An Argument for Olfactory Art

We have for a long time now treated the sense of smell as a commercial exercise. It has become the most neglected and under-appreciated sense in our repertoire. Almost everyone nowadays agrees with the notion that music, regardless of type, is an ‘art’, as well as visual art, dance and movement. So why not fragrance art?

I am here because I want to rightfully place Chanel No. 5 alongside a Magritte work and Shalimar by Guerlain next to a Picasso piece.

Chanel No. 5

Andy Warhol, Chanel, 1985

Art is defined by the Oxford dictionary as: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.

Contrary to what you may believe, the fabrication of fragrance isn’t merely a willy nilly exercise of throwing in a series of smelly liquids until something pleasing comes out; rather, it requires patience, skill and raw talent to recreate the smell of a green Irish spring or a tuberose flower hit by the rain. Most perfumers are chemists, who have a particular flair for formulas, aroma-chemicals and natural materials. These perfumers describe themselves using a colourful and wide palette of scents, like how an artist may have fifty shades of colour for virtually the same blue. To emulate the ‘green’ that is cut grass, perfumers use a pungent and ‘nuclear’ aroma-molecule called cis 3-hexenol. The smell of jasmine is in fact, in perfumery terms, referred to as methyl dihydrojasmonate. The perfumery palette and canvas is just as wild as a visual artist’s. It requires the perfect balance through mixing (through the application of human creative skill and imagination) single scents into beautiful accords to achieve the desired affect.

Methl Dihydrojasmonate

Methyl Dihydrojasmonate

In turn, fragrance becomes emotive. Scent is transportive; and an emotional journey is created through the art of olfaction. Whenever I am asked how I got into this ‘stuff ’ I always reply: “I got myself a bottle of fragrance that left me like a babbling fool every time I smelt it.” It triggered these emotions that reminded me of Provençal France and its revered lavender. I was transported to tearooms with hand etched mirrors, a regal green ‘creeping’ wallpaper and the most delicious lavender tea ever. If both visual art and fragrance share this function, than the latter should rightly be considered art. Moreover, fragrance can be critiqued in the same way as other art forms, such as literature and painting, with words like realism, balance, crescendo, impressionism, industrialism and post-modernism existing in a fragrance enthusiast’s vernacular.

With advances in society, art has seen newer and more expressive mediums. Photography, for example, is a relatively new form of art – and several decades ago it would have not been seen as one. Similarly, fragrance is a new form of art; in this case, we only have to escape its commercial connotations for it to receive the proper recognition it deserves.

As Francis Kurkdjian (the renowned French-Armenian contemporary perfumer and winner of the Prix François Coty) said, “perfume is the art that makes memory speak.” The sense of smell is one of the greatest recording devices humankind possesses. For this reason alone, it is fair to say that fragrance art is not just a form of art, but a particularly special and marvellous expression of human emotion and imagination.

This essay was originally posted in Blame Magazine

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