Smelling Time? – On Scent as a Vanitas Symbol in Art

In the 16th and 17th century, the ‘Vanitas still-life’ was an immensely popular genre. Iconographically this category represented the fleeting nature of life and how we should not spend it in vain (vanitas) by simply satisfying our primary needs. Many items found on these still-lives refer to the passing of time and death, earthly pleasures and fragility: hourglasses, skulls, soap bubbles, musical instruments and flowers are just some examples.

blog smelling time vanitas hourglass

Dutch 17th century vanitas.

Depicting the Invisible

A vanitas element that is often overlooked – partially because it is invisible – is smell. Scent, being inherently volatile, disappears. Its very essence is ephemeral and transient, just like time itself. In fact, the flowers in still-lifes should be regarded as multi-sensory carriers of meaning. As their petals and stems wither, so will their aroma, from floral to putrid until the scent completely disappears. Incense burners visibly emitting smoke are a more explicit and very clever way of depicting that very aspect of scent, like in this still life by Edwaert Collier from 1693.

edwaert collier vanitas still life with incense burner

Edwaert Collier, “Vanitas Still Life” with an incense burner at the top right, 1693.

But there are even more explicit examples. This 18th century pomander disguised as a (mock) watch is one of them. A pomander (derived from ‘pomme d’ambre’) was an item (usually made of metal) filled with fragrant substances such as clove, nutmeg, musk and ambergris. Pomanders were used to protect oneself by ‘cleansing the air’, since bad smells (miasmas) were thought to transmit diseases such as the plague (more on miasma-theory here and a top 10 of fragrant remedies here).

blog smelling time pomander-watch   blog smelling time pomander watch inside

Pomander-watch. Before 1750. Currently owned by Dekker Antiquairs, Amsterdam.

Could it be that handling what seems to be a watch was more accepted than sniffing a pomander in public? Or was it considered humorous to make people think one was ‘smelling the time’? Both watches and pomanders were hung from chains and could be looked at or sniffed whenever necessary by lifting them. They are of a similar archetyptical shape. Furthermore both pomanders and watches share the vanitas-motive of time. This is emphasized by the division of the scent compartments into quarters (of an hour).

A Modern Vanitas Still Life Featuring Scent

In the 20th century scent has continued to symbolise vanity and time. In 1965 installation artist Edward Kienholz created a down-sized replica of a bar in Los Angeles known as ‘Barney’s Beanery’. The replica doesn’t just look like a bar, it also sounds AND smells like a bar. The artist had mixed stale beer, cigarette ashes, rancid grease, moth balls, and of course urine (allegedly Jim Morrison had once even peed on the counter) and had smeared the paste on a ventilator. The Stedelijk later replaced this ingredient by ammoniac.

blog smelling time kienholz beanery

Edward Kienholz, inside of “The Beanery”, 1965, collection Stedelijk Museum.

The visitors on the stools and elsewhere in the bar all have clocks for heads, the clock-hands fixated in an eternal smile at 10 to 2. This scene can actually be considered a 3-D vanitas still-life visually frozen in time whereas the sound and the smell are actually time-based performative elements that keep on unwinding.

There is an old newspaper outside the bar that says ‘children are killing children in Vietnam’. The overall message is clear: while the people in the bar are spending their time in vain, innocent children at the other side of the globe are murdered and nothing is done to prevent it.

The Time Capsule Preserving Scent

Although (or rather because) the olfactory dimension of “the Beanery” is  time-based it is also limited. It had to be reconstructed several times by the conservators of the Stedelijk Museum.

Exactly half a century after “the Beanery” saw the light artist Esther Brakenhoff (who works at the library of the Stedelijk) was inspired by the analogy between time and smell in Kienholz’s installation. She created a capsule shaped like a classic clock with a reconstruction of the scent inside of it.

esther brakenhoff smell capsule 2015

Esther Brakenhoff, “Fragrance Capsule, Edward Kienholz – the Beanery”, 2015, private collection artist. Someone had tipped over the sculpture, spilling urine all over the pedestal. Kienholz would probably have loved it.

Smell is connected to time in both a concrete and poetic manner. They are both invisible and immaterial. Both force us to pay attention to the present moment. And they are interwoven phenomena: as time ‘keeps on slipping into the future’ so does scent as time passes by. Dogs are even said to experience time by their sense of smell. They know when their owners are returning from work because their scent trail has diminished to a certain extend.

Ironically some scents fade slower than sounds and images. They can linger for a while as an olfactory echo until these too vanish forever, reminding us of the temporality of life (memento mori!).





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