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Art and the Senses

Art, we are increasingly aware, is not something that engages only the sense of sight.


Art by Lizzie Marx

It is tactile, evoking our senses of touch, smell, even taste. The National Gallery has held sensory exhibitions exploring the multi-sensory experience of art, such as ‘Soundscapes’, in which musicians and sound artists created music in response to art from the collection. In ‘Monochrome’ they explored the deprivation of the sense of sight through colour. Art can be visceral, evocative, and multi-dimensional. To Lizzie Marx (2016) and Lorraine de la Verpillière (2014), this is an idea worthy of significant further study.

The Art and the Senses seminar series was the brainchild of Lizzie and Lorraine, both PhD Art Historians at Pembroke and both fascinated by, well, art and the senses. Lizzie is particularly interested in art and smells; she was recently awarded the Jean Michel Massing Curatorial Prize to display her exhibition ‘Smelly Remedy: Womb Fumigation Illustrated in 17th Century Print’. Lorraine just submitted her PhD, and has spent the last three years occupied with the subject of Visceral Creativity, particularly the role played by physiology, physicality, and digestion in artistic creativity during the early modern period.

From the beginning of the Art and the Senses series both Lizzie and Lorraine were absolutely clear that it should be comprehensive, include a multitude of senses, and bring together perspectives from scholars, artists, and curators. Many of the talks also included an element of interactivity. And the study of art and the senses is far from apolitical. Irene Noy, for instance, in her paper ‘Emergency Noises: Sound Art and Gender’ explored how in the wake of second wave feminism, certain women artists worked with sound art to expose gender issues.

Sight may be the sense we’re using to associate with art, but there’s still more to learn. Fleur Hopkins showed that the sense of sight can be explored in fascinating ways, such as the development of optical instruments that inspired the sci-fi illustrations for the ‘merveilleux-scientifique’ literary genre.

There were methodological lessons as well; Caro Verbeek addressed the odourless nature of history, thanks to the volatility of scents and the limitations of ‘ocularcentric’ methodologies, by offering the audience reconstructions of historically meaningful smells. One highlight was the opportunity to smell ‘dinosaur’ in Kate McClean’s lecture – ‘Nose-First: Rendering Visible the Humanist Smellscape’ – or at least, as Lizzie puts it, ‘the perceived smell of dinosaur’.

Art, it seems, is more tactile than may be obvious from a first glance. There are more layers to explore, more multi-sensory stories to discover. If this captures your interest, why not listen to Lizzie and Lorraine discuss the series in our latest Podcast?





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