Power to the pumpkin – in art and perfume

While Yayoi Kusama covets its curvy form, perfumers plunder its subtle scent

Yayoi Kusama with one of her Pumpkin pieces
Yayoi Kusama with one of her Pumpkin pieces | Image: Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro © Yayoi Kusama

“My love of pumpkins stretches back to when I was a little child,” says artist Yayoi Kusama. “I have always found them to be such tender things to touch and so wonderfully humorous, humble and appealing.” A recurring motif in her artworks, pumpkins are cast in bronze, covered in polka dots – as with the 10m-high inflatable version that recently popped up in Paris’s Place Vendôme – or lit by a warm glow. The effect is both whimsical and eerie, resonating with childhood memories of Halloween and autumnal stillness. 

The 10m-high inflatable pumpkin by Kusama that recently appeared in Place Vendôme, Paris
The 10m-high inflatable pumpkin by Kusama that recently appeared in Place Vendôme, Paris | Image: Marc Domage. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro. © Yayoi Kusama

When it comes to the taste and smell of this fruit masquerading as a vegetable, most people find it hard to describe, but a bite of pumpkin pie or a whiff of roasted squash brings comforting associations. Fruity, with a hint of apricot and orange, pumpkin also smells of earthy green melon. Some varieties, like the Japanese kabocha that inspires Kusama, have a milky scent, but subtlety is the common characteristic. 

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For this reason, when perfumers use pumpkin in compositions, they magnify and enhance it the way Kusama does. For instance, the Pumpkin Chai candle ($42) and diffuser ($48) from New York’s Nest Fragrances is rich with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and clove. At the same time, a vivid pumpkin accord adds a luminous, dramatic twist, which stands up to the fiery spices and black tea.

Nest Fragrances Pumpkin Chai diffuser, $48, and candle, $42
Nest Fragrances Pumpkin Chai diffuser, $48, and candle, $42

Kusama’s artworks reveal pumpkin’s unexpectedly seductive side as she twists and inflates its curves, and this idea is echoed in Harvey Prince’s Temptress ($57 for 50ml EDP). At first, the perfume seems like a charming blend that wraps its bouquet of jasmine, ylang ylang and freesia into layers of bittersweet amber and spice. However, the presence of pumpkin adds an element of surprise. The softness of flowers is tempered; the expanding darkness of amber is brought to a halt; the jejune sweetness of vanilla is made more complex. Temptress is alluring but tongue-in-cheek. 

Etat Libre d’Orange Like This, €135 for 100ml EDP
Etat Libre d’Orange Like This, €135 for 100ml EDP

Perfumer Mathilde Bijaoui put pumpkin at the heart of Like This (€135 for 100ml EDP), her woody-floral composition for Etat Libre d’Orange. The familiar pumpkin-pie spice accents of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger illuminate the dark sandalwood and incense base. The fruity, mellow sweetness of pumpkin unfolds against this multifaceted backdrop and marries with the bitterness of immortelle, a dune flower that smells of dry herbs and maple syrup. Pumpkin hides behind the petals and leaves, but when one least expects it, it reveals its bright orange fullness. For me, this pumpkin is the olfactory cousin of Kusama’s playful kabochas.

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Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher. @boisdejasmin 

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