than ever. Universities, art academies and cultural institutions offer courses all over the world. Over the past few years (fashion) designers, artists, philosophers, (art) history students and theatre makers have been training their sense of smell. Here is why we should do that according to professors, museum directors and artists.

The second olfactory turn in the humanities

In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and even olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as Constance Classen, David Howes, Alain Corbin, and later Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history. But something has changed since the more recent or second olfactory turn.

Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations.

Many contemporary scholars claim that the sense of smell has broadened their visual gaze and that of their students. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. It has become a tool, and is now considered informative in its aromatic dimension.

Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have recently set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” to do exactly this:

“My co-organiser and I felt that it was important to hold the Art and the Senses seminar as the theme overcomes chronological and geographical boundaries in such a way that other frameworks do not offer. The seminars have been generating discussions about methodological approaches to art history and the merits of studying artworks through the senses”

The same goes for the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. According to urban historian Tim Verlaan:

“In the study of public space, traditionally most attention goes out to visual aspects. However, other senses play an equally important role. I invited sensory specialists from the humanities to teach students how to experience and interpret their daily living environment with their ears and noses, instead of just through their eyes”

From ‘visual culture’ to ‘sensory culture’

Over the past two decades art history has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by ‘visual culture’. Although this aspect of culture transgresses the boundaries of disciplines such as art history, media studies, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory, it is excluding the realms of our other senses. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students dr. Patrick van Rossem implemented the course ‘The Senses’ for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history.

How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish

There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start working our noses according to Ashraf Osman, founder of Art Scent Net:

“With the digitization of sight and sound, smell has become one of the last bastions of materiality in an age of immaterial globalization. The resistance of odor to digitization makes it one of the aspects of an artwork that still demands the physical presence of its audience in order to experience it. As such scent is, perhaps unintentionally, emerging as a refuge for the necessity of embodiment in the artistic experience.”

Saskia Wilson – Brown – founder of the Institute of Art & Olfaction in L.A. sees another relation between the digital and the rise of smell culture initiatives:

“I think there is interest in scent because – thanks to the internet – there is quite simply the possibility to do it, now. People are able to learn about it, and most importantly to buy the chemicals and dissemination devices etcetera, to start their own practice. Since it’s possible, people are doing it. And since people are doing it, more outlets are appearing. It begets itself”

So people feel the need for material sensory encounters, that cannot be shared online as a counter reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same social media, people can form communities and inform each other about programs and actual meetings about scent.

Smell as the social sense par excellence

blog nose klara ravat's piece 'Smell Transplant' at Mediamatic 2017

“Smell transplant” workshop by Klara Ravat, picture Ani Jo studio, courtesy of Mediamatic

Smell is the social sense par excellence. The Institute of Art & Olfaction (L.A.), Mediamatic with its “Odorama“-series (Amsterdam) and the Smell Lab (Berlin) offer courses to create a sense of community, since smell requires proximity of people in the same physical space, sharing ideas around the same topic and collaborating in creative projects.

Klara Ravat – olfactory artist and curator of Smell Lab (Berlin) thinks our need for human contact is the reason for the increase in olfactory programs and courses worldwide:

The increase of the olfactory trend is born from a craving of a society in need of belonging somewhere. Fragrance seems to be just the perfect tool to grant that desire […] Scent can makes people more empathetic towards each other”

In the same line of thinking Dr. Asifa Majid – professor of psycholinguistics specialized in the sense of smell – made it very clear how educating the senses  of children can contribute to more tolerance towards one another

“Schools are a forum where we train our children’s visual and auditory skills, but we neglect their remaining senses […] incorporating all the senses is also an important way of learning another culture’s worldview, especially in our multicultural communities”

blog nose children smelling an olfactory exhibition at Villa Rot

Children are being made aware of their sense of smell at the exhibition ‘Scent in Art’, which I curated for Villa Rot in 2015

Smell courses in art academies: fresh perspectives

More and more art students (the Royal College of Art, the Hague, the Royal College of Art, London and PXL Mad, Hasselt) are taught how to engage with new and demanding (museum) audiences through the sense of smell.

The Dutch-Japanese artist Maki Ueda has been teaching the course ”Smell and Art” at the ArtSicence Interfaculty at the Royal Academy of Arts the Hague for almost 10 years now. Ueda choose the olfactory game as a starting point because it requires a creative approach, that is neutral in a sense that the quality and nature of the scents are less important than the sense of smell itself:

“From the beginning I made a conceptual and abstract approach to medium of smell […] We always have limited fragrance materials but we never end up with thinking of new games”

Beside challenging her students to playfully explore the limits of our most neglected sense in order to get acquainted with its characteristics and peculiarities, there is also a practical dimension. Students actually learn the basic skills of perfume making:

“There needs to be a poetic aesthetic dimension too. That is why I teach students a somewhat scientific approach to the medium of smell by extracting and composing, in order to entertain their audience in a creative way”

blog NOSe the audience smelling Peter de Cupere's work in De Warande, Turnhout

Visitor Smelling work by Peter De Cupere at De Warande, Turnhout

Renowned Belgian olfactory artist Peter De Cupere established the “Art Sense(s) Lab” a couple of years ago. He is specifically interested in the ‘lower’ or rather ‘near’ senses, which have been left out of the aesthetic debate from the 18th century onwards, but which establish very direct and innovative ways of engaging people:

“Museums and exhibition makers show more interest in the near senses and this will increase over the following years […] There is also a greater demand for sensory experiential art because that way the viewer is more personally and individually involved in the artwork and the exhibition visit. Artist can provide in that demand”

Last but not least, I would like to mention the most surprising course in this list. Susan Irvine has set up a course on olfaction for fashion students at the very prestigious Royal Academy of Arts (RCA) in London:

“Exploring the sense of smell feels right for an art college where learning is about experience, about embodiment, about the undermining of the critical norms established by a valorization of linguistic abilities […] It is interesting that among the students working in olfaction at the RCA, many are focused on the smells emitted by the human body.  Others are interested in how odours create a smell-space where we enter a communal, ritual experience. Something that can’t be replicated online”

All the above courses and initiatives demonstrate our collective need of the sense of smell in academic and artistic contexts and beyond. At the same time they provide us with a sense of connection to others, and our shared history.

Smell can make us better scholars, better artists, and more sociable, tolerant human beings. If we start educating our noses.

blog nose educating the sense of smell

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

member of NOSE network

affiliated to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Mediamatic, Amsterdam, the Royal Academy of Arts, IFF and the Rijksmuseum

http://www.caroverbeek.nl



 

If you would like to train your sense of smell, take a look at the list below. This is an incomplete yet representative overview of what is happening in the field of olfactory education (outside perfumery) right now. This blog and the list of courses will hopefully serve as a valuable document for current and future researchers concerning our attitude towards smell and education in the 21st century.

 

International Scent Programs in the Arts and Humanities

 

Courses within the humanities:

 

What?                     “Art and the Senses”

Where?   Cambridge University

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière

For whom?             Art historians

https://www.hoart.cam.ac.uk/images/grasuate-research-smiars-poster-lent-2018

 

What?                     “Urban Culture”

Where?                    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Tim Verlaan, Hans Fidom, Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Art, architecture, design and media students

 

What?                     “the Senses”

Where?                    University of Utrecht

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Patrick van Rossem

For whom?             (art) history, philosophy and theatre students

 

Grammer school course

 

What?                     “Language of the Senses”

Where?                  Worldwide initiative

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Asifa Majid

For whom?             children

 

Courses in Art Academies

 

What?                     “Smell and Art

Where?                    ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Academy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2009

By whom?               Maki Ueda

For whom?             ArtScience students, but eventually the wide audience they perform to http://smellart.blogspot.com

 

 

What?                     Fashion and Olfactory Art

Where?                   Royal College of Art, London

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Susan Irvine

For whom?             Fashion and design students

 

What?                     “The Other Senses”

Where?                   ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Acedemy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2010

By whom?               Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Artscience students (obligatory)

http://www.interfaculty.nl/programme/courses/

 

What?                     “Art Sense(s) Lab”

Where?                   University College PXL-MAD (Media, Arts & Design), Hasselt (Belgium)

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Peter De Cupere

For whom?             Post-graduate artists and designers, eventually museum visitors

http://www.artsenseslab.be/media/pdf/PXL-MAD-Art-Senses-Lab_2016-2017.pdf

 

Unfortunately the course will cease to exist next year, but De Cupere is working on an alternative course.

 

Courses within art institutions

 

What?                     The Institute of Art & Olfaction

Where?                   Los Angeles

Since when?           2012

By whom?               Saskia Wilson-Brown

For whom?             anyone

http://artandolfaction.com/

 

 

What?                     “Odorama”

Where?                   Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Since when?           2015

By whom?               Mediamatic & Caro Verbeek, co-curated by Sanne Groeneveld en

Frank Bloem

For whom?             anyone

https://www.mediamatic.net/en/page/236592/odorama

 

What?                     “Smell Lab”

Where?                   Berlin

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Klara Ravat

For whom?             anyone

https://.smell-lab.org/

How Charlotte of Bourbon Was Saved by A Foul Smell – or the Womb as an Olfactory Organ

womb funigation in Thesaurus chirurgiae 2, 1610

Device for womb fumigation, from: Thesaurus chirurgiae, 1610

Two noses?

For thousands of years the womb was considered an organ of olfaction. It was thought to have the capacity to perceive and react to odorants.That is why famous doctor Hippocrates (470 BC – 370 BC) prescribed perfumed pessaries to guarantee fertility and healthy offspring:

“..make a pessary the size of a big olive. Then apply into the vagina for the entire night. Let [the patient] sleep lying on her back. During the day let her remove it [sc. The pessary] and cleanse herself with warm myrtle water, as much as possible. Then during the day let her apply [the pessary] when getting close to the night. After that, let her meet [with her husband]”

Helkiah Crooke (1576 – 1648) – court physician to King James I of England – argued that smells could result in equally negative – even fatal – effects. The  scent of an extinguished candle for example, was enough to kill an unborn child:

“Wombs are much affected by sauours and smelles: so that some haue been knowne to miscarry upon the stench of a candle put out” (1)

 

 

Gynaecological odor therapy

According to Crooke odours were very useful to relocate the ‘wandering womb’ to its proper place. Foul smells like a burning feather perceived by the nose, made the womb retreat, whereas fragrant substances such as musk placed between the legs attracted the womb (1). The most powerful therapy consisted of using odorants for both ‘noses’ simultaneously. This is why the womb was sometimes even fumigated, with appropriate pomanders.

A medieval medicinal book – The Trotula – recommended women to smell heavy or repellent odours such as burning wool to drive the uterus from the upper body (2). Fragrant substances had the opposite effect. For pregnant women musk was considered dangerous when placed under the nose: it would pull the womb the wrong way with serious complications.

 

Trotula portrayed in a 14th century copy of the original 12th century manuscript

William of Orange’s wife saved by a scent

The story of the healing of William of Orange’s wife – penned down by their court physician – makes much more sense with these firmly rooted assumptions in mind. I found the story while researching the olfactory dimension of William of Orange’s life for a reconstruction for an exhibition. Charlotte of Bourbon allegedly got sick of the scent of fragrant flowers right before going into labour. According to Pieter Forestus (1527 – 1591) she didn’t feel better until all the fresh flowers had been removed from her room, and something foul smelling had been placed under her nostrils, which was probably a burning feather. (3) Her servants were even prohibited to wear garments perfumed with musk to prevent her from feeling sick. William of Orange himself was once cured by the same physician by doing the opposite: his fever diminished when fresh leaves and plants were placed around his bed (3).

 

Charlottebourbon Daniël van den Queborn1579 blog

Charlotte of Bourbon, 1579. Holding a bell or a pomander at the height of her womb.

The odour-emitting womb; a scientific fact?

Although the womb isn’t known to actually react to odorants, it possibly emits some. In 2012 scientists made an extraordinary discovery. It appears that the odorant ‘bourgeonal’ attracts semen. This lily-of-the-valley like compound is supposedly emitted by the womb. Recently this myth got debunked again.

But the fact that our bodies possibly perceive and react to chemicals in a much more profound way than contemporary scientists presume, is highly intriguing, especially in the light of two millenia of historical examples.

Futurist Scents is a blog by art and scent historian Caro Verbeek

For more information visit Lizzie Marx’ exhibition ‘Smelly Remedy: Womb Fumigation’

My personal website

References

  1. See Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, 2011
  2. Trotula is said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno. See Monika H. Green (ed.), The Trotula – A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine
  3. See R. Fruin ‘Eenige Ziekten van Prins Willem I’, in Bijdragen voor Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde’, 1886

The Nose as an Academic Tool – Understanding Art History by the Sense of Smell at Cambridge University

smelling session at cambridge

The audience at Cambridge University during a Historical Sniffing Session

It probably still smells like ancient resins, modernist perfumes and a hint of Surrealist exhibition design at Cambridge University. On the 7th of February I diffused some (art) historical scents for the program ‘Art and the Senses’, organized by Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière.

Knowing by Smelling

Can adding olfactory illustrations actually lead to more knowledge?

The Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that he was capable of ‘sniffing out the truth’(1), and deemed the sense of smell ‘our most refined instrument’. This consequently lead the founder of Futurism Marinetti to exclaim that ‘The scent, the scent alone is enough for us beasts! (Il fiuto, il fiuto solo basta alle belve!) in his 1909 founding manifesto. The sense of smell and intuition were related concepts around the fin-de-siècle. Marinetti and Nietzsche used the term ‘flair’ or ‘fiuto’ in both senses of the word.

Nietzsche in 1882 and Marinetti. Nietzsche was an important source of inspiration for the olfactory explorations and expressions of Futurism. 

Along the same line of thought scent philosopher Annick le Geurér argued more recently that:

just because the sense of smell is coined as anti-intellectual, doesn’t mean we cannot benefit from its information intellectually. Smell is revelatory not just of substances, but also of moods, climates, and even existential states. The sense of smell is a subtle tool of knowledge that allows for an intuitive and prelinguistic understanding” (2)

Beyond Intuitive Knowledge

The idea that smells can convey subjective knowledge, is now widely accepted. But I am convinced the nose is a tool of knowledge that can provide us with ‘objective’ information as well. If only by classifying materials used in historical objects, such as pomanders. What did they contain? And why?

A couple of years ago I  sniffed a pomander that belonged to Dutch queen Wilhelmina, now part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum. There was clearly olibanum and labdanum in the fragrant substance inside the jewel. These substances can easily impregnate vast areas because these odourants are both persistent and intense. That makes them extremely useful for covering up foul odours. I did not know this until I actually smelled them and experienced their spatial behaviour.

Bitter Myrrh as a Sensory Metaphor – Transhistorical Qualities of Scent

Scent compositions, like paintings, aren’t only affective emotional objects that evoke memories or moods. They sometimes can be analyzed and judged by their abstract characteristics. Odorants have a volume, aromatic quality, duration, trigeminal quality, etc. etc. that can be perceived regardless of a cultural background.

Take ‘myrrh’. This resin was one of the three gifts offered to Christ. At least until the the 6th century the scent itself was thought to have conveyed a prophetic message. Being of a bitter quality, it was believed to forecast Christ’s future suffering, whereas the sweeter frankincense signified his holiness. And there are many more examples, probably more difficult ones to access, of fragrances carrying meaning in their aromatic quality. Of course this meaning still needs to be embedded in its cultural context, just like art historians would do with visual works of art.

Geertgen_tot_St._Jans_-_De_aanbidding_van_de_koningen_-_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-2150 blog cambridge

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1480 – c. 1485, Rijksmuseum

 

Recognising Olfactory Expressions in Texts and Paintings – Smelling is Believing

Even the purely text-based historian can benefit enormously from smelling. Many people in the west aren’t likely to recognise olfactory references in paintings and texts, especially when they are almost invisible. But once you start smelling, it is as if one can switch on special olfactory glasses, highlighting different words and aspects of paintings.

The most beautiful example of a ‘hidden’ aromatic message, must be ‘Isaac Blesses Jacob’, depicted here in this painting by Govert Flinck in c. 1638.

Isaac was old and his eyes had become dim when he was ready to give his blessing to Esau, the eldest of his twin sons. When – encouraged by his cunning mother Rebecca – the other son Jacob approaches Isaac to falsely receive the blessing, he has to deceive all the senses his father can still use. He wore a goat’s skin on his arm to deceive his sense of touch, to seem just as hairy as his brother Esau. But it was the sense of smell that truly convinced him:

“Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said,

“See, the smell of my son
is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!
May God give you of the dew of heaven”

 

Olfaction in mind, Rebecca was clever enough to make Jacob wear some of the hunting gear of his brother. Not seeing, but smelling was believing in this case. Flinck made sure to paint a small piece of cloth, wrapped around the neck of Jacob, referring to his ‘smelly business’. A visually insignificant element, yet essential to the story. While talking about the painting, I tend to diffuse the smell of a field, emphasising the sense of importance by directly addressing it. This generally makes people more aware of the often forgotten dimension of history.

isaak zegent jacob blog cambridge 2

Combining Olfaction and the Intellect to Better Understand History

The idea that scents are just by-products, not having any agency, and not being used for their inherent qualities, prevents us from ‘seeing’ more than we possibly could. The only way to successfully incorporate scents in academia and to reconstruct a ‘period nose’, is to diffuse them, analytically smell them (distinguish subjective judgement from abstract qualities), and contextualize them. Only when the sensory and the intellectual are combined, scents can become serious methodological tools and increase our understanding of the ephemeral olfactory past. Therefore I would like to urge scholars and others to start smelling the olfactory elements and objects of the stories they research.

  1. Nietzsche, F. (1874), Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben in: Labuhn, B. (2017), “Breathing a Moldy Air – Olfactory Experience, Aesthetics, and Ethics in the Writing of Ruskin and Riegl”, in Future Anterior, vol XIII, nr. 2, pp. 103 – 117,
  2. Annick le Guerer, (2002) ‘Olfaction and cognition: A philosophical and psychoanalytic view’, in C. Rouby, B. Schaal, D. Dubois, R. Gervais, & A. Holly (Eds.), Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The Jean Grenouille in Kurt Cobain: Nirvana’s lead singer was so obsessed with ‘The Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind he dedicated a song and even a painting to it

The first album I ever bought was ‘In Utero’. I clearly remember my father translating the title of the second song on the album for me (I was too young to fully understand English):

SCENTLESS APPRENTICE (In Dutch that would be ‘geurloze leerling’)

The Perfume

It was at the same time that my father forbade me to read ‘The Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind (1985), which I had discovered on a shelf in the living room. Of course that made me even more curious. And I read it. For the first time.

The main character Jean Grenouille murdered virgins to concoct his artificial  body odour.  His divine composition of skin excretions of innocent attractive virgins, made everyone believe he was the one so pure and blameless in his multi-faceted olfactory presence. So when he wore it, people bowed in front of him (before having an orgy).

jean grenouille virgin

jean grenouille orgy

‘makes me want to cut off my nose’

Only recently I found out the song my father translated for me, was inspired by ‘The Perfume’. Kurt Cobain – the lead singer of Nirvana – read it at least 10 times. In a 1993 interview, he stated that:

“It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me. Cause I’m a hypochondriac (and) it just affects me–makes me want to cut off my nose.” (1)

Was he afraid that his sense of smell would make him kill virgins? Or worried that his body odour might attract the wrong type of person? Cobain was known for not wearing any deodorant (not even ‘teen spirit’).

Scentless Apprentice

When Jean Grenouille was born in 18th century fetid France in a fish market  (right before large scale hygienic campaigns in which roads were paved, sewers constructed, and public buildings ventilated)  everyone was afraid of him. There was something very off about him. He was born without a body odour. The first verse of the song reflects exactly that:

“Like most babies smell like butter

His smell smelled like no other

He was born scentless and senseless

He was born a scentless apprentice”

 

Pressing Flowers and Enfleurage

jean grenouille making perfume blog

The second verse of the song continues to narrate the story of the scentless apprentice Jean Grenouille and the ‘flower pressing’ technique. In the book Grenouille discovers ‘enfleurage’ as the perfect means to capture the fleeting essence of virgins and to preserve it. Grease absorbs fragrant oils and stores them. From the moment he acquired this new insight, Grenouille starts to wrap his dead virgins in cloths with impregnated with grease (their fragrant essence is what makes them alive in his mind anyway).

 

Cobain even painted ‘The Perfume’

nirvana in utero back side

The rarely discussed back of the ‘In Utero’ album shows a painting by Kurt Cobain. It depicts embryos and countless lilies and other flowers. These babies surely call to mind the ‘scentless apprentice’, born surrounded by stench, later creating perfumes out of flowers, and then dying in a heavenly odour of reversed sanctity (lilies refer to the virgin Mary and are known as funerary flowers). ‘The album In Utero’ containing a song and a painting referring to The Perfume, is a double homage to one of the greatest novels of all time, and an amalgam of my first and second ‘obsession’.

Lyric[Verse 1]

Like most babies smell like butter

His smell smelled like no other

He was born scentless and senseless

He was born a scentless apprentice

 

[Chorus]

Hey, go away!

Go away!

Go away!

 

[Verse 2]

Every wet nurse refused to feed him

Electrolytes smell like semen

I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets

There are countless formulas for pressing flowers

 

[Chorus]

Hey, go away!

Go away!

Go away!

 

[Guitar Solo]

 

[Verse 3]

I lie in the soil and fertilize mushrooms

Leaking out gas fumes are made into perfume

You can’t fire me because I quit!

Throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fits

 

  1. Interview with Ehm, 1993

 

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“Something smells quite caprylic. Or is it more empyreumatic? No it’s Ltpɨt” How historical and non-Western smell vocabularies can enrich our language for smells

There are cultures – mostly hunter-gatherers – that have absolutely no trouble at all describing scents. Take the Jahai for example, studied at length by professor Asifa Majid (Max Planck, Nijmegen). They have unique words to classify groups of odours such as:

Ltpɨt  =  fruit, perfume, soap, bear cat

PlƐɁŋ= blood, fresh meat, fresh fish  (1)

beermarter

(this bearcat smells Ltpɨt)

Western contemporary people on the other hand, find it incredibly difficult to describe scents. There simply isn’t any vocabulary. How did our ancestors deal with this problem? Was there always a lack of words to name odours and their characteristics? The answer is no… There were once many more labels.

Apparently context determines wether we need words or not (this was another of Majid’s conclusions concerning the rich smell vocabulary of the Jahai).  In 18th century Paris, there was a need to describe scents in order to monitor and protect public health (miasmas were thought to carry diseases) (2). Just like in pre-modern England:

“…early modern English included a much larger vocabulary of sensory description than most scholars assume, a vocabulary that is now mostly obsolete. […] Scent descriptions included marechal (cherry), naphe (orange), thymiana (incense) and suffiments (general terms for medicinal scents)” (3)

The following is a chronologic list with a selection of historical classification systems (a rather staccato and far from complete one, but one that will hopefully inspire you):

1.In antiquity Plato was convinced smells could only be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ being of a ‘halfstate’ in between air and water.

plato and aristotle

2. The system by Aristotle was a bit more elaborate, combining taste and smell experiences and even tactile impressions on the tongue:

Sweet

Harsh

Astringent

Pungent

Rich

Aristotle also claimed that only mankind was capable of smelling ‘aestheticically’ and enjoying the perfumes of flowers.  Obviously he was wrong, as many animals sniff flowers without the purpose of eating them.

animals smelling

3. The first more complex classification system was created by the famous botanist Linnaeus in 1752. He based his scent categories on the medicinal qualities of plants, which he connected to the pleasantness of their odours from good (aromaticos) to nauseating (nouseosos). The fourth group ‘alliaceos’ (garlic and onion/ sulphuric) was neutral to him. The fifth group (hircine = goaty), which was quite unpleasant contained ‘orchis’, a flower with a strong urinal touch, but it did have some erogenous qualities according to the scientist.  Number 6 consisted of buxus, cannabis and opium and 7 of . Other than what many people think, Linnaeus didn’t just describe plant odours. The animalic odours such as musk, civet and ambergris were listed under the first category ‘aromaticos’.

Linnaeus, Odores Medicamentorum

  1. Aromaticos
  2. Fragrantes
  3. Ambrosiacos
  4. Alliaceos
  5. Hircinos
  6. Tetros
  7. Nauseosos

4. The Dutch scientist Zwaardemaker complemented this system in 1895, adding words like ‘empyreumatic’ which means ‘smoky or burnt’:

  1. Fragrant
  2. Ethereal
  3. Aromatic
  4. Ambrosiac
  5. Alliaceous
  6. Empyreumatic
  7. Hircine
  8. Foul
  9. Nauseous

5. But all these scales were merely hedonic (good or bad) and quite one-dimensional.

In 1911 therefore Hans Henning invented a prism:

prism

6. The second more dimensional system was invented in 1927 by Crocker – Henderson, which was based on scales:

Fragrant

Acid

Burnt

Caprylic

In this system ‘Vanillin’ would be 7122. Caprylic meaning ‘goaty’. So 7 for fragrant, 1 for acid, etc.

goat

(Something smells ‘caprylic’ (Crocker – Henderson) or ‘hircinos’ (Linnaeus and Zwaardemaker))

7. One of the more recent classification systems was suggested by Jellinek in 1992. He combined emotions, tastes and scents:

jellinek

Caprylic or goaty would fit in at the bottom: urinous, alkaline and cheesy. Interestingly it is also ‘erogenous’. Linnaeus likewise considered ‘hircinos’ the most erogenous scent. If you smell something sexy you might surprise your lover by using the phrase:

“my darling, there’s something so caprylic, alkaline and hircine about you tonight…”

8. Last but not least I would like to mention the self-invented language Nasalo by the renowned Sissel Tolaas. Her language is based on several existing vocabulaires worldwide. Not only do words from this language describe moods and atmospheres, but also combinations of very characteristic scents such as ‘wet dog’ and ‘puqsa’ which signifies ‘mold and mushrooms’. Her words tend to take away our prejudices towards smells. Good and bad are culturally determined after all.

 

Connecting signifier and signified

But all these words and examples will only be useful when we actual start smelling things, connecting signifier (word) and signified (smells). This would be a good starting point: bringing scents into academia.

At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I work as a PhD-candidate, we already started. In Dutch there is only one abstract word for smells, which is ‘muf’ (a little ‘puqsa’). The word was embodied by (pretty serious) professors at the history department in our ‘muf’ bicycle cellar to emphasize and celebrate its importance (signifier and signified are merged). Words refer to nothing if we cannot experience their meaning, qualities and effects. Let’s start expanding our smell vocabularies as of today!

Evernote Camera Roll 20180122 171059

Sources:

  1. Majid, Asifa, Burenhult, Niclas (2014), “Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language”, in Cognition, pp. 266 -270)
  2. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant, 1982
  3. Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume, 2011

 

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