What We Can Gain from Training our Nostrils – The Sense of Smell in the Arts & Humanities

blog nose institute art and olfaction materiality course

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

In an article in Time Magazine (2018) Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell. An example would be to sniff our food instead of just looking at the expiration date before throwing it away when it’s still perfectly fine to eat it.

But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are allegedly more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced and pleasing 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 or olfactory olfactory turn in the humanities

This is not a typo. In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and more specifically olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as anthropologists Constance Classen, David Howes, Annales School historian Alain Corbin, and later art historian Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history.

Paying attention to our senses can truly broaden our gaze according to a new promising generation of scholars. Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” (2018) 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”

Something has changed since the first olfactory turn. And that is the addition of actual sensory sources. I call this the second, or olfactory olfactory turn, because it actually involves the senses, instead of just texts on the senses. Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations, but as extra strings of information.

Many contemporary scholars, such as cultural historians Holly Dugan and Inger Leemans, claim that using the sense of smell has broadened their gaze and that of their students. My own practice as a sensory historian, curator and teacher made me realise that smelling even facilitates detecting and better understanding textual expressions related to olfaction. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. Sensing and smelling have become tools to gather serious information.

Urban Geographer Tim Verlaan, who set up the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, explains why the senses are important in the education of art history and architecture students:

“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 as a scholarly discipline has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by  ‘visual culture’. Although this emerging field is broad in the sense that it transgresses the boundaries of art history, media studies, architecture, design, anthropology and museology,  it seems to ignore any other sensory phenomena and is therefore actually quite narrow. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students art history professor Patrick van Rossem (University of Utrecht) implemented the course ‘The Senses’ (2018) for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history besides reading texts.

I developed the course ‘The Other Senses’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague almost ten years ago, about the same time olfactory artist Maki Ueda started her ‘Smell and Art’ program at the same academy. During these classes ArtScience students don’t just study articles, but train their senses and learn how smelling, tasting and touching are related to knowledge, language and art practices in a different way than sight is. In addition At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Dr. Manon Parry, Dr. Inger Leemans, Wouter de Vries (PhD) have set up ‘Knowing by Sensing’ as we speak, believing that sensory practice can actually lead to extra strings of information and knowledge building; an idea still quite alien to most text-driven scholars. Sensory training is often associated with grammar schools, and in specific Montessori education. But as we become more and more detached from our lower senses and our body, even adults have a whole world to gain. After all, all cognition is embodied and starts by sensing.

How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish

There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start addressing our noses nd why the sense of smell has become such a popular phenomenon, according to Ashraf Osman, curator and 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”

People feel an urgent need for material sensory encounters (maybe more so than ever since Covid-19 has forced us to stare at our screens), that cannot be shared online as a counter-reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same platforms, 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 both educate the nostrils AND 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 Caro Verbeek and Stefanie Dathe 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 a quite 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.

Smelling 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



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



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)



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



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




What?                     “Odorama”

Where?                   Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Since when?           2015

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

Frank Bloem

For whom?             anyone



What?                     “Smell Lab”

Where?                   Berlin

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Klara Ravat

For whom?             anyone


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 – incidents. 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 beliefs in mind. I found the story while researching the olfactory dimension of William of Orange’s life. 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. Nowhere does Forestus mention why, but he must have been familiar with the idea of the womb as an olfactory organ (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, scent and art historian


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

My personal website


  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

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (caro@caroverbeek.nl)

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


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian


The Jean Grenouille in Kurt Cobain: Nirvana’s lead singer’s tribute(s) to Patrick Süskind’s ‘The Perfume’

The first album I ever bought was ‘In Utero’ by Nirvana. 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’)

Only much later I found out this song referred to a novel I hadn’t heard of at the time.

The Perfume (Das Parfum)

I bought the Nirvana album a few years before my father explicitly 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 when I was about 15, three years after I first heard Cobain sing about a ‘scentless apprentice’. But only recently the two were connected in my mind.

The main character in the novel – Jean Grenouille – was born without a scent, which made people mistrust him. ‘every wetnurse refused to feed him’ Cobain sang. Grenouille had murdered virgins to concoct his own artificial body odour.  His divine composition of skin excretions of innocent attractive virgins, made everyone believe he was pure and innocent. The moment he applied it to his skin, standing on a scaffold overlooking a large crowd, people bowed in front of him (before having an orgy) even though a few seconds before smelling him they were planning to execute him hor his murderous crimes. Such was the impact of this scent. It’s as though Süskind tries to convince us that not seeing but ‘smelling is believing’.

jean grenouille virgin

jean grenouille orgy

‘makes me want to cut off my nose’

Cobain was obsessed with Süskind’s creation. 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’). Although his ex-girlfriend stated he always smelled very clean and nice due to a hair product by Aveda.

Scentless Apprentice

When Jean Grenouille was born in 18th century France on a fetid fish market  (right before large scale hygienic campaigns in which roads were paved, sewers constructed, and public buildings ventilated)  everyone was afraid of but no one realised why. He was born without a body odour. The first verse of Cobain’s 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 scent extracting technique Cobain called ‘flower pressing’ technique which he captured with the line ‘there are countless ways of pressing flowers’. The correct term however is ‘enfleurage’ and it’s not about putting pressure actually.

In the book Grenouille discovers enfleurage as the perfect means to capture the fleeting essence of virgins after finding out the distillation technique doesn’t work on human beings. Grease can absorb and preserve fragrant oils. From the moment he acquired this new insight, Grenouille starts to wrap his dead virgins in cloths impregnated with grease. Since their fragrant essence is what makes them alive in his twisted mind, he never really took their lives.

Cobain’s painted tribute to ‘The Perfume’ 

nirvana in utero back side

The rarely discussed back of the ‘In Utero’ album shows a painting by Kurt Cobain based on a sort of collage that he had laid out on the floor. 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’: Nirvana and olfactory history.

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



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



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


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian


“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

Western (contemporary) people, find it incredibly difficult to describe scents. There seems to be a dramatic mismatch between smell and language and a lack of proper vocabulary. This problem is often attributed to a physiological condition. But is our brain to blame for this ‘malfunction’?

Probably not. There are cultures – mostly hunter-gatherers – that have absolutely no trouble describing scents at all. Take the Jahai for example, studied at length by psycho-linguist Asifa Majid. They have unique and abstract words to classify groups of odours such as:

Ltpɨt  =  fruit, perfume, soap, bear cat

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


(this bearcat smells Ltpɨt)

These words describe abstract characteristics or common denominators. But how did the Jahai come up with these words? Apparently context determines wether we need words or not in order to survive (this was another of Majid’s conclusions concerning the rich smell vocabulary of the Jahai).

So how did our western ancestors deal with this problem? Did they need to be able to vocalise olfactory experiences in order to survive? Apparently they did. There were once many more labels, because they were necessary in knowledge production. In 18th century Paris for example, there was a need to describe scents in order to monitor and protect public health, because certain odours were thought to spread diseases or to be a manifestation of illnesses (2). It is really hard to study this vocabulary though, because where to look when words and their meaning have disappeared? Yet this is the mission of many scent historians:

“…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)

This conclusion by Dugan is fundamental: it means that besides looking at different cultures, we can and should also look into history, and that historians are able to contribute to the debate on olfactory language.

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. This rudimentary type of classification is now referred to as ‘hedonic’.

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:






The classic philosopher also claimed that only human beings were 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 Linnee (Linnaeus) in 1752. He based his scent categories on the healing properties 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 tone, but it did have some erogenous qualities according to the scientist.  Number 6 consisted of buxus, cannabis and opium and 7 of helleborus (indicating plants like the Christmas rose) and dracontium (for example ‘skunk cabbage’). 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’, referring to tobacco, coffee, chocolate and vanilla:

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

5. But all these scales were still classifications along an axis of good and bad (hedonic) and quite one-dimensional.

In 1911 therefore Hans Henning invented the first 3-D system. Every possible scent supposedly exists somewhere in this prism:


6. The second multi-dimensional system was invented in 1927 by Crocker and Henderson, which was based on scales:





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


(A goat smells ‘caprylic’ (Crocker – Henderson) or ‘hircinos’ (Linnee and Zwaardemaker))

7. One of the more recent classification systems was suggested by Jellinek in 1992. He combined emotions, tastes and scents. So besides classifying odorants, he looked at their effects:


Caprylic or goaty would fit 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 invented language Nasalo by the renowned artist and linguist Sissel Tolaas. Her language is based on several existing vocabulaires worldwide. Not only do words from this language describe moods and atmospheres evoked by scents, but also combinations of very characteristic scents such as ‘wet dog’ and ‘puqsa’ which signifies ‘mold and mushrooms’. Her words are meant to take away our prejudices inherent to certain sources of smell. Who said a sweaty wet dog can’t smell divine? After all ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are culturally determined classifications.

Connecting signifier and signified

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

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’ in Jahai). 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 only become meaningful when we can link them to real-life experiences. Let’s start expanding our smell vocabularies as of today!

Evernote Camera Roll 20180122 171059


  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


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian




You See More with an Olfactory Gaze: the Fragrant Dimensions of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck (1430 -1432)

1200px-Lamgods_open 2

Twenty years after seeing an image of ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Van Eyck as a first year art history student, I finally went to see it on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. I must admit I held my breath when I distinguished the first contours of the immense tryptic in the St Baafs Church (an extremely mouldy and damp place, not exactly a solemn atmosphere). But I did much more than just looking in order to perceive it better.

Using the whole body

It is impossible to experience its impact by means of a projected or printed image, while passively sitting on a chair. Its colours are so much more vibrant, the details so much more vivid and visible. And the altar piece’s size forces you to move. It is so huge you need to tilt your head almost 180 degrees from left to right, and 90 degrees up and down, and since the back is also adorned with depictions you need to do a small procession all around it. This renders the piece a kind of agency and a physical attention as it demands a dynamic effort by the viewer.


The Olfactory Gaze

A few years after my first encounter I became interested in scent and olfactory history. I never consciously thought of the altar piece again. But when I saw it in all its majesty yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the many fragrant references.


  1. In the lower middle panel, right in front of the bleeding Lamb, there are two angels with incense vessels or censers. In the audio tour it said this was meant to ‘honour Christ’. But I know now it’s bit more complicated than that. Sweet and fragrant substances were literally, in the nose of the medieval beholder, a means of communication to God. They did not symbolize prayer, they WERE a fragrant ascending prayer in themselves, and were considered a more direct and suitable language than spoken and written words (and not the other way around, as many authors often claim).lam gods wierook 2
  2. Any offering to God in the Bible, is always a burnt offering, regardless of its nature, including animals, or fragrant resins. Only when smoke rises ‘per fumum’, it can reach the nostrils of the divine being (beings in ancient cultures). Smoke transcends the material into immaterial matter and ‘pleases God’. That is why Noah immediately burnt frankincense and myrrh when he found drylands and why Christ was offered fragrant resins by the wise men. Christ himself was the highest burnt (fragrant) offering imaginable. The lamb on the altar signifies this fragrant sacrifice.


  1. In the garden in the middle panel – a depiction of Paradise or the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were expelled – there are at least 70 kinds of plants, fruit trees and flowers. What is very striking is that many of the flowers are and were used by perfumers (priests were the first perfumers, composing perfumes for burnt offerings). In their aromatic and colourful dimension, flowers were thought to give of constant prayers (see point 1). Again, the scent itself was thought to carry meaning, not just to symbolize it. To the right in the lower middle panel, there are irises and lilies. Not just beautiful to look at, but exuding extremely strong perfumes.

Iris en lelie lam gods 2

  1. Hardly distinguishable, in the panel directly next to the garden, on the lower right, there is a procession of people dressed in faint colours. At the back, there is a woman carrying an ointment jar. This must be Mary of Betthany or Mary of Magdalen. The oil in her jar was called ‘spikenard’:

lam gods nardus

“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”

This paragraph, taken from the gospel by John, meant that Mary acknowledged Jesus as a spiritual and worldly leader. Spikenard was only  reserved for kings, high priests and pharaohs, being very expensive coming all the way from the Himalayas. She must have spent a year’s income on the jar, indicating her wealth. But it also signified something else. Feet were usually only anointed when the person they belonged to was already deceased. Her fragrant act signified that she predicted both his upcoming sanctity, as his untimely death. The jar in Mary’s hands is a visual reminder of an olfactory layer in a usually textually narrated story.

This olfactory way of looking at a famous visual piece of art, made it a much more rich, sensory experience; one that made a huge impression on me that I presume will stay with me even longer than 20 years from now.

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian


Dancing scent and aromatizing movement


In fin-de-siecle poetry one can find many descriptions of scents in flux or movement. For example in Comtesse de Noaille’s poems:


“Sur ta chair le parfum rôde

Comme autour d’un encensoir”


This roughly translates as: “On your body, perfumes rise, like from an incense burner”

Robert de Monstesquiou – also known as Professeur de Beauté – described a scent impression in a similar manner


“N’ oublions pas la suave invocation des parfums,

dont les moites brumes, les bleuissantes

spirales, s’ etirent et se bouclent au-dessus de la

priere pour tous”


Montesquiou speaks of ‘spiraling’ scents that expand and lift up, like a fragrant prayer. These movements definitely enhance the bodily and sensual, even erotic, aspects of scent experiences through words. The authors seem to describe the fumes of odorants that are diffused ‘per fumum’, meaning, through smoke, in a time when incense burners were still very common. Smoke of course rises, changes, expands, and moves in spirals toward the sky (which made ancient people believe it was an excellent means to communicate to the gods).

The Futurists are the only artists I came across that kept using movement-terms to put their finger on the fleeting and ephemeral nature of scents, when incense burners had already become somewhat out of fashion.

In ‘Ritratto olfattivo di una donna’ (1932, ‘Olfactory portrait of a woman’) F.T. Marinetti narrated his frantic search for a woman in a modern city, filled with the fumes of carbon, smoke and fire. But he catches a whiff of her nevertheless. ‘Do not look at her, sniff her’, he wrote in uppercase, as if he tried to educate the nostrils of his readership.

And then one of the most poetic yet concrete description of all the smell trails (sillage) one person could possibly ‘produce’ followed:


 this soft

most agile egg shaped

volume of fresh red perfumes

with on top

3  6  nine spirals of scents of vanilla”

“To the left and to the right globally on the head

moving arches of odor

milky and most fresh

of acacia”

 I could go one like this even longer. But I won’t. It just made me wonder: Isn’t movement an excellent and realistic way to describe scent impressions? Don’t scents always leave an invisible yet dynamic trail? If we could visualize the behavior of odorants, it would be a ballet of appearing and dissolving shapes. Volatile citric notes would move in a fast and upward manner. Heavy basenotes would linger longer and lower to the floor.

During the scent hackaton at Mediamatic, organized by Saskia Wilson Brown (Institute of Art & Olfaction) and Klara Ravat (Smell Lab), (and just a litte help from me) the audience (odience…) was asked to describe 25 hard to classify scents, kindly provided by IFF. After about 12 rounds of labelling them (in which almost everyone kept mentioning sources or memories), we decided to turn to cross-modality and synesthetic language.

Something incredibly interesting started happening when we asked people to express the scents through gestures, shapes and movements.

People didn’t hesitate to make the most expressionistic movements with their fingers, hands, arms and sometimes even entire bodies. Although sometimes there seemed to be a bit of consensus (very horizontally oriented movements, or very firm, or more ethereal gestures), most of the time there wasn’t. But should this really matter? Smells and experience are very closely related. Kant deemed smells unaesthetic because he was convinced it was impossible to ponder on their nature (just on the subjective experience they trigger). I personally feel it is more interesting to study and describe the personal reaction to smell than its static ‘objective’ nature. At least that way we can express to others what goes on inside our brains and bodies when we try to classify the hardly classifiable.

At the end of the two days four participants engaged in a dance in order to communicate a smell in a non-traditional way. They each expressed one ingredient of the perfume they made from the IFF materials. It was silent, yet it spoke a thousand words, and those present were observing in absolute silence (even though we were quite noisy the rest of the time).

One dancer made very outward movements, another one more inward. Someone hugged herself (base note?), another one raised his arms to the sky (top note?). After a few minutes their movements started to synchronize and they walked in a circle. They now embodied the perfume they made as a synthesis. I had no idea what it was supposed to smell like just by looking. But I was ‘moved’, while sitting there quietly and immobile. Movement enables us to express an emotion. In fact, a whole set of emotions. Because that is what perfumes do. They tell an entire story.

the dance was performed by

Boris Raux/ Anna d’Errico/ Sonja Tobé/ Nenad Popov


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian