«I can sniff out the truth»
Such a strong and evocative sentence. Although it sounds like something a contemporary artist (like Peter de Cupere or Sissel Tolaas) could have said, these are the exact words of one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).
The explanation for his statement was twofold.
In the first place the philosopher referred to the so called miasma theory: before the discovery of biologist Pasteur that viruses and microbes spread diseases, people used to believe stench could transmit diseases. The aroma someone exhaled conveyed a lot of information on a person’s condition.
Secondly, and more importantly, Nietzsche – who was quite rebellious – responded to a dominant belief among Enlightenment thinkers that smell (and the other so-called lower senses, taste and touch) could never lead to aesthetic experience or knowledge like sight and hearing could, because these senses don’t allow for contemplation. Nietzsche however was a firm advocate of intuition as the supreme provider of knowledge, not opposed to but encompassing intellect and ratio. Smelling and intuition were highly intertwined concepts at this time (in many languages there is only one word for the two notions, such as flair in French and fiuto in Italian).
A contemporary of Nietzsche was also convinced that without the senses, and I mean all of them, there was no way of understanding the world.
I am talking about the famous education specialist Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952).
Montessori stated that without training the senses the world be unknowable to mankind. Even moral judgment would be impossible. Without sensory perception, it is after all impossible to understand the relationship between words and objects, between our inner and external existence. She made her young students touch, smell and taste and even weigh objects and relate their findings to vocabulary and to emotions.
These two iconic figures – Nietzsche and Montessori – weren’t even the firsts – to support the thought that sensing, and smelling in particular could lead to profound knowledge.
And one of them comes from an entirely different unexpected field. Namely from religion.
Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century, highly respected and well-known mystic, even though she was a woman. She was able to read and write and considered an intellectual. In fact, besides being a mystic this German Benedictine Abbess was a writer, composer, philosopher and visionary. Although retrospectively one might rather say ‘olfactionary’.
One of her most striking thoughts was, and I quote:
«By our nose God displays the wisdom that lies like a fragrant sense of order in all works of art, just as we ought to know through our ability to smell whatever wisdom has to arrange»
One of the olfactory phenomena she was referring to was the so-called ‘odour of sanctity’, an invisible aura exuded by saints thought to have a pure soul, obtained by prayer and asceticism (not eating and drinking). This odour was an earthly expression of a divine characteristic and a sign sent by god, following the theological principle that everything earthly (or satanic) smelled foul, whereas everything divine was fragrant.
The most famous saint who died in an odour of sanctity was Teresa d’ Avila, best known for the sculpture Bernini created hundreds of years later, capturing one of her visions in stone, with an eternal orgasmic expression on her face.
The moment she died her bedside attendants said the room filled with the scent of roses that grew to saturate the building. The convent smelt like it had erupted into bloom and cascades of invisible blossoms poured from the windows. Her grave held the scent of roses for eight months. And everyone knew and felt, just by inhaling, that Teresa was a Saint of the highest order.
Some 600 years after Hildegard von Bingen’s era, scents weren’t only considered the highest manifestations of divine presence, learning from smells could even save lives here on earth.
Alain Corbin reconstructed the social history of 18th century France through the perspective of the nose, or with an olfactory gaze. Physicians and medics and other professionals at the time were employed by the city to detect, describe and eliminate the foul and dangerous smells of the French capital to safeguard public health. This means that these professionals entertained a vast and more or less objective olfactory vocabulary.
Finally I would like to mention the realm of ‘visual art’. Unlike classic art history books (usually) convey, the sense of smell played a role in symbolism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, arte povera and so on. Within futurism olfaction was even embedded in the political and societal theories and art practices of this first true avant-garde movement. In line with their avant-garde approach – yet to my surprise – the first artist within this movement to not just write about the sense of smell, but to actually address it, was…… a woman!
As early as 1912 the French affiliated artist Valentine de Saint-Point performed exotic dances accompanied by wafts of scented smoke, in order to create a synaesthetic and multi-sensory Total Work of Art. It would take almost 20 years until Marinetti – the leader of the futurist movement – made use of perfume in one of his theatrical pieces.
The reason I mention all these historical examples is because:
- an apparent lack of olfactory vocabulary,
- smell’s supposedly historical insignificant role in society,
- smell’s association to the feminine,
- the subjective nature of smell,
- olfaction’s low position in the classical hierarchy of the senses and subsequently ,
- olfaction’s absence in historical philosophical and aesthetic debate,
are often mentioned in the opening sentences of articles as reasons for the suppression, underestimation or even seclusion of the sense of smell in art and science. We retrospectively seem to think that smell has always been treated this way, that we never had any words to describe what we smell, and was always ranked as one of the lowest senses.
If we keep communicating about the sense of smell this way, we are – perhaps unintentionally – actually emphasizing and helping sustain olfaction’s inferior position.
Institutions such as the Institute for Art and Olfaction, artists, scholars, critics, scientists and curators have put the sense of smell on the map.
It wouldn’t be exaggerated to speak of an olfactory renaissance.
But this renaissance is a relative one. Because it is still often taking place in encapsulated spaces and communities.
When we talk about a ‘rebirth’ (the actual meaning of ‘renaissance’), this presupposes there has been an era in which olfaction was celebrated before. And we now know it was.
If – with this historical knowledge in mind – we advocate the sense of smell as something that has been held in high regard throughout the ages by doctors, mystics, educationalists, philosophers, artists and society at large it would be much easier to elevate the status of olfaction among the people who are still oblivious of smell’s agency and capacity.
I would like to do a few modest suggestions to possibly obtain that:
- To all scholars (including myself): stop using the word ‘lower’ as an adjective for the sense of smell, taste and touch, and speak of ‘intimate’ or ‘proximate’ senses instead.
- To art historians: stop using the adjective ‘olfactory’ in ‘olfactory art’ in the long run and participate in symposiums that don’t revolve around the sense of smell as to grow awareness among those that aren’t familiar with the subject.
- To chemists, curators and conservators: let’s set up a course and guidelines for how to use smell in museums of fine art and take away the fear of smell among museum professionals.
- to all artists and perfumers: keep doing what you do! You are the vehicle of a revolution.
- To everyone in the realm of scent culture: emphasize that smell WAS NOT excluded from art, society at large, religion and philosophy, but a fundamental part of it
- To everyone in general: Just like olfaction, women’s role in history has retrospectively been underestimated. Both these (sometimes intertwined) can be highlighted simultaneously by acknowledging the pivotal role women played in scent culture
That way olfaction can finally be included as a fundamental and self-evident part of the history of art.
In the meantime: let’s inhale and exhale knowledge, let’s restore the fragrant sense of order, let’s sniff out the truth today.
by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian