‘Let’s put it like this: if a woman smelled like this, I wouldn’t find her attractive, it reminds me of my grandmother bosom’, was what Frank Reijnders said about the liquid in the bottle I presented him with in the Stedelijk Museum on the event of his academic retirement this year. Not exactly the reaction one would expect after giving someone a gift as romantic as a perfume. But this was no ordinary perfume, and no ordinary situation either.
In 1921 Duchamp created a ready made ‘Belle Haleine’ for which he used a perfume bottle that contained – not surprisingly- a perfume. But what did it smell like? I was dying to find out about this lost dimension of a famous work of art that we have only experienced thus far visually. As a thank you to Frank for his inspiring lessons I arranged for what I call an ‘olfactory reconstructed assisted ready made’.
My former professor Frank Reijnders and I often talk about our common fascination for the father of Dadaism. Duchamp might be the most well known artist of the 20th century. Not so well known is the relation to scents in his works of art and installation designs for exhibitions. But I don’t want to get into this fascinating topic right now. Let’s redirect our attention to the recently auctioned ‘Belle Haleine’, hammered off in 2011 for 11 million dollars.
The first time Duchamp can be linked to a perfume, be it in an indirect way, was in 1921. A friend of the artist brought from New York a bottle of the popular and by that time already classic perfume ‘Un Air Embaumé – Eau de Violette’ by Rigaud. Duchamp changed the colour of the glass from peach to green (something only recently noticed!), designed a label for it and changed the name into ‘Belle Haleine – Eau de Voilette’, a pun, referring to both mouth water and the classic beauty Helene of Troy. A picture of Duchamp as his female alter ego Rrose Selavy adorned the top of the label. Since the pun and the picture both refer to the covering or masking of something, the connection to perfume is apparent, because it masks body odors; information that cannot otherwise mask our identity, health, sex etc. Secondly, this work is about seduction and sexual arousal, which is not just evoked by what we see, but for a large part by what we smell. Since the olfactory dimension is so closely linked to the meaning of this work, I was determined to pay a certain homage to this aspect.
After providing her with a contemporary review that describes the base, heart and top notes, aroma therapist Valentina Hulsman agreed to make an artistic reconstruction of this once very famous perfume. Architect and designer Maurits Fennis altered the label for the purpose.
Artistically reconstructing the smell of the classic perfume is a way of documenting and thus providing a context for an important, often forgotten part of this particular assisted ready made. We are talking about an immensely popular perfume worn by many women in New York and Paris in those days. Many people must have been familiar with this scent. Being able to sense it, gives us a hint of what the artist perceived when he first opened the bottle, which I am sure he did! It might have reminded him of woman in his direct circle. Who can tell? (Maybe he even wore it when he dressed up like Rrose…)
In documenting and (re-)constructing history, we seem to be mainly focused (and relying!) on visual and auditory data. Yet, I strongly belief that olfaction can also give us important information. Smells are part of our material culture, even more so, since it is a chemical substance that enters our bodies. Since non-visual information is not that easily captured, reproduced and distributed, we are not used to considering it to be educational to reproduce smells. Let alone to think about the possibilities of addressing more senses at a time to stimulate and facilitate memorizing - for example - time tables or topography.
We read about the Roman Empire and see visual reconstructions of the Forum Romanum, but we don’t know, maybe don’t even care which aroma’s the dwellers of ancient Rome inhaled. And if we do read about it, it’s more a cerebral thing, or there is a picture of a perfume bottle at most, which is - again- about seeing, not about olfaction at all.
Although I am aware that the reconstruction I asked Valentina to compose, is not an exact representation, it does offer something substantial. It can provide us with the awareness of other possibilities of documentation and the fact that smell is an important part of our daily environment and history! And here one can find the most striking similarity between Marcel Duchamp and Frank Reijnders. They both stimulate out-of-the-box-thinking.
Note: This artistic reconstruction was uniquely produced for Frank Reijnders. © Caro Verbeek (concept), Valentina Hulsman (olfactory reconstruction), Maurits Fennis (graphic design)