Katsushika Hokusai, “Peonies and blossom” (via Centre Céramique, Maastricht/Wikimedia)

In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.

Translating our strong responses to scent into art is a delicate practice. Recent attempts include “Famous Deaths,” in which you climb into a mortuary drawer to be confined with smells and sounds representing the final four minutes of a life, such as John F. Kennedy and Whitney Houston. “GhostFood” channels the smells of foods endangered by climate change into your nose while you eat a bland “foodstuff,” a dystopic meal simulation. The results range from the overwhelming sensation of passing through a department store fragrance counter, to barely perceptible whiffs of smell.

Decades before these experiments, on a New York stage in 1902, a poet and art critic named Sadakichi Hartmann attempted the first perfume concert, and it was a disaster. Intended to last 16 minutes and transport the audience to Japan through a series of smells, it was cut short at four by the jeers of the crowd.

In a 1913 article entitled “Perfume Land” published in The Forum, Hartmann recalled his initial plans for the olfactory experience:

I concluded to give a public performance, and specially composed for the purpose of a fantasy entitled A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes. I endeavored to suggest the journey by a recitation accompanied by eight perfumes, of decided contrast, which I used in the following succession: White Rose to suggest the departure from New York, large bunches of roses brought to the steamer to the departing tourists; Violet told of a sojourn on the Rhine, Almond of Southern France, Bergamot of Italy, Cinnamon of the Orient, Cedarwood of India and Carnation of the arrival in Japan.

He admitted that it “proved a complete failure,” and that “at present an appreciation of perfume would be eligible only in conjunction with scenery, music and acting.” Part of the blame could be placed on the sudden change of venue from the more avant-garde Carnegie Lyceum to a rowdy music hall with a Sunday program that leaned heavily towards comedy. Its air was already saturated with smoke, its audience highly unreceptive to a rather effete man accompanied by two geishas using electric fans to waft the smell of flowers towards their seats.

In a thorough 2013 story on Hartmann’s life for The Believer, Michelle Legro explored the impulses that led to the ill-fated smell concert:

The logic behind Sadakichi’s performance was that smell would excite certain memories in the mind, much in the same way he felt that music did. “Everyone has experienced that a smell suddenly appreciated — perhaps of some flower that grew in the old homestead where we spent our childhood days — sends back one’s train of thought to scenes of the past more rapidly and more vividly than any other art medium.” The nose, he explained, was the least developed of our sense organs. The eyes have learned to appreciate a marble sculpture, the ears to discern a clever symphony. The nose is a primal beast, sniffing out food or danger or an attractive mate. “It seems strange that a sense so easily excited has been left in a primitive and dormant state, as our olfactory nerves undoubtedly could be cultivated to such an extent that an artist’s manipulation of perfumes would yield aesthetic pleasures similar to music or pictorial art.”

Sadakichi Hartmann photographed by Hubert Bros. (1913) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Hartmann, in addition to experimenting with scent theater, was a thoughtful and influential arts writer. Born in Japan in 1867 to a Japanese mother and German father, he became an American citizen in 1894, and was a major proponent of American art throughout his career. He contributed to Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, and authored books like the popular two-volume History of American Art. At the same time, he was something of a romantic, especially with the connection between smell and memory. His poem “Tanka,” for instance, is rich with olfactory descriptions: “Winter? Spring? Who knows? / White buds from the plumtrees wing / And mingle with the snows. / No blue skies these flowers bring, / Yet their fragrance augurs Spring.” As is “Parfum Des Fleurs“: “Oh, frail and fragrant visions, / Sweet nomads of the air, / That rise like the mist on the meadows / And cling to my darksome hair.” The idea to use perfume-coated fabrics, wafted by fans, to similarly connect a person’s mind to a sensory experience was an extension of his symbolist-influenced poetry.

Hartmann eventually left New York for California. His final years, leading up to his death in 1944, coincided with the World War II era, which drew FBI suspicion on both his Japanese and German heritage. There was never a second attempt of the perfume concert. Yet in 2014, the Institute for Art and Olfaction organized a tribute at the Hammer Museum to Hartmann’s 1902 performance, called A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes. The Institute also offers a “Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent” at its annual awards, honoring Hartmann as a pioneer in the field. Below is a video of the 2014 series of scent concerts, which imagined what Hartmann might come up with using present technology, sensorially transporting their audience on an airplane and then hotel shuttle to Tokyo:

YouTube video

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...