PRINT April 2011


Marcel Duchamp, Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath, Veil Water), 1921, perfume bottle with label in oval box, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 x approx. 1 1/2".

FOR SEVENTY-TWO HOURS at the end of January, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin displayed Belle Haleine, said to be the only original “assisted readymade” by Duchamp that survives. To produce this piece, the artist appropriated a greenish flacon of Rigaud perfume and substituted an elegant label, with a Man Ray photo of the demure Rrose Sélavy (Duchamp’s infamous alter ego) above the complete title, Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, the brand name RS (with the R reversed), and a double place of origin, New York and Paris. The Rigaud box, signed by Rrose and dated 1921 on the back, framed the bottle here. This presentation of the work, the first public one in Germany, was theatrical in the extreme: Like crown jewels, the objects were spotlighted on a copper-colored plinth, set within a great glass case, and placed in the center of the vast Mies pavilion.

Although celebrated as the artist who opened high art to the common thing, Duchamp also did the opposite, rarefying the everyday object through the magic trick of the readymade. It is as though his refashioned flacon and case anticipated this other fate, and in many ways the work is the sublimation of his famous urinal—piss to perfume, masculine to feminine, vulgar to refined, obvious to enigmatic. The piece also comes with exquisite puns. Whereas Rigaud called its product un air embaumé (the last word means both “perfumed” and “embalmed”), Duchamp named his work Belle Haleine (beautiful breath), and instead of the expected eau de toilette or eau de violette (violet), he labeled his “water” eau de voilette (veil). (The bottle is, of course, empty.) Here Duchamp suggests that, for all the egalitarian pretense of the urinal and other readymades, art will remain, in a capitalist economy, a magic elixir—the breath of genius, the aura of the artist, or (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Kruger) the perfume of the gods. As he implies, the artwork can play its role only when veiled. (Lacan said the same thing of the phallus.)

Yet what was the presentation at the Nationalgalerie if not an unveiling? Everything was exposed here—art as deluxe product, museum as theatrical display, and all the rest. Indeed, the exposé was dialed up as far as it could go: a special showing of the precious survivor of the readymade family, en route from its 2009 auction, as part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection (another touch of irony Duchamp might have scripted), to its next private destination (about which the museum was mum). Belle Haleine sold, far above its estimate, for 8.9 million euros, so it is not just a luxury item but a sumptuary object that we came to behold. Can one smell the beautiful breath of $11.5 million? What might the aura of excessive value look like? For three days and nights Rrose peered out at us from under glass like a modern Mona Lisa (whom Duchamp had goateed just two years before revamping the Rigaud) or like an updated Helen, the beautiful haleine that launched a thousand Yves Kleins.

Again, all of this was blatant, but our dilemma (not new but still obscene) is that it hardly matters; such exposure doesn’t do a damned thing. The emperor (art, the museum, Duchamp, you name it) has no clothes, but its bare body is ravishing in all those Eurodollars. And what we have instead of critical knowledge is cynical knowingness: Everyone—from the hip writer of the museum brochure to the poor pilgrim who came in from the bitterly cold Berlin streets—is in on the joke. Or are we? When I was in the gallery on the last night, I felt that Belle Haleine might be booby-trapped, that, rather than reveal the wizard behind the curtain, I might be the one about to be punked (as if Ashton Kutcher would emerge from the shadows with Maurizio Cattelan, say). But this weird bit of paranoia quickly passed, and I shuffled down the great steps of the museum with a shrug: Once again, institution critique seemed kaput. (It may have as many deaths as painting has.) A Berlin newspaper referred to the Duchamp as “the Trojan flacon,” but it was hardly a Trojan horse: Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie, pursued the object; the museum delighted in showing it; yet there was no threat in its doing so—just the opposite, in fact. Belle Haleine, the exhibition brochure tells us, was “displayed in a glass case of the same shape and size as the one Nefertiti occupies on the Museum Island. The time has now come for that case to hold an icon of the modern age.” Un air embaumé is right; another eroticized mummy bites the dust.

Yet this might be cynical knowing of my own, and in any case the readymade has many lives. It is not only a tautology about art as deluxe commodity; it is also a “creative act” (as Duchamp called it late in his career) that exceeds the intentions not only of the artist but also of his handlers (in this case the Nationalgalerie), a performance of presentation that can put latent contexts into play. Here the context that came into view involved not icons but relics in Berlin; I suppose Nefertiti counts as such booty, but I have a different association in mind. We tend to see Rrose Sélavy as Duchamp cross-dressing as feminine, but she is also Duchamp passing as Jewish, homonymically as Rose Halévy. In this setting the appellation takes on a new significance, with the Nationalgalerie not far from the Topography of Terror, the site of SS and Gestapo headquarters, where now stands an extensive display of their genocidal operations, and with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to the northeast and the Jewish Museum to the southeast. A flacon like the one refashioned by Rrose could easily have appeared in a photograph of possessions appropriated during the mass deportations of Jews to the extermination camps.

Marcel Duchamp, Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath, Veil Water), 1921, perfume bottle with label in oval box, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 x approx. 1 1/2. Box closed.

Berlin is a place where such historical leaps are provoked almost daily. Belle Haleine behind glass called up another unearthing of long-lost objets trouvés recently on view at the Neues Museum (where Nefertiti reigns). In January of last year, as workers dug a new U-Bahn station near the city hall, they uncovered a bronze figure, not ancient but modern, a bust of a woman by an obscure artist named Edwin Scharff. More discoveries followed in August—Dancer by Marg Moll, Standing Girl by Otto Baum, and fragments of heads by Otto Freundlich and Emy Roeder—and more again emerged in October, eleven in all. It turns out that these modern sculptures, which were put on view in November, were survivors from the Nazi collection of “degenerate art”; some were displayed at the infamous exhibition of that name from 1937 until 1941 and then returned to the Propaganda Ministry. They were presumed to have been destroyed or sold abroad for hard currency—until the recent rediscovery, that is. It is speculated that a tax lawyer named Erhard Oewerdieck, who had a nearby office in 50 Königstrasse, had somehow gathered the works, perhaps to rescue them. (Oewerdieck is remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, for hiding one Jew in his apartment and helping others to flee.) When Allied bombs hit the building in 1944, his floor fell, and the rest of the building collapsed, covering the sculptures and everything else (if there were any works on canvas or in wood, they were incinerated). Despite its far softer fate, the perfume bottle by Rrose Sélavy would have qualified as “degenerate,” too.

Hal Foster is currently Siemens Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.