Monday, August 16, 2010

the exoticism and humanity of smell

Looking at these images of people from many different historical periods interacting with scent makes me think about the ways in which thinking about people of the past smelling things makes their lives seem somehow more real, but at the same time, it makes them seem more exotic. 

 Wall Painting of Perfume Production in Ancient Egypt

For example if we were to smell the contents of that Egyptian pot, I’m sure we would feel at home, comforted by the recognizable smells of frankincense, lotus, or rose.  But also, the figures’ attitudes, their ritualistic poses, their very alien appearance, makes the content of that pot seem somehow untouchable, distant.

A few Centuries Later….

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine) - James Tissot.jpg

we can imagine how that swag of citrus and laurel behind this religious tableau smells. We can even imagine the sweet musty smell of Mary Magdalene’s perfumed hair interacting with Jesus’ dirty, sweaty feet.  but we are also distanced by the exotic foreignness of the characters’ gestures, by the knowledge of this as a foundational myth, an untouchable—in many ways- story.

Meanwhile, back in Rome…..

File:Godward-At the Garden Shrine, Pompeii.jpg

This Roman lady at her toilet is in ways repeating a time-honored gesture that most of us echo every day—she puts on a dab of scent. But the amphora, the cold stone table, the tiger skin, the nobility of her robes, and the fetishism of Roman culture exhibited in this painting make her seem somehow remote, an object of admiration, but not identification….

A Few Centuries Later….

File:John William Waterhouse - The Shrine.JPG

This romantic ‘medieval’ maiden smells a rose, taking a moment out of a busy[?] day to enjoy nature’s blessings. We know the stereotypes…is she thinking of her love away at war? Is she dreaming of a lover? is she thinking of the Virgin Mary? Who knows. We are voyeurs, projecting our fragrant fantasies onto her. She is a caricature, a flat, eroticized image. We imagine: “we have all smelled roses. We are all the same.” But roses have changed, Western culture has changed; this fictional maiden is ultimately unknowable.

A little Over a Century ago…..

 File:Privat-Livemont Boldoot.jpg

The Art Nouveau period is one we decadent, baroque, early turn-of-the-21st-century residents can understand, to a certain point. We understand the existential choice to give way completely to pleasure in the face of an increasingly mechanized world. Yet this sniffer is impossible. Stylized beyond understanding, she somehow embodies the idea of the rose, and specifically of the fin de siecle blowsy rose, overblown, decadent, dripping with redundant art.

Food for thought, anyway….

does thinking of people smelling things in the past, thinking of old perfumes and the people who wore it, make you feel closer to the past or more remote from it? Comments, anyone?


James Joseph Jacques Tissot, The Ointment of the Magdalene Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.214_PS2.jpg

John William Godward At the Garden Shrine, Pompeii, courtesy of

John William Waterhouse , ''' The Shrine'''

J.C. Boldoot, Eau de Cologne Parfumerie, Amsterdam, Geheugen van Nederland by Henri Privat-Livemont


Related Posts with Thumbnails


Related Posts with Thumbnails


Related Posts with Thumbnails