Giverny Blooms at Denver Art Museum: Scent Experience by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz at “In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism”

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Spring blooms

It’s been a long, cold Winter here in rural, South-Eastern Australia, but spring is finally here. The fruit trees have blossomed, the canola fields are neon yellow, pretty bulbs have come and gone: tulips, daffodils and irises. The rose bush is now in bud, and my pot of carnations promises flowers soon. Lavender flowers have emerged a deep shade of purple after dying off over Winter. The grass is green and needs constant mowing, the sun is plentiful, encouraging weeds to shoot up rapidly. I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden recently, fingers in the dirt, smelling the cut grass, the uprooted weeds and the flowers. It seems like an appropriate time to embrace floral perfumes again: they mimic my real-life experience of Spring, which promises vibrant new life, energy and growth.

When I travelled to Europe in March 1999, I spent some time in France, on the cusp of Spring. I was keen to visit painter Claude Monet’s famous garden at Giverny near Paris, but was mortified to find out, once in Paris, that the garden didn’t open until the 1st of April. As I had plans to be in Provence before then I sadly had to forgo my visit to Giverny.

Giverny in Bloom: a Scent Experience

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The Iris Garden at Giverny by Claude Monet (1900). Public Domain.

Sixteen years later, perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz has given me the chance to experience an olfactory visit to these gardens with her fragrance collection Giverny in Bloom. Giverny in Bloom was created for the Denver Art Museum’s In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism exhibition, which has been running throughout the American Summer and finishes this coming Sunday, 11 October. The exhibition showcases floral, still-life paintings by 19th Century French Impressionist painters, including Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. For anyone living in or near Denver who is interested in olfaction, you still have a chance to visit and experience the special scent experience that Dawn has created for this exhibition. The Giverny in Bloom collection is also available to purchase from the DSH website, so if you can’t experience the scents in the context of the exhibition, you can still enjoy them at home.

Dawn is a perfumer, painter and synaesthete and has collaborated with a range of other artists and with the Denver Art Museum many times before. The Giverny in Bloom scent experience takes place in its own room at the In Bloom exhibition. The room features a panoramic photograph of Claude Monet in his famous garden, and the scents designed by Dawn are dispersed into the space with specially-designed diffusers. Dawn’s scents were inspired by the flowers and plants found in Monet’s garden at Giverny, with a focus on Spring and early Summer flowers, as well as paintings by Monet of Giverny, and floral artworks by other painters in the exhibition. The scents and their placement in the space are intended to convey the impression of being in a garden, moving from one fragrant flower bed or garden space to another, through the use of three separate accords. Each of these fragrance accords is linked to colour.

“Le Jardin Vert” (The Green Garden): a refreshing, slightly cleansing blend of green leaves, trees, and moist earth scent. This aroma of fresh cut leaves and soil greets the visitor and gives its last breath to you as you leave the garden room.

“La Danse des Bleus et des Violettes” (The Dance of Blues and Violets): a lighter, mildly watery interpretation of violets, heliotrope, irises, and lilacs.

“L’Opera des Rouges et des Roses” (The Opera of Red and Pinks): a dramatic, heady scent dominated by old roses, red and pink, peonies, red geraniums, and carnations.

Source: Denver Art Museum website

Dawn has also created a fourth scent from a combination of these three accords, resulting in a highly complex garden fragrance called Giverny in Bloom. Dawn describes this fragrance as:

“An impressionist style perfume of green budding trees, wet dewy flowers and soil, that transforms to a rich floral bouquet as it wears.”

Source: DSH Perfumes website

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Water Lily Pond at Giverny by Claude Monet (1900). Public Domain.

She says of her inspiration for the scents:

“The inspiration for Giverny in Bloom is not only taken from actual information about Monet’s garden but also from the flowers found in the paintings of the exhibit. This ties the scent experience to more than the Monet paintings in the show. Before leaving the scent experience visitors are invited to take a scratch and sniff card of “Giverny in Bloom” as a memento but as well as to bring the multi-sensory aspect of the olfactory art with them to enhance their interaction with the remainder of the exhibit.”

Source: DSH Perfumes’ Press Release

Dawn also drew upon Impressionist creative concepts when making Giverny in Bloom:

“I intended for the designs to not only reflect the flowers in the paintings, but also to give a sense of what impressionism entails,” Dawn said. “A ‘plein air’ feeling, a kind of lightness and airiness that I feel is found in many impressionist paintings, much like the fleeting delight of walking through a flower garden in full bloom.”

Sourced: Denver Art Museum website

Giverny in Bloom Micro-Reviews

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Claude Monet in his Garden at Giverny, 1921.

As well as including Dawn’s descriptions of the Giverny in Bloom scents (see above), I also want to share my own impressions of the scents with you. I’ve written some quick sketches, or micro-reviews of each of the four scents below.

Le Jardin Vert (The Green Garden)

Dirty. I smell the realistic scent of freshly dug earth, sweet grass and green leaves. A garden waiting to be planted: empty beds in a manicured garden bordered with neatly clipped lawns, waiting for flowers. Like the inside of a flower shop, which, oddly, these days, rarely smell of fragrant flowers and more like cut stems, greenery and water.

L’Opera des Rouges et des Roses (The Opera of Red and Pinks)

Rich and vibrating with excitement and intense energy. The rose is crisp and tart and the clove-like, peppery carnation adds a spicy undertone that makes the fragrance shimmer even more. This is a deeply exuberant scent and it literally took my breath away when I first sniffed it. My favourite of the collection.

La Danse des Bleus et des Violettes (The Dance of Blues and Violets)

Soft and comforting and old-fashioned with notes of Victorian violet, iris and heliotropin dominating. I’m reminded of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, though this is softer and as it develops, watery notes emerge and take over. This is a watercolour-soft fragrance. It’s delicate, realistic and pretty.

Giverny in Bloom

A realistic, interesting and complex scent – just like that of a real garden. At first I smell mostly the green, dirty, watery and softer floral notes (the blues and violets), but as the fragrance warms and settles, the sweeter, richer red and pink flowers emerge. The smell of dirt remains subtly throughout, which reminds me that I’m smelling the scent of a garden, not just a bouquet of flowers.

Epilogue

It’s been a delight to be able to experience Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Giverny in Bloom collection, particularly at the height of Spring in Australia, when smelling these lovely floral and garden-inspired accords and fragrances seems particularly apt. As a veteran collaborator with other artists and galleries, and as a synaesthete, perfumer and visual artist herself, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is the perfect fit for this scent collaboration. I wish I could visit Dawn’s special scent room and experience the In Bloom exhibition in its entirety, but having the fragrances to smell will have to suffice. These beautiful garden scents transport me in my imagination to Monet’s garden at Giverny, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years.

Exhibition Details & Where to Buy Giverny in Bloom

In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism is on at the Denver Art Museum until Sunday October 11, 2015. Visit the Denver Art Museum website for further information.

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Giverny in Bloom Discovery Set

The Giverny in Bloom collection can be purchased at the DSH Perfumes website. You can buy the Sample Pack (4 x 1ml) for $24 USD or a Discovery Set (4 x 3ml) for $48 USD here. A coffret of four mini flasks can be purchased for $70 USD here. You can also purchase the individual fragrances from the collection in a range of different sizes here.

You can read more about Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and her work as a perfumer and artist over at her website.

Find out more about Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny at the Fondation Claude Monet website.

Acknowledgements & Disclaimer

Warmest thanks to Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for generously providing me with a discovery set of the Giverny in Bloom collection for this blog post and review.

Smell and Synaesthesia Part One: Frédéric Malle

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An example of time unit – space synaesthesia. Image credit: Dankonikolic (Own work) – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Synesthesia_5.jpg

Synaesthesia: a definition

Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g., a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).

Source: http://www.synesthete.org/

Synaesthesia is a kind of sensory interplay. It isn’t the same as consciously setting out to find equivalences between things attributed to separate senses, realms, or artistic media. And it isn’t the same as using metaphors or similes to describe things, as in the following passage by William Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Here, Romeo sees Juliet at night through a window, and finds her beauty so vibrant and illuminating that he compares her to the sun. In the world of scent, our vocabulary to describe smells and perfumes is limited, due to an insufficient vocabulary or language to describe smell; so we use metaphors, similes and comparisons to describe perfume frequently. When we describe smells, especially those that are unusual or new to us, we refer to other things outside the world of scent to describe the smell. A particular perfume note might smell nutty, dark, or velvety, dirty or bright. These adjectives actually come from the sensual realms of sight, touch and taste, and yet we often use such words to describe smell. But this is not synaesthesia, rather, it is a deficiency of the language that we have available to us to describe scent that forces us to use words that commonly describe other senses.

Similarly, we might imagine the colour orange when we smell orange oil, or red when we smell raspberries, or green when we crush and smell a pine needle, but these are understandable, logical associations. They are not synaesthetic responses. We compare perfumes to works of art or music or even famous people, but not in a genuine synaesthetic way (unless we are smell synaesthetes). Again, we do this to try to describe what we are smelling to others so that we can communicate about our experiences with smells.

However, for a small percentage of the population (between 2-5%), the parts of the brain that usually detect and experience our five senses as discrete things, connect with each other neurologically, so that when one sense (or perceptual mode) is engaged, it triggers a response in another part of the brain that relates to another sense (or perceptual mode). The result? A kind of sensory co-existence of two (or sometimes more) sensory or perceptual experiences at once. One sensory experience triggers a simultaneous co-experience, usually between seemingly unrelated things.

One key factor of working out if you’re a synaesthete is the repeatability of such experiences. For instance, if every time a person hears the musical note “G” they see the same shade of yellow in their mind’s eye, and they have other colours assigned to other musical pitches, they almost certainly have synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is something that people seem to either have or not have. It’s not something that can be cultivated. It can be simulated, and is simulated sometimes by artists who wish to find analogies or faux-synaesthetic associations between different art forms or to create multi-disciplinary works. But with synaesthetes, the experience has always been there, usually throughout their lives, and it’s often repeatable and the same, and it can’t be switched off.

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The colours and shapes used in the design for my website were based on synaesthetic associations between the letters of my name and the colours in which I see these letters (grapheme-colour synaesthesia).

Why am I so interested in synaesthesia? Because I am a synaesthete. And because it’s one of the few neurological conditions that allows one to function fully in society! In fact, it can make life more interesting. For as long as I can remember, I have always experienced grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which is one of the most common, most studied types of synaesthesia (there are more than 60 types altogether). This means that when I imagine letters and numbers (as forms) in my mind, I see each letter or number in a specific colour and shade. The same colour and shade each time. I had no idea this was unusual, until I thought to mention it to a friend when I was 19 years old. My friend, a fellow composer, was most excited: he told me it was a rare condition called synaesthesia and that not many people experienced it. I’m glad that the first person I chose to tell was someone who a) knew what it was and b) didn’t mock me or make me feel strange for seeing coloured letters and numbers in my head. Apparently synaesthesia is much more prevalent amongst creative people and artists, and some studies show that it is also more common amongst women. I also experience number form synaesthesia, whereby the days of the week and months of the year form a pattern of linear blocks in my visual imagination, which I see every time I imagine the days ahead, or try to plan something.

As I mentioned already, the grapheme-colour synaesthesia that I experience is actually one of the most common kinds. I’m jealous of those who feel shapes when they eat certain foods (e.g. the chicken tastes “pointy”), or hear music when they smell certain smells. As  composer, I really wish I’d been born with a type of synaesthesia that related to sound in some way, and as a perfume buff, I’d love to have a smell-based synaesthesia. But alas, it’s not meant to be, and as a true synaesthete, I know that sadly I can’t train myself to develop these kinds of synaesthesia, nor would it feel right to fabricate connections between these senses and any others. Being endlessly fascinated by this topic, and wanting to find out more about the other kinds of synaesthesia, I decided to research the topic as it relates to the sense of smell. I wanted to find out if there were perfumers and artists out there who are known to experience smell-based synaesthesia. And there are.

So, with all that in mind, in today’s post I wanted to introduce you to synaesthesia, tell you a little bit about my own experience of it, and introduce you to my first subject in this series: perfumer Frédéric Malle, who experiences smell-colour synaesthesia.

Frédéric Malle

Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums is a collection of niche fragrances composed by some of the greatest perfumers in the fragrance industry.

Frédéric Malle introduced the Editions de Parfums in 2000, as a completely original concept whereby the world’s greatest noses composed exclusive, creative fragrances that would be sold under their creator’s names. In an era in which most companies attach more importance to brand names, by intensified marketing campaigns, Malle brings the attention back to the product itself: perfume. Through a simple “back to basics” ideology, the Editions de Parfums are challenging all prevailing trends.

Frédéric Malle grew up immersed in the world of perfumery; his grandfather, Serge Heftler, was most notably the founder of Parfums Christian Dior. Malle started his own career in 1986, at the prestigious perfume creation labs Roure Bertrand Dupont. Over the years, he acquired a profound knowledge of the raw materials of which perfumes are composed, as well as a strong sense of olfactory balance. Simply, he is an “evaluator,” the professional term defining a specialist whose deep understanding of fragrance structure and accords enables him to critique a perfume’s composition.

Source: http://www.fredericmalle.com/eu/about-us/frederic-malle

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Frédéric Malle’s illustrations for the limited edition release of Editions de Parfums at Barneys New York. Image credit: Illustrations by Frédéric Malle. Image sourced from The Fashion Reporter blog: http://thefashionreporter.com/blog/?paged=2&m=201212%2Fpage%2F2

In 2012, to celebrate ten years in business together, Barneys New York and Frédéric Malle released a special, limited edition range of packaging for the Editions de Parfums collections, based on Malle’s own synaesthetic illustrations.

Malle told Laura Feinstein of PSFK.com:

To celebrate 10 years with Barneys [Malle’s US distributor], I decided to create a line of packaging with each of these illustrations, so that – for the first time in the history of our brand the exterior expresses what’s inside the bottle…

When smelling fragrances I see colors. This capacity to translate scents into images is called synesthesia. A few years ago, I decided to put these visions that I have when smelling the perfumes of our collection on paper. I used Photoshop, its many layers and its many brushes to illustrate the layers and textures that I smell when smelling these scents. At first the purpose of these images was to explain each perfume not using words.

While I receive inspiration from all things– nature, things I see while walking, design, I certainly am also inspired by these colors.

In this wonderful video from Barneys New York’s website, Malle explains his synaesthesia and describes what he sees when he smells a couple of fragrances from the line, while showing us the resulting illustrations.

Video sourced from Barneys New York’s “The Window” website.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the first in this series on synaesthesia as it relates to the sense of smell. I’d love to know if you experience synaesthesia too, and if so, what type you have.

If you’d like to read more about synaesthesia, the following websites are good places to visit:

Wikipedia’s page on synaesthesia

Synaesthesia.com

University of Sussex synaesthesia research page

If you’d like to take a test to see if you are a synaesthete, I recommend the following:

The Synaesthesia Battery test

Frederic Malle’s website can be accessed here.