Perception • June 2016
Olfaction and creation



This article considers the relationship between olfaction and creation from the perspective of contemporary Western visual art by combining multidisciplinary considerations, including field studies in art and science. It examines the role of olfaction in the aesthetic appreciation of the Fine Arts system, clarifying its value and its paradoxes in various fields. From the analysis of current art works and the evolution of creative practices, this article highlights the distinction between the odourisation of the art work and the odorous art work, in order to assess the contents of a recently emerging olfactory art, which involves new technology. Unique today, the artistic approach of Eduardo Kac has opened up a new experimental and poetic path that promotes odour as an intrinsic material in the work.

Article's keywords

Smell, senses, creation, perfume, olfactory sensation, olfactory art, odourisation of the art work, artialisation of odour.

Table of Contents

Art, a matter of odour?

Olfactory production concerns many creative fields such as perfumery, gastronomy and design. It serves a purpose of pleasure and well-being, with a constant concern for innovation, which – by aiming at improving the quality of our daily lives – creates unprecedented olfactory experiences, including the cognitive exploration of unclassifiable perfume fragrances. After centuries of partial anosmia, the stimulation of the sense of smell is acquiring real visibility in the field of visual arts, notably in olfactory design, but, historically, what is the relationship between olfaction and the work of art?

Saying that a work of art smells “good” or “bad” is not what first comes to mind because in this case, one does not refer to its main proprioperceptive quality. Invisible, colourless, formless, without a perennial future, one could say that smell is absent from the representational arts due to both its non-visual and extra-aesthetic character. However, penetrating or invasive, smell exceeds the sign by presenting itself as a sudden manifestation of reality, which language finds difficult to account for. While visual and auditory sensitivity exerts itself both near and far, and while touch and taste are senses of contact, olfactory sensitivity develops other aspects, as difficult to qualify as the distinction between capture and seizure. Emanating from a body, perceived by another, smell and olfactory sensations merge, making it difficult to have a comprehensive approach to this singular experience (Rancière, 2009) [ 1 ] .

Why is olfaction currently of interest to the visual arts? Long excluded from the Fine Arts system, olfaction has gradually won a place in the creation of contemporary art work. Multidisciplinary artistic projects integrating olfactory components have emerged (Jaquet, 2010, p. 295-310), often supported by the progress made in scientific and technological research in the field of odours. “Olfactory” works appear as an “irregularity,” a deviation from the norm. Indeed, if olfaction gives food for thought to scholars and writers from a tradition inherited from Antiquity, it is rather in a derogatory fashion. It does not fit easily in the upper echelons of culture because the information it provides has a physical dimension that refers to the most trivial areas of the body, while hearing and sight, both legitimate senses, give access to social life and dialogue.

Kant, when establishing his theory of the senses, determined a hierarchy between those that are superior and objective and those that are inferior and subjective. He therefore downgraded smell and taste in favour of touch, sight and hearing and then made the distinction between taste and smell, explaining that tasting is a solitary experience, while the experience of smelling a fragrance imposes itself on all those gathered in one place at the same time.

He established the idea that due to a strong presence and great instability, the odour does not allow access to universal knowledge because smelling [ 2 ]  something does not mean knowing it completely. Nothing can confine the extent and the edges of an odour that inspires the senses without completely informing them [ 3 ] .

We will consider how, from points of reference coming from the history of odours, olfaction made its way into creation until the invention of olfactory forms emancipated from the cosmetics and hedonistic dimension of perfume. This journey originates in the scents of pigments and leads to olfactory art works, and, on the way, leads us to talk about the olfactory silence of painting.

Seeing odour in painting

Since Antiquity, at the time when pigments, spices and dyes were sold together in markets, coloured materials were full of smells and flavours. Intensity, quality, pleasure and displeasure, the visual and the olfactory were therefore deeply intertwined in an open and generous polysensoriality. Orpiment and realgar were giving off vapours of arsenic merged with strong smells of garlic and the colour of saffron had chromatic, culinary and therapeutic functions.

However, a warning was common in the first treatises of painting; painters put their lives at risk and were in danger of being poisoned by the pigments they used. The knowledge and experience of the old masters were confirmed by the occurrence of illness after exposure to strong scents from plant, mineral or organic pigments.

Of all the senses, smell was the one which was most involved in the definition of healthy and unhealthy. It helped guide hygienists” research by reflecting the modification of humours. “[it] demonstrates the first paradox [of] the sense of smell,” said Alain Corbin. “[…] an animal sense, and at the same time, and precisely because of this, the sense of self-preservation. Even more important, the sense of smell locates hidden dangers in the atmosphere” (Corbin, 2008, p. 14) [ 4 ] . Olfaction has elucidated the complexity of signs and revealed underlying metabolic states. It uncovered a hidden physiology. Gaston Bachelard evokes the confusion that agitates the being when exposed to miasma, as a reminder of its organic reality. This forced intimacy is subject to the shared imagination of two opposing forces: “In the air, two substances are fighting: the bad and the good” (Bachelard, 1948, p. 80-81).

Over time, between Antiquity and Modern times, the olfactory silence of art gradually imposed itself and colour became mono-sensory, focused almost exclusively on sight. Meanwhile, the odour-phobic culture, associated to the hygienist concerns of the 19th century, excluded olfactory sensoriality to reduce itself to perfumery. Masking, then eliminating, the “body odour” of art works, associated with the rapid drying of paint, was the gain of technology in the 20th century, presented as progress.

Paradoxically, the vocabulary of olfaction is very present in the appreciation of painting. From the second half of the 18th century, there was a rise in power and therefore in visibility of the potency of smell, as though it had escaped from the art work. It is neither marble, bronze nor wood sculptures that exhale inspiring scents, but paintings. The term “odour” is used to describe the emanation exhaled by everything that is odourless. Diderot said of certain paintings that “they smell like the palette” meaning they do not look appealing (Diderot, 2007, p. 279). It is literature that seems most likely to generate olfactory sensations because of the iconic power of language. Karl-Joris Huysmans said of the painting The Peasants Meal by the Nain brothers (1642) that “its hue exudes the scent of dry pages of the Bible,” and of the portrait of Mother C. – A. Arnault and Sister Catherine of Sainte-Suzanne Champaigne by Philippe de Champaigne (1662) that it “has a strong whiff of Port-Royal” (Huysmans, 2006, p. 491). In fact, this scathing remark refers more to smell than sight, and somehow establishes an organic link between the mind and the thing, seeking barely visible signs in dark shapes, exploiting with a renewed drive, this unique human organ that is tact, this dazzling sense of perception, the most reliable and crudest, which imposes itself to us as obvious.

Olfactory description in the literature of the late 18th century put particular emphasis on the impact of solar radiation on vegetation, and on scents which, according to the time of day, aroused emotions both subtle and poignant. Its ability to stir up memories and abolish temporality made olfaction enter the history of sensations. The emergence of the past thanks to a perfume highlights the memorial power of smell. In À rebours, the hero experiences olfactory hallucinations dedicated to imaginary flavours and the pleasures of smell: syntax of odours or heady aroma, idiom of fluids, fragrances, aromatic stanzas, fragrant waves and revived vapours exhaling their fragrances (Huysmans, 1992, p. 173-182). “But from the mid-18th century on,” says Corbin, “a new aesthetic movement tended to make olfaction the sense that generated the great movements of the soul.” [ 5 ] Discovering the first naturalistic paintings created by landscape painters of the Barbizon forest, J – K Huysmans exclaimed: “With a new method, a true and unique art scent, they [the artists] distil the senses of their time as the Dutch naturalists expressed the aroma of theirs.” [ 6 ]  “Literary expressions are full of fragrant pictures all based on an anosmic vision of the art work, as the fact of not smelling is less the sign of a deficiency of olfaction than the reflection of the nature of the work.”

In Hegel’s Aesthetics [ 7 ] , olfaction is given no bigger role in the creative process of the pictorial work than its reception. It was with Fourier, Feuerbach and Nietzsche that olfaction gained value in the philosophical field to the point that Nietzsche said in Ecce Homo: “My genius is in my nostrils” [ 8 ]  (1997, p. 333) [ 9 ] .

Sui generi odour in painting

Of all the anecdotes which emerge from the discovery of oil painting, one of them recalls that Italian artists began to gather in numbers to admire a work by Van Eyck brought back by Florentine merchants to King Alfonso I of Naples. They sniffed the painted panel that issued a very pronounced oil odour without the trade secret being revealed. It was certainly very difficult to guess what components produced this odour. Van Eyck’s fresh paint could be described as aromatic and one could not say either that it had a taste as, although it could be smelled, it could not be eaten or ingested. One can speculate that this paint was probably emitting signals similar to those that allow us to appreciate wine with the eyes— limpidity, clarity, luminosity and sparkle — and that have a gustatory meaning in oenology. By an amazing parallel, the main adjectives that describe wine as “velvety”, “silky” or “smooth” belong to the vocabulary used for the evaluation of Primitive oil paintings.

In the anecdote referring to the oil painting by Van Eyck, one is confronted with a natural phenomenon, that of a sensory painting where the emanation is sui generi and where olfactory impressions anticipate the understanding of the real. As one can see, olfaction is a powerful tool to analyse the world, it is to the body what intuition is to thought. While intuition allows us — through a dazzling shortcut of thought — to understand a situation, that is to say, to perceive what binds the elements together; olfaction – through the reduced holes of our nostrils – plunges us into global perception.

For centuries, paintings in linseed oil have emanated a residual yet persistent odour, creating a particular olfactory environment that Duchamp equated to psychotropic drugs. [ 10 ]  Mixed with turpentine, oil is an odour-fetish of the “painting laboratory” and the studio. Corrections and petimenti are associated to odorous manifestations that signify and intensify them. The combination of the workshop and laboratory had a special intensity in life at the Bauhaus; it provides information on the intoxicating nature of odours, “I found myself in a magical kitchen. Of course, the whole Bauhaus in Weimar was a laboratory. But here, it was really a magical kitchen. There were strong odours, a friendly blend of coffee, tobacco, glue, oil paint and French varnish, shellac, methylated spirits and strange ingredients.” [ 11 ]  Olfactory data tends to reconstruct the living in all its aspects.

The association between the olfactory sensation of an odour and the name of the actual substance is difficult to make. The correlation between a referential odour and the world of art is a complex development, made possible by the integration of prior information. It is the marking of an olfactory trace which multiplies the signals in order to reiterate the feeling. Olfactory memory is determined by several factors, the first being the emotional state related to alertness and physical and sensory stimulation. The second is the repetition of data that supports the storage of simple or complex information and, finally, the third is the combination of new data compared to already known data.

Excreta of the art work and artialisation of the odour

The scope of an “olfactory aesthetic” (Jaquet, 2010) questions operas embodied by fragrances, fragranced concerts, as well as the production of multi-sensory shows. It includes hybrid experiments using both the odourisation of the work and the dramatization of the odour in the work. One then speaks of the “olfactisation” of the work to refer to the addition of odours. [ 12 ]  While the world of images and telecommunication develops “remote” information on an olfactory level, artists started to create art works with odours. These multidisciplinary experiments owe much to the air of freedom that Marcel Duchamp infused in the creation of the artwork. [ 13 ]  One could even say that artists provoke the odour and provoke with and without the odour. In 1961, Piero Manzoni produced Merda d’artista series in which “shit” had the right to representation, but not its smell, thanks to the dual device of labelling and canning.

The intention to add fragrance to a work is recent in contemporary art — one usually calls “odorous” all the substances that have a pleasant smell, by opposition to those which have a strong odour and are called “odoriferous.” Playing with the physical properties of matter in his Oxidation Paintings – also entitled Piss Paintings – Warhol introduced in 1978 an olfactory dimension to painting [ 14 ] . Warhol’s canvases were coated with a film of copper pigment on which he urinated. Uric acid in the urine results from a catabolic mechanism partly dependent on the food consumed, it is a powerful oxidant when applied to metallic pigments, causing discolouration. One can see this series, made ​​at the end of Warhol’s life, as an act of defiance towards painting, but also as an ultimate act of love that seeks to bring the living body and the art work closer together.

Far from the clean and odourless work of Manzoni who put a distance between him and excrement, the Cloaca series (2000) by Vim Delvoye, an installation of biocybernetic machines mimicking the digestive and excretory functions of the human body, has a fragrant presence close to stench. What is repugnant to smell is excrement and decay [ 15 ] . Alternatively, Jana Sterbak, by creating a dress made of beef worn by a model, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic, (1991), introduced through the visibility given to the process of the decay of the flesh the idea of the perceptible smell of a rotting carcass. Thus, twenty kilos of meat decomposed during the exhibition, releasing a smell correlative to the organic nature of the material. Damien Hirst also created a work based on the fact that one does not like being confronted with one’s own decomposition. When installing the series Natural History [ 16 ]  using entire or cut bodies of sharks, sheep and cows, the technical team had to wear gas masks as the pestilential odours were unbearable. During the exhibition, no smell could be associated to the animal carcasses. If asepsis was controlled, the images from the vision of the carcasses were evocative of odours. [ 17 ] Are there any olfactory works that, beyond the multi-sensorial, place odour at the centre of creation? It is without doubt Eduardo Kac who is currently pushing the boundaries of research further in this area because all the material connections which he uses indicate a paradigm shift in the olfactory art work. The work, liberated from perfumery, owes nothing to what has been done before. Indeed, the visual arts have long made us “viewers” and respiration has never played any role. With olfaction as an analysing tool of the visual art work, one approaches the realm of the “respiratory” work. Inhaling, exhaling, like a binary rhythm that underlies the vital activity that is the capacity mobilized by Eduardo Kac in the OpenLab 2012 Exclusive & Invisible project. In collaboration with the researcher Niki Baccile, he invented a book – Aromapoetry – and a way to capture invisible forces by using cutting-edge research in chemistry. The olfactory notes result from a complex development guided by scientific thought. Thanks to aromas enmeshed in a nanolayer of mesoporous glass on the leaves of a book and slowly emitted, Kac engages the viewer in a relationship of immediacy from which he cannot escape. The synthesis and mixing of odorific molecules have been carried out in collaboration with a research laboratory specialized in the chemistry of organic substances and with a perfumer. Twelve aromapoems composed of one to twelve molecules – whose entanglement ranges from the most simple to the most complex – affirm their brutal power of reminiscence.

The cognitive unconscious and memory instantly and independently recreate a contact of rational control. More than any other sense, smell involves the participation and experience of the subject. An odorous work is really active; it is by nature expansive and cannot be stopped. The sensoriality of Kac’s work questions what transpires from our bodies. What about their destiny, their inevitable mutation, the loss of their form? What about the erasure of matter? Kac uses the most invasive and invisible sense of all, nanotechnology, green chemistry and hybrid materials to give a real dimension to the pneuma of the work. Does this new approach take the place left vacant by the disappearance of the aura? Smelling the works would be an answer to the quest for a living quality, as is the presence of what is disappearing, what is no longer there. The work of art becomes a body of sensation, an intensification of presence. Olfactory works possess the material and spatial determinations that fall within the visual art vocabulary, even if the recording and fixing of their odour make their theorisation difficult as such. Odorous artistic projects are immersive by nature through their enveloping character and through physical intrusion. Because olfaction is the sense of incorporation, one can speak of “olfactory affects.” At a time when screens are not surrounding us, even if they retain us, the “smelling” work takes over the body. The growing artialiation of odour in current art practices is a respiratory airway; it reminds us that art is also a matter of “nose.”

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. Jacques Rancière, in his reflection on “shared sensibility” talks about the tactile dimension associated to the visual dimension of painting. The experience of contact, what touches us, has a pervasive power similar to that of odours and abolishes the perception of the boundaries between the inside and the outside.
2. In his philosophical reflection, Kant states that the olfactory sensation is complex, as confirmed by neurophysiologists (Kant, 2000, I, para. 32). The first phase, in the brain cortical areas, implies its assessment in terms of pleasure and displeasure. The sensory processes used here are of a more hedonistic than aesthetic type. The second phase is the identification of the odour by recognition, with a greater or lesser degree of certainty. The last phase is estimating its intensity. Olfaction opens to a higher sense of satisfaction or discomfort — delight or disgust — without it being possible to provide an explanation regarding the characteristics felt, which are reduced to only two opposites. “The receptors are completely neutral, it is the integrative centre of the brain that provides, like a seasoning, associated hedonist impressions.” “If we don’t smell the same, it is because we are not the same” (Mcloed, 1997, p. 74).
3. Valéry extends Kant’s arguments as follows: “The perception of an odour is the beginning of a knowledge that can never be achieved.” (Valéry, 1988, p. 750).
4, 5. English translation: Corbin, 1986.
6. In the preface of the book he dedicated to Huysmans, Patrice Locmant quoted an extract from “Salon de 1879” (Locmant, 2007).
7. “Consequently the sensuous aspect of art is related only to the two theoretical senses of sight and hearing, while smell, taste, and touch remain excluded from the enjoyment of art. For smell, taste, and touch have to do with matter as such and its immediately sensible qualities – smell with material volatility in air, taste with the material liquefaction of objects, touch with warmth, cold, smoothness, etc. For this reason these senses cannot have to do with artistic objects, which are meant to maintain themselves in their real independence and allow of no purely sensuous relationship. What is agreeable for these senses is not the beauty of art” (Hegel, 1990, p. 19).
8. Chantal Jaquet says: “Nietzsche attributes unparalleled finesse to the nose, an ability to perceive what is minuscule and imperceptible to the eye. He therefore gives it an unprecedented ability to discern, because the nose distinguishes not only what is invisible to the naked eye, but also what the most effective visual aids cannot capture” (Jaquet, 2010, p. 412).
9. English translation: Nietzsche, 1979.
10. He argues that “Painting is an olfactory habit. Professional artists paint because they have to have the smell of pigment and varnish in their nostrils […] He is the slave of his nose and of the art market” (Jaquet, 2010, p. 295).
11. Remarks by Lothar Schreyer (See Paul Klee, 1963, p. 113-114) as cited in cité par J.-C. Lebensztejn (1990, p. 205).
12. It is after an idea by Duchamp that, in 1971, Gérard Titus-Carmel had arranged in a dark room of a museum three pieces of equipment emitting respectively a perfume, the odour of stagnant water and rotting vegetation and an odour of flowers and called this installation Foret vierge/Amazone. The odours aimed at increasing the power of evocation of the forest by limiting visible clues. In design, during the retrospective dedicated to Italian architect and designer Gaetano Pesce, Le temps des questions in 1996 in Paris, the smell of minestrone soup was sprayed on both floors; objects and odours were associated in a dialogue of corresponding sensations inspired by the synesthesia dear to Baudelaire (See Baudelaire, 1975, I, p. 11).
13. “One of the first to take on the challenge of olfactory art was undoubtedly Marcel Duchamp. The inventor of the “Ready made” questioned the fact that painting is firstly a visual art and underlined its strong dependence on olfaction […] In his desire to break from habits that lead to servitude, he introduced into art odours other than turpentine and freed himself from the shackles of painting by opening its limited dimensions to surface and colour” (Jaquet, 2010, p. 295).
14. The strong smell of urine dissipated eight years after completion of the paintings.
15. Regarding the odours given off by Cloaca, Jens Hauser comments: “this breathtaking olfactory presence which contributes to a questioning of the hierarchy of the senses to focus more on what lies beyond image. The smell extends outside the work, […]. Our fluency with the olfactory alphabet however is much less assured. The statement “it stinks” makes it difficult to distinguish whether the foods of which we smell the digestion are rather rich in carbohydrates or proteins. One could ask the question in terms of Gestalt psychology: can smell allow infallible distinction between figure and background, as sight can without difficulty?” (Hauser, 2008, p. 113 ; English version: Wim Delvoye: Cloaca 2000-2007, 2007, p. 26–35).
16. Exhibition at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 1996.
17. Indeed, sensory images of odours that are built into our brains are not “imaginary pictures” but “material” representations of the odour that occur somewhere in the olfactory system, which will then be processed by the brain as a pattern recognition.

In Mur de poils de carotte (2009), a wall covered in carrot peel doomed to decay, Michel Blazy explored the range of molding odours. The installation was not only optical and tactile, it was odorous and referred to a historical precedent, Duchamp’s élevage des couleurs maintained at an optical state on glass plates in a greenhouse: “These rebounding physiological fragrances can be abandoned and disgorged in an imprisonment of the fruit” (Duchamp, 1975, p. 100). The proliferation of micro-organisms, the germination of fungi and the drying process of materials are all steps in the transformation of colours and the inconveniences caused by odours. Due to the exposure to particulate matter, the concept of exhibition takes on a different meaning. Indeed, volatile plant compounds escape from the core of the art works as the decomposition process begins. The odour is therefore intrinsic to the work, as in Interminavel by Arturo Barrio, who made a performance installation in 2005 based on the projection of ground and wet coffee on the wall, and Reflexion(s)… an environment created from the smell of coffee and bread, presented in December of the same year at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

From artialisation of odour to the art of olfaction

Our focus here will not be on the olfactory scenography that supplements the work but on the “smelling” work, the physical work whose materiality is fragrant.((Thus, the installation Respirare l’ombra by Giuseppe Penone, in 1999, emits a lively scent from the bay leaves enclosed in the metal cages lining the four. In another style, in 2002, Ernesto Neto created ​​a fragrant work releasing the scent of cloves, tumeric, pepper and cumin in We Just Stopped Here at the time.


Bachelard, G. (1948). La Terre et les rêveries du repos. Paris: José Corti.

Baudelaire, C. (1975). Œuvres complètes (C. Pichois, dir.). Paris: Gallimard.

Corbin, A. (2008). Le Miasme et la Jonquille. L’Odorat et l’imaginaire social XVIIIe-XIXesiècles. Paris: Flammarion. [English translation: Corbin. A. (1986). The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press].

Diderot, D. (2007). Essais sur la peinture. Salons de 1759, 1761, 1763. Paris: Herman.

Duchamp, M. (1975). Duchamp du signe : écrits. Paris: Flammarion.

Hauser, J. (2008). La grammaire des enzymes. In Conte R. et Laval-Jeantet M., Du sacré dans l’art actuel ? Paris: Klincksieck. [English version: Hauser J. (2007). The Grammar of Enzymes. In Wim Delvoye: Cloaca 2000-2007, 2007 (exhibition catalogue, Luxembourg, Casino Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 2007-2008). Luxembourg: Ed. Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain].

Hegel, G.W.F. (1990). Esthétique : textes choisis par Claude Khodoss. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Huysmans, J.-K. (1992). À rebours. Arles: Actes Sud.

Huysmans, J.-K. (2006). Écrits sur l’art :1867-1905. Paris: Bartillat.

Jaquet, C. (2010). Philosophie de l’odorat. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Kant, E. (2000). Critique de la faculté de juger. Paris: Flammarion.

Lebensztejn, J.-C. (1990). L’Art de la tache. Paris: Limon/Lebensztejn.

Locmant, P. (2007). Le Forçat de la vie. Paris: Bartillat.

Mcloed, P. (1987). Si on ne sent pas pareil, c’est qu’on « nez » pas pareil. In Blanc-Mouchet J. (dir.), Odeurs : l’essence d’un sens. Paris: Autrement.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Rancière J. (2009). Que veulent les images ? Art Press, 362.

Nietzsche, F. (1997). Ecce Homo. Pourquoi je suis un destin. Dans Nietzsche F., Œuvres philosophiques complètes VIII. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation: Nietzsche F. (1979). Ecce Homo. How One Becomes What One Is (R. J. Hollingdale, trad.). New York: Penguin Books].

Paul Klee (1963). M. Besset (trad.). Paris: Les Libraires associés.

Valéry, P. (1988). Œuvres, II, Suite. Paris: Gallimard.

To quote this article

, Olfaction and creation, published 16 June 2016


Similar articles