Scents of Art

...with the recently established Department of Olfactory Art in New York City, curator Chandler Burr is on a mission to establish scent as a recognised art form.

by Maxwell McBride Peterson
Few people acknowledge scent throughout their daily lives unless it is at the extremes. Either something is unpleasant and we pinch our noses while quickening our pace, or something smells enjoyable and we relish in its presence, though only for a minute. This fleeting approach to olfaction – or the sense of smell – has left us with an immature approach to a sense that is crucial to how we interpret the world. One man has made it his mission to establish this sensory medium as a recognized and appreciated art form no matter how subjective...

“The basic premise of the exhibition, and the entire department of Olfactory Art,” says Chandler Burr, former New York Times perfume critic and current curator of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Art and Design, “Is to establish scent as an artistic medium that is equal to painting, sculpture, architecture, film and literature.” This ambitious goal is no easy task. What Mr Burr sets out to do, is to recognise olfactory as an established art form in the mainstream of art history while recognising past works and artists alongside the distinguished names of masters from other mediums.

If Picasso is a household name, then why not Aimé Guerlain – the creator of Jicky (1889) one of the first perfumes created with the addition of synthetic materials. Helmut Newton rather than Ernest Beaux – the creator of the iconic Chanel No. 5. Mr Burr’s point is that Beaux and Guerlain deserve recognition for the masterpieces they have created.

Most olfactory artists go unrecognized. Mr Burr is quick to point out that these are not perfumers – a name which cheapens their work – but rather masters of an art form that has been overshadowed because of its affiliate industry – fashion.

Most of our interaction with scent is on a commercial level where every label or brand has a perfume, cologne or eau-de-something. Typically we see these advertised through glossy magazine adverts or Colorado shaped billboards depicting a celebrity pouting or smirking to visually convey a non-visual product.

These manufactured images are designed to entice us to purchase a product, an aspirational product, which we as consumers buy in order to flirt with brands that are outside our pay scale. The majority of big name brands make the majority of their capital off these entry-level products. And why not?

Research by the NPD Group – a market research firm – confirmed that 2011 was a strong year for the UK prestige beauty market. Sales grew by 9.4% to £1.7 billion with the fragrance sector leading the way up 10.7% to £815 million – more than double the makeup and skincare sectors. This sort of affordable luxury continues to work and marketeers are beginning to strategize within this sector, more and more to maximize profits.

But regardless of sales figures and end of year profits, Mr Burr is only focused on scent. This unique approach aims at exploring the design and aesthetics of twelve pivotal scents within the exhibition “The Art of Scent, 1889-2011”. This first-of-its-kind presentation provides insight into a world that has been otherwise undefined.

“The curatorial job,” says Mr Burr, “Is to explain and communicate the beauty, importance, aesthetic character and design significance of a medium, including the artists within it.”

Seeing the Department for Olfactory Art as an educational tool and resource to the public and professionals within the industry, allows Mr Burr to spearhead retrospectives and future exhibitions that will help establish this form – and it all starts with language.

“The reason I call them olfactory artists and not perfumers is not semantics,” says Mr Burr, “But rather a specific communication tool that is the difference between movies and film, or fine and functional art.” This specificity about communication allows Mr Burr to combat the rampant reductionism of olfactory works of art to their raw materials. “You would not reduce the Frank Gehry building to metal and glass, would you?”

But what makes his vision unique is to approach scent as we have interpreted other art mediums. Describing Chanel No. 5 as a modernist work, or Olivier Cresp’s Light Blue (2001) as a “straightforward ‘still life’ of scents from the natural world without ornament or aesthetic subtext”, all aim at seeing, or smelling, these works of art on the same level as their contemporaries.

Mr. Burr personally considers Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky to be the olfactory embodiment of romanticism. So while the artistic movement came about towards the end of the 18th century, its influence rippled through other media, including olfactory arts for the remainder of the century. We classify certain painters and sculptors within a certain period or movement, the same applies to olfactory artists, claims Mr. Burr.

With this exhibition covering from the late 1800s to present day, we could consider it a sort of crash course in our olfaction education, comprised of puffs, spritzes, and whiffs. Not your conventional museum experience, this is sure to make you understand and appreciate the art behind even the most transient of beauty that you happen to catch wind of.