Smell-o-vision: Sense BMoCA and the aroma of art

Categories: Visual Arts

What is that smell?
Using the works of Stephen Batura as inspiration, perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz will combine sight and scent for a live audience tonight at Sense BMoCA, where she will mix up new perfumes on the spot toward the end of answering one of life's most persistent questions: What does this art smell like? Which got us wondering -- could we take that idea and expand it? With the help of science, we can. Last week, we rounded up a crack team of smellologists and presented them with eight iconic works of art, that they might describe it once and for all from an olfactory perspective. These are their results.

american gothic.jpg

Just to get warmed up, we'll start with an easy one: Grant Wood's American Gothic, heavy emphasis on the first word of the title. Even a smellology amateur could pick up the overarching aroma evident from this painting -- the faint whiff of poop on a pitchfork -- but a more astute observer will notice the subtler undertones, like grilled hot dogs, bald eagles and war.


Pablo Picasso's Guernica is a little harder to parse out, but according to experts, the frictive elements of Picasso's composition cause this painting to smell like the same thing your car smells like when you go a long time without putting any oil in it. See that anguished horse in the top middle? That's pretty much what your car feels like when you do that.

mona lisa.jpg
Probably the most remarked-upon aspect of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa throughout the years has been her enigmatic smile, that mysterious, knowing smirk that's equal parts "I know a secret about you" and "come hither." And so it's fitting that, according to our team, her portrait smells somewhat perplexingly like baby oil.

Some 500 years later, in a brilliant bit of Dadaist commentary, Marcel Duchap's equally smirking 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. puts a mustache on da Vinci's icon and gives her a title that, if you spell it out in French, roughly translates to "she's got a hot ass." Like da Vinci's original, L.H.O.O.Q. builds upon a base scent of baby oil, but in true Dada fashion, incongruously adds the crass odors of Fritos and deodorant.

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