1921: Marcel Duchamp in a typically prophetic action launches (with the aid of Man Ray) the latest enterprise from his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. At first glance a typical and fairly unremarkable bottle of perfume, following the tradition of similar nineteenth and early twentieth century scent bottles, made from frosted, pressed glass, with ground glass stopper, cord seal and with its own lined box. A ‘watered’ down, commercialised version of similar bottles made by legendary glass artists such as Lalique and Daum. The label on the bottle reads Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette, a typical example of Duchampian linguistic game playing, as the literal translation of this inscription is ‘beautiful breath: veil water’.
Is this bottle of perfume then in fact merely mouth wash, giving the possible halitosis sufferer an olfactory mask of beauty? Rather than the initially misunderstood ‘violette’ or violet water; a fragrance beloved of turn of the century perfumiers, we have now a counterfeit masquerading as perfume, indicating in fact something much more malodorous: a critique on the commercialisation of art perhaps, or a suggestion that in order to confuse the general public - the consumers of ‘cheap perfume’ - an olfactory veil is needed to disguise the stink of commercialism that lingers around the art world, long after its initial scent has faded?
This ‘perfume’ is to be sold in New York and Paris according to the label, presumably in department stores and galleries. The bottle is branded with the SR monogram, standing for Rrose Sélavy; Duchamp in drag, whose duplicitous likeness is set at the top of the label, a counterfeit woman, or commercial manufacturer masquerading as fine artist perhaps? Duchamp’s reeking provocation poses a number of questions that Giulia Zaniol’s project brings into sharp relief: What is the relationship between commerce and art, between art and fashion, between an immediate physiological response such as the sense of smell and the oblique, often senseless (or should that be ‘scentless’) contemporary ménage a trois between art, fashion and commerce?
The ultimate irony of Belle Haleine is that the original bottle and its case was acquired in 1990 by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé to add to their already vast collection of art and was then subsequently sold following Saint Laurent’s death in the legendary Christies auction of much of this same collection in 2009 for nearly 11.5 million dollars, a suitably commercial finale which Duchamp would no doubt have relished.
Following Duchamp’s exploration of the imbrication of art, commerce and smell a number of artists, designers and indeed ‘noses’ have sought to combine the essence of that most devalued of the senses, the sense of smell with the lofty pretensions of ‘high art’ which typically celebrate optical and cerebral pleasures, more rarely tactile and auditory experiences, and hardly ever olfactory and gustatory sensations. This reticence to engage with the sense of smell seems especially telling when we consider that it is the sense of smell that alerts us to danger, the smell of smoke, of the rotten, of toxic gasses for example, that it is the sense that most effectively renders us conscious again from the depths of sleep, and evokes the absent or lost more directly than any of the other senses, how much has been written about the smell of the absent loved one left lingering on clothes, or of the association of specific perfumes with lost loves and objects of desire?
It is perhaps this need to literally ‘bottle’ the past, to capture and contain memories as olfactory souvenirs that explains the fact that when art has engaged with the sense of smell, and in particular perfume, that the bottle has become such an important feature. Since Duchamp's bogus olfactory experiments the sensory communion between art and scent, or at least the 'look' rather than the actual 'smell' of perfume has been surprisingly fruitful, and Zaniol’s ‘Spunk’, ‘Teddy’ and ‘The Physical Ethereality of Fragrance’ bottles join illustrious company on the shelves of twentieth and twenty first century art’s perfumery.
One of Louise Bourgeois’ most enigmatic works references directly perfume’s ability to evoke the absent presence and by using one of the most celebrated and iconic perfumes of the twentieth century; Guerlain’s Shalimar. In Cell II (1991), one of the series of intensely personal and enigmatic works that preoccupied her for some twenty years or so, she encloses within a series of interlocking doors, a small glass vanity table on which are placed a sculpture of a pair of wringing hands by Bourgeois and a group of empty, or nearly empty, Shalimar perfume bottles. This particular perfume evocative of her mother, recreates the perfumed presence of the absent maternal presence, a recurring theme throughout Bourgeois’ work, but also distils the centrality of perfume to twentieth century social cultural understanding. Shalimar created by Jacques Guerlain in 1921 (interestingly the same year as Duchamp launched his fictional fragrance onto the art market), was immediately successful with exotic notes of lemon, jasmine, rose, iris, incense, opopanax, tonka bean and vanilla, conjuring up a distant orientalist fantasy for fashionable Europeans and North Americans.
Scent as the signature of the unobtainable, the remote and the mythical is unleashed and permeates Bourgeois’ installation, providing a perfumed, illusory stage for the playing out of emotions rendered plastic via the accompanying anguished sculpture. Shalimar as one of the iconic smells of twentieth century modernity was relaunched at the fabled 1925 Exposition des Art Décoratives in Paris in a specially commissioned bottle by the prestigious crystal making firm of Baccarat, the perfect expression of Art Deco’s signature blend of machine age aesthetics and other worldly exoticism.
If Bourgeois explores the power of scent and its commercial manifestation as an olfactory conduit between personal memory and public projection, Sylvie Fleury’s exploration of fragrance is an intrinsic component of her interrogation of art, fashion and consumerism. Famously utilising the most visible manifestations of contemporary society’s obsession with surface and immediate gratification such as designer brand carrier bags and make up, her installation Aura Soma (2002) consisted of 102 50ml bottles, each filled with oil and water of different aromas and colourings. The various bottles’ ingredients were specifically mixed according to the various therapists’ (colour, aroma etc.) recipes, resulting in bottled ‘portraits’ of their potential consumers. Capitalising on the indissolubility of oil and water the bottles also create an abstracted geometry referencing the language of high minimalism. More provocative still was Fleury’s installation for the 1991 Cologne Art Fair which consisted of 1000 bottles of Chanel’s Égöiste fragrance, all of which were stolen by visitors by the close of the first day of the fair, a comment perhaps on the ephemerality of art, its impermanence, but above all the irresistible seductions of consumerism whether for fragrance, fashion or high art.
Both Bourgeois and Fleury’s scented projects share concerns with many of the more sophisticated of today’s fragrance manufacturers and promoters, whether it be as a reflection of the rise in what have been termed ‘artisanal’ or ‘bespoke’ fragrance, where specific recipes are created for individual clients in a revival of the practice common with privileged eighteenth and nineteenth century perfume connoisseurs, or to the evocation of memory regularly used by fashion houses such as Commes des Garcons who produce an Incense range of fragrances which recreate specific incense laden atmospheres from around the world such as the cathedral at Avignon or Ouarzazate the so-called door of the desert in Morocco. A similar exercise in olfactory recreation is that carried out by Maison Martin Margiela with their replica series of perfumes evoking the smell of specific locations at specific times including Jazz Club Brooklyn 2013 or At the Barber’s Madrid 1992. Fashion, celebrity, art, and fragrance collided in the sought after issue of Visionaire, the annual limited edition, multi-format publication beloved of fashionistas, each issue curated by leading designers and employing the most fashionable of visual artists, photographers and art directors. Issue no. 42 Scent (2003) consisted of a padded white box, its interior compartmentalised to receive 21 bottles of specially commissioned and created fragrances with names such as Cold, Success, Hunger and Sadness, and with creators such as David Bowie, Stephen King and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
A final project that succeeds in showcasing (literally) the alliance of fashion, art and the art of the glassmaker is Josiah McElheny’s remarkable From an Historical Anecdote About Fashion (2000). For this work McElheny, an expert glass blower recreated a number of glass vessels first manufactured by the famous Venetian glass company Venini. The anecdote referred to in the title concerns Madame Ginette Venini, wife of the founder of the firm Paolo, who was famous for her interest in fashion, especially Christian Dior’s’ celebrated New Look launched in 1947. Madame Venini was the inspiration behind a series of vases and bottles designed by the glass blowers themselves, rather than Paolo, and which took as their inspiration Ginette’s fashionable silhouette; full skirted and narrow- waisted as their inspiration. McElheny recreated some of these famous pieces, and exhibited them inside a glass vitrine, the essence of fashion apparently odourless, or at least undetectable by today’s art lover. A crystallisation of fashion, commercialism and art, an act of ‘bottling’ that Zaniol’s current project is set to continue and which is still proving as elusive, tantalising and ultimately seductive as that first captured in Duchamp’s bottle of Belle Haleine nearly 100 ago.