The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. – Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968) was an artist known for his work within the 20th century avant-garde movements of Dada and Surrealism, the progenitor of the “readymade” or found object turned into art, and widely acknowledged as the father of Conceptual art. Insistent on criticizing academic art as defined by fine arts schools, galleries, and museums at the beginning of the 20th century, Duchamp produced a body of work that was incisive and serious in its rebellion against good taste while utilizing puns and off-color humor to convey his point of view. In 1917, Duchamp caused a scandal with Fountain, a urinal that he signed “R Mutt” and submitted to the Salon of Independent Artists in New York and was rejected, though since then it became one of the landmarks of 20th century modern art.
One of his most well-known creations was the character of Rrose Sélavy. To take the emphasis away from the signature of the artist as the primarily locus of meaning for an artwork, Duchamp came up with this alter-ego in 1921. In French, the name is a pun that has been interpreted in many different ways, from “Eros, c’est la vie (Eros, it’s life),” a play on the idea that sex is the undercurrent that runs through human existence, to “Arrose, c’est la vie,” using the French word for “to water” or “to moisten” as a not so subtle sexual reference. Duchamp took on the identity of his alter-ego by dressing in drag and was photographed numerous times by his friend, Man Ray:
In a marvelous essay titled “Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath: Veil Water)” by the American Duchamp scholar, Francis Naumann, he details Duchamp’s foray into the world of perfume. Members of Dada and the Surrealists were often fascinated by popular culture, specifically advertisements. Duchamp collaborated with Man Ray to create a readymade inspired by a bottle designed by Rigaud for Un air embaumé, produced in 1915 that became one of the first successful perfumes created by a fashion house.
An ad for Un air embaumé, shown above, presents a partially nude woman draped in a sheet, sniffing ribbons of odors emanating from a bottle as though it were an aphrodisiac. Duchamp took the Rigaud bottle design, inserted an image of himself as Rrose Sélavy, and called it Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette, with the French word “voilette” meaning a veil, a pun on “violette” or violet, the flower popularly used in perfumes at the time. The word “haleine,” meaning breath, conjures the name “Hélène,” more specifically Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in antiquity abducted by the Trojan prince named… Paris. The idea of the veil, that which obscures a woman’s face, is a reference to the obscuration of meaning attributed the object–what you see is not necessarily what you are getting when you see a Duchampian artwork. Duchamp inserts the initials “RS” to the label, with the letter r reversed against the s, and then inscribes “New York” and “Paris,” the two cities to which he often traveled.
This object, after passing through many hands over the course of decades, finally landed in the collection of Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1990, and was then sold at auction at the Christie’s auction house in 2009 for a jaw-dropping amount of €8,913,000, or at the time, $11,489,968.