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

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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.
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. 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. On first whiff, all you'll get from Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is of sea salt and grass -- pleasant enough smells, it's true, but smell a little closer. In the middle lower left of the painting, you'll see a dog who provides a clue as to what we're looking for, here; the dog is smelling the man in the sleeveless shirt, whose pipe smoke almost -- but not quite -- masks the distinct odor of stale fried chicken. Although the counter guy spends all day rubbing Lysol on everything in his shop to mask it, the smell in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks is unmistakably that of dried semen and hooker sweat. It's often assumed that the image of God reaching out to touch Adam on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is meant to be a symbol of the tenuous distance that exists between body and soul, but an aroma analysis reveals that the narrative is much less metaphorical. In fact, in this scene, God is all like, "hey, Adam, smell my finger, bro," and Adam's like, "naw, c'mon, God, I'm not falling for that one again." And with good reason: As Adam learned the hard way, when somebody asks you to smell their finger, never do it. Lemons and peyote.

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