Smelling Colours, Inhaling Time – the Art Historical Dimension of Smell-Synaesthesia

My name is Caro Verbeek and I am an art historian obsessed with smell. Currently I am finishing my PhD on (art) historical smells (with IFF and the Rijksmuseum). Furthermore, I love to teach others how to use their senses more effectively and attentively, so I developed several courses, including ‘The Other Senses’ at the Royal Academy of Arts (The Hague) and ‘Knowing by Sensing’ at the Vrije Universiteit. To ‘educate and entertain people’s nostrils’, I also founded the scent culture program ‘Odorama’ at Mediamatic (Amsterdam). My main goal is to re-narrate history from a sensory perspective by reconstructing and presenting historical scents and tactile poetry in museums and beyond.

The Future of Scent Culture

Deodorized museums hardly represent art history nor the olfactory practices of a growing number of artists. But many endeavors and institutions are ‘re-odorizing’ history and cultural sites as we speak.

The Institute for Art & Olfaction, for example, is offering workshops and lectures on olfactory art and perfume blending (for more info check their Wikipedia-page.

At Mediamatic we keep organizing programs about scent culture and teaching students how to analytically use their sense of smell.

As a curator, I will keep putting scents ‘on sniff’ and raise awareness for the essential yet overlooked role smell has played in art and in history. Re-enacting historical synaesthetic experiments will help us understand how our ancestors perceived the world. This can be enabled by both presenting visual works of art, as well as the scents that inspired these works. Synaesthetic language will provide us with an excellent tool to bridge the gap between scent and its missing vocabulary.

My biggest aim, however, is to found a museum of lost smells. This would not just contain perfumes, but smells that were part of art history, cities, ancient Egyptian embalming practices (such as executed by Dora Goldsmith) and other olfactory heritage.

You can read more about my manifesto on future scent culture here:

The ‘odiance’ sniffing away during ‘Odorama’ Amsterdam.

Photographer Hannes Wallrafen who turned blind is ‘seeing with his nose’ while sniffing an olfactory reconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo at the Rijksmuseum.

For my Ted Talk on historical smells and the future of scent (I’ve never been more nervous about any lecture before), click here:

In 2018 one of my dreams came true. I curated the event ‘The Museum of Smells’ at the renowned Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam). We put several historical items ‘on sniff’ and it attracted a lot of visitors that usually only use their eyes.

The Museum of Smells at the Stedelijk Museum, 2018. Installation view.

Art history is an extremely visual affair and most museums are incredibly clinical and odourless. But famous artists such as the Futurist F.T. Marinetti, the Dadaist/ Surrealist Marcel Duchamp and Edward Kienholz addressed the nose as part of their work. By making people smell history, not only do can they grasp the multisensory reality history can offer us, but also understand more about our own way of connecting to our environment from an overlooked olfactory perspective.  Therefore my motto is: You see more when you smell! For more info, and a look at my six-month pregnant belly (my sense of smell was more acute than ever), click here:

Painting smells and listening to scent

There are no smell-cameras and scents are mostly invisible and silent. However, the Futurists tried to paint the dynamism and mental effects of smell in the first half of the 20th century. They believed smell was a vibrational phenomenon and that ‘smells, sounds and noise are nothing but variations of different vibrations’ that corresponded to one another. This idea is close to what could now be described as synaesthesia or cross-modality.

Allegedly, Carlo Carrà painted sounds, noises and smells in the painting I funerali dell’anarchico Galli, 1910 – 1911. Collection MoMA, New York.

Figure 3.2: Giacomo Balla, Espansione di Profumo, 1916. Collectie Galleria dello Scudo, Verona.

Paul Cézanne tried to capture the breeze, temperature and smells in ‘La Montagne Saint-Victoire’, ca. 1888. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Since there is no vocabulary for smells, artists have always tried to translate perfume and scent into other artistic domains.

The composer Claude Débussy tried to capture the atmosphere of the nocturnal smells in an alley in ‘Les parfums de la nuit’. You can find out if this music gives you any smell impressions here:

The contemporary perfumer Dana el Masri works the other way around. She translates music into scent. In a fascinating interview, she explains how some beats smell like lemon:


It’s a shame smells cannot be digitized and diffused over the internet. Because smell is a spatial and temporal phenomenon we really need physical spaces such as museums. In the near future I want to continue conducting smell synaesthesia workshops, helping people to translate scent into visual or acoustic phenomena and to describe scents better. By exhibiting scents and paintings from the past we get a much more complete ‘image’ of what art history was really about. You see more when you smell!

Students of ‘Knowing by Sensing’ following a perfume workshop and recreating historical scents at Mediamatic under the guidance of perfumer Frank Bloem. They learn how to describe smell by using synaesthetic language (green scents, triangular scents, etc.)

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