Written by Sofia Ehrich
My name is Sofia Ehrich, and I am originally from Santa Monica, California. I moved to the Netherlands nearly two years ago to pursue a master’s degree at the VU and I am currently finishing my master in Comparative Arts and Media Studies. Along with writing my thesis, I work with olfactory art historian, Caro Verbeek, in organizing olfactory events and exhibitions for Odeuropa, which is a project on olfactory (smell) heritage and history.
I first became interested in sensory topics such as these when I took a class at the VU called Knowing by Sensing. I was immediately awoken to how much I relied on my eyes and ears instead of my other senses to perceive the world. I learned that I was really interested in the crossings between the deliberate activation of the senses and how beneficial it can be for educational and emotional impact. I also became interested in incorporating these elements into museum curation. I started as Caro’s trainee within Odeuropa but unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I am forced to do my entire traineeship from home. This does not hinder us from smelling things, though! For example, by sending a scent kit to our homes, Frank Bloem from Mediamatic provided us with different smells and explained how and where you would find these scents.
Can you see smells? Training an ‘olfactory gaze’
Besides organizing olfactory events and exhibitions, I spend a big part of my traineeship on researching and identifying visual representations of smell in artworks. This pushed me to approach artworks and the narratives they depict with an ‘olfactory gaze’. This is important because it reveals the significant role that smell played in the past. Additionally, the detection of these olfactory narratives shows that many cultural institutions could incorporate smell by simply referring to artworks that are already part of their collection. To explain how I approach artworks with an olfactory gaze, I will provide a few examples.
Firstly, The Adoration of the Magi. Many of us can recall this Biblical story, which takes place at the Nativity of Christ when three kings present three gifts to the baby Jesus.
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
We may recognize this scene; however, many of us probably overlook that two out of these three gifts, frankincense and myrrh, are actually smells! During this time, these two scents would have been valued as highly as gold.
Smell and pandemics
Another representation of a smell in art is the depiction of an object called a pomander. Since we are all currently living through a worldwide pandemic, an object like this is rather relevant. In the past, many people thought that disease came from bad smells; therefore, the privileged individuals of society would fill these pomanders with good smells and attach them to their belt, keeping them easily accessible should a bad smell suddenly arise. In theory, by holding objects like these to their nose, diseases would not be able to enter their nose and good health would remain.
Personifications of smell
I also discovered that the sense of smell was often personified through dogs and pipe smoking. Although certain depictions of dogs in paintings represent loyalty, in the 16th century, a woman with a dog was a personification of smell. Usually, this woman is depicted also smelling flowers. This personification of smell is easily recognizable in many paintings whether they are allegories of smell or allegories of the five senses.
A new ‘sense’ of the past and the present
My traineeship has taught me many things, but most importantly how to perceive heritage and art history in a very new way. Bringing together my previous art historical training from my bachelor’s degree and crossmedial storytelling techniques from my master has been a fun and creative adventure. I hope that the work I have done helps broaden people’s perspective of historic representations of smell as well as raise awareness about how smell plays a significant role in history—all you have to do is train your olfactory gaze.