Art / France / Perfumes

JK Huysmans on Perfume as Art

From Against Nature (À Rebours) (1884):

For years now [Des Esseintes] had been an expert in the science of perfumes; he maintained that the sense of smell could procure pleasures equal to those obtained through sight or hearing, each of the senses being capable, by virtue of a natural aptitude supplemented by an erudite education, of perceiving new impressions, magnifying these tenfold and co-ordinating them to compose the whole that constitutes a work of art. After all, he argued, it was no more abnormal to have an art that consisted of picking out odorous fluids than it was to have other arts based on a selection of sound waves or the impact of variously coloured rays on the retina of the eye; only, just as no one, without a special intuitive faculty developed by study, could distinguish a painting by a great master from a paltry daub, or a Beethoven theme from a tune by Clapisson, so no one, without a preliminary initiation, could help confusing at first a bouquet created by a true artist with a potpourri concocted by a manufacturer for sale in grocers’ shops and cheap bazaars.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl (2003-05-01). Against Nature (Penguin Classics) (p. 105). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Date: 1890 Medium: Oil on canvas Dimensions: 25 5/8 x 21 1/4 in. (65.1 x 54 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002


7 thoughts on “JK Huysmans on Perfume as Art

  1. Huysmans makes a good point that smell can enhance how we perceive art. Unlike our other senses, though, we’ve developed the least consciousness about the sense of smell. Think of it this way: why is it so hard for most people to describe smells, while it is relatively easy to describe sounds and sights?

  2. Writers have attempted writing about smells since ancient times–see the Song of Solomon. But it’s true that language never quite catches up to it. We put smell much lower on the totem pole of the senses, so perhaps we need more imaginative writing about perfumes and other scents to be able to talk about them more complexly?

    • I definitely need more imaginative writing about perfume. I also think we need more emphasis on smell in school curricula. I think one reason why we are much better at talking about visual and vocal arts is because we were consciously exposed to them and we’ve had open discussions about them from very early age. Since pre-school kids are taught how to draw, sing songs, tell colours, etc. Throughout elementary, high school and college we are taught how to talk about paintings, drawing techniques, famous painters. Similarly with music, we are taught about genres, notes, even how to plan an instrument. To your point, smell is much lower on the totem pole of the important senses and I also think that it is so low that it doesn’t even register on any school curricula (at least as far as I know). It’s no surprise then that we are really inept to talk about scent – we just don’t know how to discern smells accurately and how to describe them. I read an article that says that most Americans divide smells in two categories: good and bad. Good smells are the fresh and clean ones, and the bad smells are well pretty much everything else. Sure, we can tell apart raspberry from jasmine but we can’t really tell apart nuances in raspberry leaves vs. ripe raspberry. We don’t have that problem when differentiating between baby pink, hot pink and magenta. This sounds a little bit like a rant…I just got carried away.

      • I absolutely agree with you. We aren’t a culture that privileges smell, and sadly I think that consumer fragrance and flavor products have also ruined our noses by catering to the least common denominator and “dumbing” down the experience of smelling to, as you said, good or bad. I’m not sure that we will see much scent education in schools, but The Art of Scent exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design is going to do something at least to help olfactory art get into art history curricula in the distant future.

  3. Pingback: Impressions of L’Heure Bleue: Art / Science / War / Peace | cologniac

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