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The Art of Scent

Jan 25, 2013

by Chappell Ellison

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Museums privilege the sense of sight: paintings, sculptures, drawings, and films are the subject matter we expect to greet us when we walk through the doors of an institution. For that reason, the Museum of Arts and Design takes a major leap with The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012, the first American exhibition of its kind to present scents in the context of a gallery. This bold exhibition faces a major challenge: how do you present a work of art that you cannot see?

Chandler Burr, the curator of the exhibition, is a champion of scent, working tirelessly to see that the field is recognized as an art. His relentless efforts paid off over time; Burr became the perfume critic of The New York Times in 2006, a post he left two ago when successfully pitching the idea of forming a new unique department at the Museum of Arts and Design. “I made the case to the Museum that the Deparment of Olfactory Art was the next logical step and would revolutionize the art world by recognizing an entirely new artistic medium that, like photography 50 years ago, was universally unacknowledged,” explains Burr. The Department of Olfactory Art is now a permanent fixture within the Museum, the first of its kind.“The fundamental goal of the department,” Burr explained to The New York Times, “is placing scent as an artistic medium alongside painting, sculpture and music.”

The exhibit exudes stark minimalism, with white walls and descriptions projected on the wood floor. Not a single perfume bottle is in sight, a deliberate choice by the curator to steer clear of the commercial side of scent creation. Instead, the white gallery walls are quietly interrupted by twelve shallow depressions, just deep enough for patrons to lean in, triggering a hidden sensor that sprays a small puff of perfume. Patrons can also visit a nearby glass table, where paper strips are available for dipping into shallow wells of fragrant liquids. “It was an exercise in self-restraint,” says Elizabeth Diller, whose interdisciplinary design studio created the installation. “How to make nothing, but make it beautiful.”

Brad Farwell

Whereas painting and sculpture have long been artistic expressions of humans, perfumery was not established as a major area of study until 1889, when Aimé Guerlain was among the first to blend synthetic and natural ingredients. With the introduction of synthetic ingredients, perfumery finally had an infinite tool kit. It was at this moment, Burr argues, perfumery began its transformation into an art, and perfumers became artists.

Perfumery is a multi-billion dollar industry, where celebrities and fashion icons hawk their own signature scents. Yet as a high art, it remains to be seen if perfume can find acceptance into the canon. “To a degree it’s a problem of language,” says Burr. “We have not had anything other than a marketing language applied to these works.” If nothing else, The Art of Scent tests the waters. The serene exhibition calmly challenges patrons to stop, smell and ponder the question: can art be found in a scent?

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4 Featured Comments

  • thecupcakekid

    Rin from shopwhimandvigor said 4 years ago Featured

    I visited this exhibition recently, and it was incredible! It's hard to imagine that scent can be showcased as works of art and craft, but having experienced it in person, I now completely understand. It's complex, and emotional, and holds a different meaning for each person. Really a fantastic experience, and the whole museum is worth a visit right now -- there are also amazing jewelry and glass exhibitions happening.

  • themefragrance

    Theme Fragrance from themefragrance said 4 years ago Featured

    Scent is so evocative. It can be the past and the future. It can be soft, or it can be even explosive. I love that favorite scents can be a memory of a romance or the leather and paper of an old book, the scent of the sea. Each person has a different take on a scent, and each person has what I call a different scent memory. It's fascinating and never ceases to amaze me.

  • goestperfumes

    goestperfumes from goestperfumes said 4 years ago Featured

    Before I went into fragrance creation I went to France on a research grant to study this exact question - can fragrance be art? Yes! And it turns out that fragrance even measurably partakes in the the same aesthetic phenomena as the visual arts: abstraction, representation, realism, surrealism, etc. There are abstractive perfumes just as there are abstractive still lifes.

  • WoodlandCottage

    WoodlandCottage from WoodlandCottage said 4 years ago Featured

    Scent and emotion are so integrally related and yet so ephemeral in nature that I can understand why there has never been an exhibit of this sort before. But it's time! If “art” is a creation that elicits an emotional response—think visual medium, think music—then an appreciation for the emotional responses triggered by scent is long overdue. Kudos to the Museum of Arts and Design!

68 comments

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 4 years ago

    I am going...

  • gracearchives

    Leslie from GraceArchives said 4 years ago

    What an amazing experience that must be!

  • nat1489

    Natalie Jacob from EtymologyJewelry said 4 years ago

    Cool!!! I love the Museum of Art and Design, I will have to check this out!

  • greengrass2

    Liz from greengrass2 said 4 years ago

    What a great idea!

  • IlluminatedPerfume

    Roxana from IlluminatedPerfume said 4 years ago

    Its an awesome venture, too bad Chandler Burr only likes big corporate and synthetic perfume though. I look forward to visiting next time I go to NYC.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    I want to check this out so bad! Looks amazing! Yes...I am going!!!

  • OliveSpoonStudio
  • CafePrimrose

    Amanda Gynther from CafePrimrose said 4 years ago

    Fabulous!

  • gardenmis

    Priscilla from Gardenmis said 4 years ago

    What a treat for the senses! Art can definitely be found in a scent! Hopefully natural scents will get their opportunity to be noticed as well.

  • RECCIEatETSY

    Clarice Booth from RECCIEatETSY said 4 years ago

    This is such an awesome exhibit! It is about time….. Scent affects more than just our sense of smell. It is so important to enjoying everyday life. It can actually enhance our other senses. Scent first is recognized by our sense of smell, but it can also contribute to our sense of taste. Have you ever smelled something and your mouth begin to water? A scent can trigger your brain to remember specific people or events such as from childhood. (Bacon wafting through the air still smells like Saturday mornings when there was no school….. only cartoons and fun.) This is great, Thank you for sharing. Blessings.

  • iowajewel

    julie macneil from iowajewel said 4 years ago

    i would like see, i mean smell different things other than perfume, but not food necessarily things like fresh cut grass, wet dirt, a rose, rain...

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 4 years ago

    I agree with Clarice -- our sense of smell can connect us more instantly and more vividly to our pasts than any of our other senses. Our olfactory system is just so.... primal! There was a certain red flower (bottle brush?) which bloomed in California where I was born, and after I returned there for a visit after I had grown up in other parts of the country, there were sights and sounds which were vaguely familiar or forgotten... but once I caught a whiff of that flower, I was instantly transported back to an earlier, simpler time. I was 'home'. It almost moved me to tears.

  • TheOldeNutcracker

    TheOldeNutcracker from TheOldeNutcracker said 4 years ago

    I worked for a large perfume and cologne company in the 1980's. Every year we would bring consumers in to test the new products and get their reaction to the various scents before the big launch. Certain scents would bring out different moods and emotions and one scent in particular seemed to make people talk about their childhood memories of their Moms. Especially those who had Moms that used certain brands of hand cream or soaps. Our sense of smell is a wonderful and mysterious sense. Give someone a scent and they usually have something to say about it.

  • GeorgieGirlLLC

    D George from GeorgieGirlLLC said 4 years ago

    Putting this on my list of adventure.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    This sounds like a fabulous interactive experience, which is what meaningful art should be... wish it would come across the pond & set up in a gallery near me!

  • ladygatsby1

    Martha Muthoni from LadyGatsbyLuxePaper said 4 years ago

    Interesting art concept!

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 4 years ago

    Awesome idea :O)

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Interesting! Good reason for an NYC trip.

  • ImagineStudio

    ImagineStudio from ImagineStudio said 4 years ago

    In 1967 the World Fair took place in Montreal. I was 12 years of age and my parents took me for a weekend visit to the amazing site. Amongst all my amazing discoveries there was this one building...I think it was the Canadian Science Pavilion...there was a scent exposition. I remember it to this day...it was not so much about perfume...but clearly remember smelling scents that brought back to memory childhood scents long forgotten and completely unconscious. It was an extraordinary experience...and I would LOVE to go to this particular exposition. Great post! Thank you

  • WellRavelled

    Melissa from WellRavelled said 4 years ago

    Sounds interesting! I would go!

  • mirabellamorello

    mirabellamorello from mirabellamorello said 4 years ago

    Just another reason I wish I lived closer to NY! I would love to attend this exhibit! And, if you haven't yet checked out Chandler Burr's blog, I recommend it highly. He reminds us that not only fragrance, but writing about it, can be pure art. (Chandlerburr.com)!

  • HandpaintedThreads

    Maureen from HandpaintedThreads said 4 years ago

    If it touches the senses and imagination, it must be Art. What a wonderful exhibit and concept!

  • MTmaiden

    Helen N. Hanson from NonToxicSpiritArt said 4 years ago

    What a wonderful idea! The art of smelling is one of our richest senses. Smells remind you of people, places, wonderful moments in your life and so much more, when you close your eyes and smell it is absolutely an artistic experience. And, Perfume, don't get me started! Apothecary, do I need to say more? Scents mark you, define your mood, your love, they are a voice unto themselves. Losing my sense of smell years ago from the disease i have is a constant source of sorrow, so it brings me much joy to know that here at the Museum of Art and Design anyone and everyone that can go and use their olfactory sense will delight in a feast for one of our cherished senses! Thanks for the post!

  • TwitchyWitchy

    Bonnie Waller from TwitchyWitchy said 4 years ago

    Wonderful post! Perceptually, scent is developed before sight in the womb and so this art form is truly primal.

  • thecupcakekid

    Rin from shopwhimandvigor said 4 years ago Featured

    I visited this exhibition recently, and it was incredible! It's hard to imagine that scent can be showcased as works of art and craft, but having experienced it in person, I now completely understand. It's complex, and emotional, and holds a different meaning for each person. Really a fantastic experience, and the whole museum is worth a visit right now -- there are also amazing jewelry and glass exhibitions happening.

  • KnitKnit

    Nguyen Le from KnitKnit said 4 years ago

    Oh, so interesting and new! I'll have to check out the exhibit soon. Thank you so much for letting us know!

  • truecolorprints

    truecolorprints from truecolorprints said 4 years ago

    Fabulous!

  • themefragrance

    Theme Fragrance from themefragrance said 4 years ago Featured

    Scent is so evocative. It can be the past and the future. It can be soft, or it can be even explosive. I love that favorite scents can be a memory of a romance or the leather and paper of an old book, the scent of the sea. Each person has a different take on a scent, and each person has what I call a different scent memory. It's fascinating and never ceases to amaze me.

  • hoarderrehab

    Kennedy Miranda from HoarderRehab said 4 years ago

    I think fragrance is an underestimated art form. I used to use incense as a daily part of my routines to begin and end my day. I used different scents from perfume or incense as a way to destress with candles with or without a bath, lessen cooking smells, welcome friends as they walked in the door and often times certain scents took me places long forgotten. Sadly now I am allergic to most man made scents. And as a recovering hoarder I am letting go of my perfume collection started from my childhood. Coincidentally, an etsy buyer just shared her story of the memories the smell of Cartier will bring to her and her husband of 39 years! Making it much easier to let it go and say good bye...Thank you etsy for giving me this wonderful outlet to dehoard and to connect with such kind and supportive people!

  • noemiah

    Noémie Vaillancourt from noemiah said 4 years ago

    I really enjoy reading this article. Thanks for sharing!

  • hoarderrehab

    Kennedy Miranda from HoarderRehab said 4 years ago

    I meant underestimated art form museum-wise.

  • themefragrance

    Theme Fragrance from themefragrance said 4 years ago

    More! People of a certain age will recognize scents other age groups won't! For example the scent of mimeographed school papers, xerox machine, black and white photography lab chemicals, love baby soft, fizzies...the fragrances from shampoos and soaps of various decades will bring back a flood of memories good or bad. Mothers recognize the scent of baby skin. Think about it! Endlessly fascinating.

  • AkimaBotanicals

    Akima Morgan from AkimaBotanicals said 4 years ago

    As a beginner perfumer, I'm loving this. I'll have to make a trip up to visit this exhibition. As ThemeFragrance mentioned above - scent is the best trigger of memories, and many people will experience many things with different perfumes - which is exclusive to scent in a way that is not so the case with visual arts. Great article, thanks for posting it.

  • DeEscalaArt

    BEATRIZ DE ESCALA from DeEscalaArt said 4 years ago

    Great Job...

  • ivytanaka

    Ivy from IvyLoft said 4 years ago

    Love the sense of smell! Love the memories,dreams,and feelings associated with scents. Floral,grass,skunk,food,tires,paint,markers. Glad others do too!

  • goestperfumes

    goestperfumes from goestperfumes said 4 years ago Featured

    Before I went into fragrance creation I went to France on a research grant to study this exact question - can fragrance be art? Yes! And it turns out that fragrance even measurably partakes in the the same aesthetic phenomena as the visual arts: abstraction, representation, realism, surrealism, etc. There are abstractive perfumes just as there are abstractive still lifes.

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 4 years ago

    It's amazing to me how scent triggers so many memories! I'm sure the exhibit will have a great response for those able to attend. Thanks for the article!

  • WoodlandCottage

    WoodlandCottage from WoodlandCottage said 4 years ago Featured

    Scent and emotion are so integrally related and yet so ephemeral in nature that I can understand why there has never been an exhibit of this sort before. But it's time! If “art” is a creation that elicits an emotional response—think visual medium, think music—then an appreciation for the emotional responses triggered by scent is long overdue. Kudos to the Museum of Arts and Design!

  • TheHickoryTree

    Linda from TheHickoryTree said 4 years ago

    I'd love this exhibit, the spouse not so much. In college, we were doing a play at Northern Michigan University called "When are you coming back, Red Rider?" which took place in a diner. We wanted the audience to get the feeling that they were in a real diner. We fried bacon back stage and plugged in a fan to blow the scent out to the audience. Most of the audience members said later that they didn't even realize that they were smelling bacon but said that they did feel like they were in a real diner. Scents are a wonderful thing.

  • StillVintage

    StillVintage from StillVintage said 4 years ago

    Very interesting article. Scent is so great and helps us to bring back memories

  • sealiah

    Silvia Silvia from SEALIAHJewelry said 4 years ago

    different exposition very good

  • emwi

    Emily Wirt from emwi said 4 years ago

    Scent is such a fascinating aspect of many things that you wouldn't normally think. I love the connection between scent with color and texture in the culinary arts. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier said 4 years ago

    Long overdue in the museum world - the art of scent! While I praise the concept and am a true scent afficionado myself, I wonder about the choices of scents used in this showcase. So many of today's scents have lost their link to that which was their cause - namely flowers - and have veered off into the netherworld of toxic chemicals with the results being allergies and scent sensitivites of every color causing nothing but misery to the victims caught in its web. That being said, many of the older scents bring back so many vignettes of time and places of memory.....my mother's Shalimar and her Bal a Versailles.....my childhood Chantilly, Pavlova from the 70s....each evokes a different thought lost to time. I think though that the concept would be complete if expanded to include the accoutrements of perfume-making along with the past in vessels, labels - my grandfather designed a number of perfume labels and I still have some including concepts for Richard Hudnut - advertisements, etc. One of my dreams would be to be able to travel to the Musée de la Parfumerie Fragonard Perfume Museum in Paris and on to Grasse the world perfume capital just to breathe in the fields of jasmine, tuberose and hyacinth!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Tempting!

  • swaggjewelry

    April McGee-Riess from RawLuxGems said 4 years ago

    Thought provoking!!! Would love to go there.

  • FranceGallery

    France Gallery from FranceGallery said 4 years ago

    Sounds interesting!

  • byDelirium

    Angela from DeliriumAccessories said 4 years ago

    Great and yes it's souns so interesting!!

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 4 years ago

    Interesting. :)

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 4 years ago

    I had not thought of scent as an art form, and perhaps as a visual artist it is too easy to overlook the other senses...but truly our sense of smell is very powerful. Nothing evokes memories quite as intensely, as others here have mentioned. The scent of Chanel No.5 brings memories of my mother, for instance. Once I went into an old craft supply store to look around, and the smell of the place instantly evoked a long forgotten memory of my grandparents mobile home. I have no idea what that scent actually was, but I was flooded with memories of visiting them as a child. I had not been there in decades; I was 7 when they died. Anyway, perfume is not really my favorite thing...I find most scents overpowering and unpleasant, and some give me a headache. Synthetic ingredients may have expanded the creative options for perfume but perhaps that leads to excesses of intensity and complexity, like an overworked painting or an overly seasoned recipe. However I like the idea of museums exploring artistry beyond the established and conventional mediums.

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 4 years ago

    Very interesting...Never really gave it any thought...It certainly is a sense to be explored...May not be for everyone...

  • naturalwooddesign

    Darren from naturalwooddesign said 4 years ago

    Very interesting article....

  • VictoryBags

    Victoria Gray from VictoryBags said 4 years ago

    I get headaches from perfumes and will not be going that museum.

  • mlezcano

    Mary Lezcano from BellaBboutique said 4 years ago

    So fab.

  • MiddleGlass

    MiddleGlass from MiddleGlass said 4 years ago

    sounds great!

  • nativestrandsjewelry

    Rachel from PeppersJewelry said 4 years ago

    Good read on an exhibit devoted to the presentation of nonvisual art. That exhibit must smell heavenly. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

  • claudiadelrio

    Yaya from Liukenko said 4 years ago

    Interesting!, very different kind of exposition.

  • auniquedesign4u

    pam from stunningstuff4u said 4 years ago

    the article and comments bring to mind once again those wonderful senses we are given...yes smell, that sense, is an art form...I love it being termed in this manner...as I've experienced life(not aged;)this art form in me has diminished severely. It's a part of me, of my world that I truly miss Great article.

  • theMagiciansCat

    Cassidy Millar from TheMagiciansCat said 4 years ago

    Beautiful and thought provoking!

  • ShebboDesign

    Sebnem Shebbodesign from ShebboDesign said 4 years ago

    such an awesome exhibit!

  • PinesVintageClothing

    Pine from GoodOldVintageOnline said 4 years ago

    Fascinating concept! I think a big part of what constitutes art as art is a human creation that evokes emotion, and scents definitely do that.

  • neulanen

    sylvi from sylvitaimi said 4 years ago

    i was in an exhibition years ago that showcased identical ceramic vessels filled with essential oils. you could open and smell them at will. it was lovely for a while, but after a certain amount (and oakmoss in particular) i found myself nauseous and dizzy, and felt ill for a long time afterwards. the experience didn't put me off aromatherapy, quite the contrary, but perhaps taught a valuable lesson on moderation...

  • SugarRae1

    SugarRae1 said 4 years ago

    Some vintage perfumes are art to me. They don't make them like they used to! To smell an old perfume that one of my great aunties wore brings me right back to a summer day in early childhood, snuggling in a lap and listening to a story being read to me...

  • designlab443

    Tracy from designlab443 said 4 years ago

    There is art in everything!

  • StevenKidman

    steven kidman said 4 years ago

    We American whatever did, Did it full passion and strength. Perfume art is very different kind of science. Perfumes fragrance attract other to us. Make perfume use different flowers and oil is not easy. Just only on the basis of the smell/ fragrance it hard. I have also attend the exhibition in Brasserie Les Halles Restaurant Parking and after test different perfumes, i am smell less. over there. thinkless which one is best. finally, i drop out the exhibition. Go back to the office.

  • NinaRaizel

    Nina from NinaRaizel said 4 years ago

    This is so cool!

  • butikonline83

    Hendri . from butikonline83 said 4 years ago

    This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives indepth information. thanks for this nice article

  • richardlithgow

    Richard Lithgow from RichardLithgow said 4 years ago

    What a cool idea. So often our other senses are overlooked in the art world in favor of sight, yet our olfactory perception is just as significant. It's interesting to see the associations our mind makes with different smells.

  • nelson776

    Karen from NathalieLaneDesigns said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing!

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