Synesthesia is a blending of the senses, where stimulation of one modality simultaneously prompts sensation in another modality. Sound is experienced as color. Numbers have spacial relationships to each other. Tastes have shape. Perfumer and visual artist Dawn Spencer Hurwitz describes her synesthesia.: “… I smell colors and textures and aromas have colors, shapes and textures that I sense when I am smelling. This sensory experience allows me to interpret and create based on these impressions. “ * Poor synesthetes have historically gotten the raw end of the deal from both science and religion. Science considered them marvels in the late 19th century, hysterics in the early 20th and pathological by the mid 20th. Religion? The Salem witch trials come to mind.
Synesthesia is often reduced to the ‘crossed-circuit’ metaphor. This model holds that perception is the result of consecutive steps: 1) external stimulation is received by specific neuro-receptors that, 2) transduce the input to electronic information that is, 3) relayed to the appropriate geography of the brain, where, 4) it somehow become thought. (Yeah, this last step is a doozy.)
Given the ongoing debate as to how the sense of smell works in the first place, it’s no surprise that contemporary neurology doesn’t offer much more understanding of synesthesia. Though rare, it is at least no longer considered aberrant. In neuroscience the outlier has always useful in pointing out assumptions as to where the center lies. I suspect that synesthesia will eventually be seen as part of general human neurology and that some are more gifted than others.
Synesthesia is an instantaneous transposition, not an association built by repetition. Linking color and scent is simply perception with a twist. For the synesthete, smelling color is as fundamental as seeing it for the rest of us. For the non-synesthete, associating scent and color occurs through repetition and follows a behaviorist model of conditioning. Examples: The lilacs in my childhood backyard were purple and their scent for me is purple. Pine, green. Fallen autumn leaves, grey/brown. Cut grass, green. Not terribly subtle or creative, I know, but the commonplace nature of the experience is how we participate in the tenuous language of scent.
With Chroma Collection, Hurwitz has chosen to highlight her experience and share it. The project was done in conjunction with The Denver Art Museum, with whom Hurwitz has had a series of collaborations including “Color as Field” and “YSL” among others. These collaborations/explorations combine exhibition, perfume and discussion.
The Chroma Collection consists of nine perfumes released between 2007-2010. The Chroma perfumes (including excerpts from Hurwitz’s descriptions) are:
Blue-Green: Arnica (“One of Blue-Green’s inspirations is the ‘Water Lilies’ series by Claude Monet.”) Water Lilies, 1914-1926 MOMA.
Celadon: A Velvet Green (“One of Celadon’s inspirations is ‘Spring Veil’ by Helen Frankenthaler.”) 1987.
Cyan (“Inspired by this ultra-modern blue color with a slightly greenish tint.”)
The Color Orange (“One of The Color Orange’s inspirations is ‘no. 12, c. 1951’ by Mark Rothko.”) Collection of Christopher Rothko.
Sienna (“One of Sienna’s inspirations is Picasso’s cubist work ‘The Three Women’.”) 1907, Hermitage, St. Petersberg
Quinacridone Violet (This aroma-color is based on an intense man-made fuschia-pink-purple artist hue [paint].”)
Prince (“An obscure but prized 17th Century textile color called Prince…described as ‘indigo-blue-black shot through with crimson red’.”)
Viridian (“Based on a semi-transparent, green-blue-green artist hue [paint].”)
Umber: Bois de Rose (“One of Umber’s inspirations is ‘The Tempest’ by Giorgione.”) 1506-1508, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Three additional Chroma perfumes were composed later, Hansa Yellow, Mars Violet in 2014 and Albino in 2015. (Hansa and Mars have not been released to the public yet.)
Do the perfumes smell like the colors after which they’re named? Yes and no. I doubt that Hurwitz’s goal was to make us experience synesthesia by proxy. She has a keen understanding of how perfume can express not just olfactory qualities, but olfactory dynamics. She uses her specific sensory talent to explore her topic and her materials to the fullest, but ultimately the ability to ‘smell color’ is just another skill in her repertoire. The key to the work isn’t Hurwitz’s synesthesia but her talent as a perfumer and artist. The opportunity for the perfumer is to compose perfumes that reflect the alignment of aroma and color that she perceives—to transpose color to scent. The opportunity for the audience is to smell the results, read the perfume and imagine.
Perfume can be read and the Chroma Collection provides an interesting subject. The perfumes are dynamic, well edited and very specific. Each expresses a coherent set of aesthetic values and provides tools to decipher the Collection. Chroma will not make its audience magically synesthetic, but it gives us the chance to see an image or color that the perfumer chose and smell the perfume she made. Smelling color happens for Hurwitz the same way that seeing forsythia as yellow happens for the rest of us. It is involuntary. Her perfume, on the other hand, is something that I imagine she works very hard at.
As a collection they show a wide range of genre and style, but they all share a classical progression. Many have top, heart and basenotes but all show deliberate evolution. There are some similar notes that pop up, but Hurwitz avoids repeating herself and she creates a few specific models of exploring her concepts. She takes inspiration from specific visual categories:
1. Historical Paintings: Arnica, Celadon, The Color Orange, Umber, Sienna.
2. The Painterly Colors: Cyan, Viridian, Celadon, Mars Violet, Arnica, Albino (white).
3. Specifically Synthesized Pigments: Quinacridone Violet, Hansa Yellow.
4. Other: Prince
Hurwitz’s varied approaches imply that synesthesia is neither easily located nor explained.
Pairing a perfume and a painting provides the audience with a reference point and gives us the opportunity to try to imagine how Hurwitz experiences the connection. Because the paintings she’s chosen are historically significant and well known, Hurwitz must be aware that many in her audience will already have associations with the paintings. When I smell the perfumes and look at the images I try to focus on the details of each and imagine how Hurwitz viewed the paintings and what they mean to her.
I experience Celadon/Spring Veil and The Color Orange/no.12 similarly. The vocabulary of abstraction in painting has largely to do with color and texture, the attributes that Hurwitz finds in scent. I don’t see the colors that Hurwitz sees, but I sense how accurately the perfumes depict the visual qualities of the paintings.
Umber/The Tempest match the most traditional of the paintings (Venetian Renaissance) with a traditional perfume genre: the rose chypre. The Tempest is an allegory and is filled with symbolic imagery. Umber might not have the depth of symbolism, but it is a densely packed perfume that, like the painting, can be taken in from any number of angles.
In Sienna/Three Women, the perfume folds cinnamon into a honeyed, resinous amber that perfectly reflects the hot/cold dynamic of the jarring red/green contrast of the Picasso painting. I may not ‘see’ the colors in the perfume, but Hurwitz does an outstanding job of conveying the jarring properties of the painting to the perfume.
The Painterly Colors
Hurwitz’s approach to the historically significant painterly hues is abstract but highly calibrated. She avoids the subjectivity-trap by choosing specific colors rather than vague descriptors or loose analogy. Cyan, Viridian, Mars Violet. She seems to have a particular affinity for the blue-green and violet spectra (elsewhere is the collection are Celadon and Quinacridone Violet). All people who are able to see color, whether they have a language for it or not, can share the experience of seeing a specific hue.
Mars Violet is the perfume that smells most like its color to me, yet I can’t explain how. The association is simply there. Is this what syesthesia feels like?
Cyan and Veridian are fairly similar colors, yet the perfumes have little in common. Both are cool, yet Viridian’s mossy herbal tone is quite different from Cyan’s balance of soapiness and buttery florals. Visually the colors are similar, but the scent/textures of the colors are quite different. This seems like a clue to understanding synesthesia. Scents that might sit close to each other in visual wavelength do not necessarily have the same proximity of aroma in the mind of the synesthete.
Specifically Synthesized Pigments
In the cases of Hansa Yellow and Quinacridone Violet, Hurwitz goes a step further than she does with the Painterly Colors, using explicitly synthetic colors. The painterly colors have been discussed, described and argued for years, some for centuries. Hansa and Quinacridone are commercial pigments created according to exact wavelength signatures. As colors go, they are constants. They are objects, making the subject the perfumer and her work. The artistic challenge is to use her skills as a perfumer to convey to others how Hansa Yellow and Quinacridone Violet smell to her.
Quinacridone Violet is an extended anaolgy, with berry notes and sweet florals suggesting a pink/purple range of hue. The hiss of violet leaf has an amplifying effect similar to aldehyes and gives the color range a neon bump.
Hansa Yellow was the first of the Chromas I smelled. I had the opportunity to try it at the 2015 Institute for Art and Olfaction Awards where it was a finalist for the Sadakichi Award for Experimental Olfactory Art. Like a pigment, it presents a uniformity that that suggests simplicity at the same time that its intense saturation implies a tightly calibrated complexity. This is the perfume that got me intrigued by Hurwitz work. I found I could read the dynamics of the perfume and understand how the olfactory attributes could represent a color. I ’got’ it, but I saw a completely different color—a crystalline blue—than the perfumer did. I was intrigued.
Prince’s inspiration is a textile color from the 17th century. Hundreds of years after it was created, any fabric or the painted representation of it, will have poor fidelity to the original color. Prince opens a ‘side-door’ to the Chroma premise. The challenge is to apply the color/aroma concept to a fabric that is known by its description. The result is a mixed floral with a chilly herbal component and smells like an imaginary cocktail made with pastis and chartreuse. Prince has less scent/color affinity for me than the others in the series, but it is an interesting perfume in its own right and makes a cold fragrance without the aloofness that usually accompanies olfactory chill.
The questions that surround Hurwitz’s synesthesia are fascinating. Color has scent and scent has color. Are the associations always consistent in both directions? Does the same pigment, which assumedly looks consistent to her, always smell the same way to her? Is there a threshold? That is, do all scents have color, or must they have a certain degree of saturation or ‘brightness’?
Two questions stand out in particular. The first is, if the pigment Hansa Yellow and the perfume Hansa Yellow are sensory equivalencies for Dawn, will they also be for another person with visual-olfactory synesthesia? The perfume Albino provides at least one answer to this question. It balances grapefruit and woods to create a synergistic inky scent that has strong similarities to Bruno Fazzolari’s Lampblack. Both perfumers are visual/olfactory synesthetes, yet an accord that Fazzolari likens to a black pigment is what Hurwitz understands as an exploration of the textures of white.
The second question is, what must it be like if a synesthetic experience doesn’t line up with typical color/scent associations? Imagine that the scent of orange oil, an aroma that for the rest of us is inexorably tied to the color of an orange, smells purple to a synesthete? What would she make of this sort of dissonance? An orange is orange in color, but so are turmeric, carrot and marigold.
Hurwitz cleverly opens the door to this potential incongruity with the perfume The Color Orange, which starts with a broad range of citric topnotes to reveal a resinous, musky floral heart and base. She takes us there via the non-fruit side of citrus trees, using petitgrain and orange blossom to connect the sweet-tart fruit notes of the top to the raspy, bitter-tinged base. Hurwitz plays into our expectations and then subverts them. This perfume in particular, urges me to consider how Hurwitz smells texture as much as color. The Color Orange does not have what I would imagine as the ‘texture’ orange. Its texture finds the common ground of gritty dust and sticky resin and the divide between the aroma and the texture creates a split that feels hallucinogenic.
Whether it was her intention or not, Hurwitz’s work suggests hallucination as a way to understand synesthesia. Hallucination is sensing something that is not ‘in fact’ present. Whether hallucination has a factual basis, the sensation is valid to the person who experiences it and differs little from the more acceptable fantasy and imagination. We all respond to both internal and external stimulation. It’s possible that external sensations and internal stimuli simply interact differently for a person with synesthesia. Perhaps compared to a person with synesthesia the rest of us have a form of color-blindness.
The goal of the Chroma Collection was to provide insight into the mind and method of an artist. It shows an enormous range of style, genre and technique and the perfumes stand on their own outside the perameters of the project. Frankly, Hurwitz puts to shame many niche lines of perfume that launch with 5-10 perfumes simultaneously, perhaps one or two of which is ready for Prime Time. There isn’t a weak spot in the series and the whole collection is bursting at the seems with ideas, skill and virtuosity.