The scent of art

We have talked in the past about the link between scent and literature. We have seen how perfumes are the protagonists of novels, poems, recent stories and those that are more rooted in history.

The reference to smell, however, is also present in art. When observing an artwork, our sense of smell is stimulated not directly, but rather through our eyesight that observes the work's composition, colors and subject matter, triggering that series of mnemonic reactions that serve to remind us of the corresponding smell.

This past month, the Prado museum in Madrid opened its exhibition entitled "The Essence of Painting. An Olfactory Exhibition," where thanks to a technology developed by a famous perfume house, it was possible to create an extrasensory experience that allows the exhibition visitors to delve more deeply into the subject matter and the world recreated in the painting.

The artwork presented is a Flemish painting by Brueghel the Elder and Rubens. The title of the picture is almost self-evident, "the Sense of Smell". It represents a child, presumably a cherub, caught in the moment in which he hands a bundle of flowers to an unclothed woman. The woman is identified as Venus, but these two protagonists are not the center of the essence of the painting.

In fact, the painting is a riot of details: more than 80 different types of flowers and plants, many animals and insects, and a series of objects linked to the world of perfumes are represented such as amphoras to collect essences.

The idea of ​​giving this painting an extra dimension came from Alejandro Vergara, curator of the Prado department of Flemish paintings. He decided to commission the Catalan perfume house Puig to create the perfume of ten of the subjects represented in the painting using the sophisticated Air Parfum technology. The scents represented are daffodil, orange blossom, jasmine, fig tree, the smell of the cotton gloves placed near Venus, and the civet lounging by her side, whose particular smell has been recreated in a totally synthetic way.

You might ask yourself how this combination of image and smells works? In the room where the painting is on display, four monitors have been positioned that reproduce the painting in four numbered sections; just click on the desired number to get a precise description of what you are seeing, whether it be a flower or another part of the garden, and a reproduction of its smell blows through micro-diffusers to give you an extra-sensory experience.

Tactile artistic experiences have always been proposed and are numerous, but this type of crossover between the senses is a novelty that we will surely continue to see with new exhibitions if it captivates its audience here. 

The forerunner, albeit in a very different way, of this type of exhibition, was the Museum of Art and Design in New York, which commissioned a project called “The art of scent” a few years back. This exhibit retraced the path of perfumery starting from its ancient artisan bases to the sophisticated discipline that it is today. The visit consisted of sniffing 12 scents considered "key," arranged in as many niches, inside an otherwise empty white room. Through the use of a switch, a flow of scented air was activated combined with a specific audio soundtrack and the projection of some targeted texts.

These types of exhibits are being tried on an experimental level to provide ever more real and multifaceted experiences to enthusiasts. Taste and smell are the two most difficult senses to recreate in their entirety. They can be described and experimented within the art field, but making them art, or essence, is something that has not yet been possible to achieve as artistic expressions more usually pass through sight and hearing.

We have to "settle" for attempts at innovation and continue to use the evocative power that certain images are able to give. As such, the Prado Museum's choice of a Flemish painting was not accidental. The Brueghel family is famous for the choices of subjects and intense, deep colors, indeed so intense that they immediately trigger the connection between what is seen and the olfactory and taste perception that derives from it.

The same goes for the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose notorious works are an ironic combination of fruit and vegetables that, amazingly, launched a message that went beyond one purely aesthetic or culinary in nature. The purpose was precisely to induce the interlocutor to go beyond the appearance provided by nature itself, and to grasp the superior essence.

The famous Monet claimed that nature and light combined together, generate perfume, exemplified in his depictions of vaporous, carnal and imperfect flowers, presenting the image of a voluptuous Earth that envelops the human being with the help of light. This was an idea that was taken up with decidedly more intense and colorful impact by the bohemian Gustav Klimt, whose painted gardens are full of flowers, women and of infinite scents, in the maternal Spring season.

Perfumery itself is art. Recreating aromas, mixing them, drawing them from nature to produce unique fragrances that express themselves slightly differently depending on the skin they encounter.

Likewise, cuisine and enology are the starting and ending points of all this, where every sense is satisfied in all its entirety, giving new sensations, evoking hidden memories, comforting, inspiring. And isn't this perhaps the primary purpose of art?

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