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



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

“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)


(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)

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.

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:






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:


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





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


(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:


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


  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





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 on a projected 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 requires you to move. It is so huge you need to move 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 allusions.


  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 descending prayer in themselves, in 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, no matter if they are 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. She forecasted not only his upcoming sanctity, but also his death. The jar in Mary’s hands is a visual reminder of a 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.

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 around 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