New Exhibit Features Life of Helena Rubinstein – Every Woman’s Empress of Beauty

Sandra Bertrand


From her small town beginnings in the Jewish Poland of 1872, Helena Rubinstein grew a cosmetics empire that spanned four continents.  By her death in 1965 at 92, this self-made magnate of beauty had not only amassed a world-class collection of Western, African and Oceanic art, but transformed how millions of women thought about themselves.  The Jewish Museum’s gorgeously-mounted exhibit, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, is aptly titled.  She gave the ordinary woman the right to reinvent herself and in the process, become beautiful, inside and out.


It’s not an easy task to depict the life of such an extraordinary woman.  Her nonconventional and eclectic tastes were wide-reaching.  Her friendships and alliances encompassed some of the giants of early-20th century art—Pablo Picasso, Elie Nadelman, Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, and Salvador Dali—to name a few.  Through 200 objects, covering art, photographs, fashion, and ephemera from her daily business and personal life, we can catch far more than just a cursory glimpse into the workings of her mind. 


 After all, the woman had a very large curiosity. Consider the result here:  portraits aplenty on the walls, along with a plethora of iconic modernist paintings grabbing focus from the sidelines, interspersed with clothing, jewels, Punu mask sculptures, Congolese and Nigerian heads (to name a few), advertising paraphernalia, and archival films from her famed beauty salons clamoring for a close-up inspection. You might imagine such an exhibit reaching Barnum and Bailey proportions. But you’d be mistaken. Thanks to the well-tuned vision of curator Mason Klein and assistant curator Rebecca Shaykin, these displays are artfully spread over several galleries with a fine decorator’s touch and vision.


Upon entering, one of many portraits of Madam, as she was often referred to, greets the eye.  This one by Marie Laurencin is particularly arresting.  Rubinstein appears as a youthful maharani princess, bedecked in jewels and a lemony yellow sari, her skin luminous to behold.  In fact, Rubinstein was 62 at the time of the sitting.  As one proceeds into the first gallery with its mauve-colored walls, it’s almost overwhelming to see so many commissioned portraits of one woman.  At four-foot-eleven in height, it’s hard not to interpret this display of Rubinstein’s as a kind of Napoleonic self-regard.  However, it’s important to remember how her accomplishments and philanthropy inspired admiration, not least of all in the creative minds of her time.


One of the most imperious portraits on display is the English painter Graham Sutherland’s pose from 1957 in Madam’s later years.  Here she sits in a royal-red Balenciaga gown.  The wall notes indicate that on first viewing she saw herself “so old, so savage, like a witch!” Once the Tate Gallery exhibited it, she softened her appraisal.  Roberto Montenegro gives us a much more romantic interpretation and the large Mexican silver necklace shown in his portrait is also on display nearby.  Also on view is a photograph of Rubinstein sitting beside a cluttered wall of her numerous portraits. The pose is strangely reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s photographic portrait, with favorites from her own collection at the early Rue de Fleurus residence as an obvious backdrop. 



If Madam was particularly adept at celebrating her own image, she celebrated others she deemed worthy of her support even more.  Elie Nadelman, a modernist sculptor who professed his work “expressed a new life which had nothing to do with nature” was to her the perfect artist for her salons.  His Head of a Woman (1907-8) in bronze is only one of several works on display.  Four of his terracotta statuettes, The Four Seasons, are posted in the upper corners of a second gallery.  Almost at risk of being overlooked by a casual observer, they are a crowning touch of the curator, along with the stark black and white checkerboard floor tiles that set off some of the sculptor’s other classically mannered heads. 


Another adjoining gallery gives ample weight to both her African and Oceanic collection.  Wooden Fang reliquary heads from Gabon are beautifully stylized metaphors—as is a Bamana female sogo bo marionette head from Mali—for the mask of makeup she employed on her clients.  In curator Klein’s words, “One’s identity, she asserted, is a matter of choice.”  The sculptural pedestals are centrally placed so that the viewer is given a wide enough berth to concentrate on the impressive painting collection which shares the space.


The collection reveals a decided concentration on female imagery, but this is one collector that was never held down by more naturalistic notions of beauty and art.  Rubinstein had traveled extensively from an early age.  Fleeing an arranged marriage, she found her way from Krakow to Vienna to Australia, where she established her first business, Helena Rubinstein & Co., for skin creams.  Escaping again, this time from World War I, she set up her first New York salon in New York.  It was an inspired move.  The suffragette movement of 1911, with marchers wearing lip rouge to symbolize emancipation and the 1913 Armory show that introduced many Americans for the first time to avant-garde painting didn’t go unnoticed by Madam.  Even her beauty parlors were designed to advance the latest ideas, not unlike Europe’s literary salons, and for decades boasted many examples from her collection.



There are standouts in this array too numerous to mention—Candido Portinari’s Young Woman Coming her Hair (1941) has the boldness of line and bulk we’ve come to look for in much Latin American work; an uncharacteristic Seated Nude Holding a Flower (1917) by Joan Miro that resembles Picasso’s Blue Period works; and a simple etching by Matisse from 1925, Reclining Nude with Necklace are noteworthy. 


Rubinstein was a big fan of surrealism and Max Ernst and Leonor Fini are represented here.  Fini was one of the few women painters of the movement—she portrays in Two Women (1939) a voyeuristic girl peering through a keyhole at another woman who struts provocatively by, her head a flaming chandelier.  Rubinstein even commissioned a suite of three murals from Salvador Dali to decorate her card room at 625 Park Avenue.  When informed in 1941 that Jewish tenants were not allowed, she simply purchased the building, proceeding to decorate each of the 26 rooms of her penthouse in a different manner.  And one residence was not enough to hold her holdings and ongoing obsessions.  She had homes in London, Paris, New York, the south of France and Greenwich, Connecticut as well.


One of the most unusual and unforgettable suite of works in the aforementioned gallery are 12 untitled portraits of Rubinstein by Picasso from 1955.  In the accompanying description, we are told that after trying unsuccessfully to commission her portrait from him, she showed up at his doorstep on the French Riviera.  The painter grudgingly obliged.  He called them a “dossier, a few police notes!” He never did an actual portrait sitting. Each pencil and crayon impression is uniquely rendered and must be seen all together.  It’s a rare treat. 


Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was her interest in miniature rooms.  One gallery has lovingly placed several of these doll-sized dioramas for our consideration.  Ranging from a period Spanish Baroque dining room, a French Rococo salon to an artist’s garret in turn-of-the-century Montmartre, we can’t help but be entranced.  This is a disappearing art which saw its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, and once encountered, never ceases to fascinate.  (For those who want to see examples of this craft at its finest, the Thorne Rooms at The Chicago Institute of Art—68 lighted boxes in all—will amaze.  They are the creation of one Mrs. James Ward Thorne, whose husband’s father was the founder of the Montgomery Ward department chain.  It’s not a stretch to imagine Rubinstein’s path crossed with Mrs. Thorne’s at some point in their colorful lives.)


In one of her merchandising, almost missionary testaments to her followers, she said, “We don’t really do over a woman like papering a room or reupholstering furniture…we try to help the woman find herself.  If we are lucky (and she is too), the belief will grow in her that beauty is attainable.”


If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the eye must surely belong to Helena Rubinstein.


(The current exhibit runs through March 22, 2015 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10128


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

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