The Smells of Art – Olfactory Experiences at the Stedelijk Museum

by Eve Kalyva

Did you ever think that a museum visit would start with smelling coffee beans? This is what I found at the entrance of #artSmellery, a brief olfactory experience set up at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

The concept was simple: choose six paintings, make a fragrance for each and put it on display. The works selected were Vincent van Gogh’s Vase with Carnations (1886), Roy Lichtenstein’s As I Open Fire (1964), Leo Gestel’s Reclining Nude (1913), Marc Chagall’s The Violinist (1912), Kazimir Malevich’s An Englishman in Moscow (1914) and Piet Mondrian’s Composition no. IV, with Red, Blue and Yellow (1929). Scent artist Jorg Hempenius created a unique fragrance for each of these works by mixing and matching different scents. According to Hempenius:

“with the help of scents, it is possible to enter into a more intimate relationship with the artworks – to discover the story, the purpose and the feeling behind them. What would the artist like you to experience? Scents offer you a different way of responding to that and increase the emotional element of a painting.” (#artSmellery exhibition brochure)

For the visual display of these scent-based works, white fabric surfaces were soaked in their respective aromas. They were then sized and framed according to their reference paintings and hang on white partition walls. The initiative was sponsored by Siemens Home Appliances.

I was immediately captivated by the idea. What a great way to engage with art, I thought. Inside a white space completely emptied of all other visual references, surely I would be able to come closer to those remarkable paintings not only metaphorically, but also literally. Who wouldn’t be thrilled if offered the chance to touch and smell a masterpiece? This was certainly one of the selling points of this exhibition. I was also lucky enough to be alone in the exhibition room. I felt that my imagination was given time and space to grow, entertaining different ideas about what those empty white surfaces could tell us beyond their visual representations.

Unfortunately the excitement was short-lived. Perhaps it was my untrained nose, but all the paintings smelled the same. Thinking that surely that was a flaw on my part, I went to the exhibition twice, making sure I neutralised my olfactory receptors in between the works by sniffing those coffee beans. Still, no change. What was more, I started suspecting that what I was smelling was probably the very strong perfume or make up scent of the person who had just ran over the paintings before me. Even when I finally managed, by the end of my visit, to faintly detect slight smell variations, it was a real disappointment that each work was assigned a single scent.

What one would expect from an olfactory re-creation of a visual composition is to retain its compositional elements. Multi-sensory aids add to one’s overall experience of an artwork, be it sounds, smells, textures etc. There is an undeniable merit to this, creating inclusive museum experiences which also cater for the visually impaired. In combination with other reference material, such a holistic experience of art has marked educational value. It contextualises an artwork and allows one to be immersed in it, even briefly. Scent-based experiences are therefore a great tool for museums as cultural-educational institutions. This is especially true for today’s audiences who, overexposed to flickering information and with limited attention spans, can be described as the “scroll-down generation”.

But let us examine more closely how this great idea was set up at the Stedelijk. What were the criteria for selecting these paintings? For certainly these have different compositional virtues, and therefore different display demands. One would think that van Gogh’s carnations was a straightforward choice, and the Van Gogh Museum has recently set up a permanent educational section in the museum where one can touch a copy of Sunflowers, smell and even listen to them. Lichtenstein’s and Gestel’s works seem also a straightforward choice. Yet they beg the question why there was only one smell made for each work, albeit composite. This reduction turns into a clear disadvantage for the works of Chagal, Malevich and last, but certainly not least, Mondrian.

In the exhibition brochure, the scent artist explains the different compounds of the fragrances he devised: musk and sweat for Gestel’s nude; warm wood and fresh mints for Mondrian; blindfolded selection for Malevich since, Hempenius argues, the objects in this artist’s paintings do not relate to each other; and vanilla for Chagal, evoking childhood memories and making a parallel to Chagal’s working from memory. Based on this very explanation, however, wouldn’t it be more appropriate if different sections of the painting surface had different smells?

At this point, one could argue that instead of thinking in terms of translating a visual painting to an olfactory experience, one should think in terms of rendering a visual work through a different sensory channel. The grounds on which this rendering from the visual to the olfactory is made, then, marks the extent to which this endeavour can be described as an educational one. If there is no specific correspondence between what the painter would like us to experience and what we have been offered by the scent artist, then the discussion shifts from education and learning to artistic licence and appropriation. While both are valid approaches to art, it is crucial that this instrumental distinction is made.

It seems that the Stedelijk’s initiative relied (somewhat) on the marketing interests of its sponsors (in this case, washing machines and fabric odour removal). The apt display of innovation notwithstanding, one is left wondering whether the overall experience brings us closer to art, or closer to its market. Differentiating between the two is one of the challenges museums and art education face today.