Fashion Kool-Aid: Helena Rubinstein Exhibition

Beauty Is Power at The Jewish Museum

Helena Rubinstein by Man Ray c. 1924 Gelatin silver print
(click images for full size views)

Can you imagine holding a 50 year grudge against someone that you’ve never met and never spoken to? I confess that I’ve long been intrigued by Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) and her cosmetics empire even though I was about a decade too young to wear makeup when she died. Even at that tender age I was somehow aware that she and Elizabeth Arden, two women at the head of major companies when that was a rarity, were in a heated competition for women’s loyalty as well as their disposable income. Madame as Ms. Rubinstein was called, was small (4’10”), and Jewish; Miss Arden was taller and Waspy. They both left their native lands (Krakow, Poland and Ontario, Canada) and are both credited with having pioneered the usage of makeup in turn-of-the-century America by women of the middle and upper classes as it was formerly exclusively worn by actresses and hookers. They both changed their names; Chaja Rubinstein and Florence Nightingale Graham were the names they were born with. They also both adopted a pseudo-scientific approach to skincare working in their labs (Rubinstein called it her “kitchen”) to create (or reformulate) their individual creams and potions. Although Madame was 14 years Arden’s senior, they died within one year of each other. They were both betrayed by their husbands: Rubinstein’s first marriage was to a philanderer, her second husband 23 years her junior and of quasi-royalty, pre deceased her; when Arden’s 24-year marriage dissolved her ex-husband went to work with Rubinstein’s company or for “That Woman” as Arden would say.

Portraits of Helena  Rubinstein

Another confession: none of this is even touched on in the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power” (a tagline from one of her early advertisements) although it was mentioned in the press breakfast and will be the focus of a program on December 4 with a screening of “The Powder & The Glory,” a 2009 documentary on the subject of the feud. The exhibition runs from October 31 until March 22 and is the first time a museum has turned its focus on the cosmetics entrepreneur and art collector. Not to worry though, the Jewish Museum has done a more than credible job showcasing the life and times of HR and I found the exhibit quite fascinating. Rubinstein, a woman so ahead of her time liked to say “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” She herself was no great beauty but someone who knew what she liked, be it clothing, jewelry, art or design. A great proponent for non-conformity and uniqueness of the individual she believed that one’s identity is a matter of choice. “She offered women the ideal of self-invention–a fundamental principle of modernity.” according to Curator Mason Klein. “If latter-day feminist debates have focused on cosmetics as objectifying women, they were seen in the early twentieth century as a means of asserting female autonomy. By encouraging women to define themselves as self-expressive individuals, Rubinstein contributed to their empowerment.”

Series of portraits of Helena Rubinstein done by Pablo Picasso

The exhibition culls together all facets of Rubinstein’s life including her collection of rare art featuring works by Pablo Picasso, Elie Nademan, Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Joan Miro, Henri Matisse as well as thirty works of African and Oceanic art. Previously labeled strictly Ethnographic objects, Rubinstein considered them as fine arts and mixed them in with her “true art” pieces. Also featured are her beloved miniature period rooms, jewelry, and clothing designed by Christobel Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. Other items displayed are vintage advertisements, cosmetic products and a promotional film reel that is not to be missed. Rubinstein commissioned many portraits by well known artists and while they are scattered around including a series of sketches from Picasso, and an Andy Warhol, the most telling of the collection are featured on one wall which is a focal point. In order to please Madame, many of the artists painted her as much younger and more attractive than she really was as is evidenced by a Marie Laurencin painting of Rubinstein at 62 resembling a youthful Indian maharani. Towards the end of her life, two portraits that were painted in 1957 when she was 87 were an exception to that rule, yet one in particular received critical acclaim.

House of Balenciaga, silk evening ensemble c. 1957

English painter Graham Sutherland’s portrait entitled “Helena Rubinstein in a Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown” (the gown is on display too) showed her looking “hawk-eyed, in a royal-red Balenciaga gown, her talon like fingers adorned with jeweled rings.” Her shocked reaction to what she described as the “incredibly bold domineering interpretation. Look at me…so old…so savage…like a witch!” She later admitted that “the picture grew on me” perhaps after being praised by The Tate Gallery. The other 1957 portrait by William Dobell was possibly never seen by Madame and that would be a good thing. If she didn’t care for the Sutherland portrait she would absolutely detest this one as it shows her as an “aging warrior, a stout, ruthless, melancholic Genghis Khan, eyes fixed on the past, colossal and mythic.” In short, she looks like some kind of a monster. What I found quite interesting is that in all other portraits she is showing her left profile, in this one she is facing right; something that I’m sure the artist did intentionally as she must clearly have favored her left side.

Collection of African and Oceanic Art

There are many stories to be discovered in the exhibit and interesting anecdotes which show Rubinstein’s character. After leaving Poland to avoid an arranged marriage, she journeyed to Australia to stay with her uncle. There she discovers Lanolin (a sheep byproduct) and adds it to the cream that a Polish doctor had given her mother and that she and her family of seven sisters swear by. Rubinstein sells the cream to the sun parched Aussie women easily and inflates the price because “women won’t buy anything cheap. They need to have the impression they’re treating themselves to something exceptional” as well as claiming that the cream contains rare plants from the “Carpathian mountains.”

Promotional films

Rubinstein is widely hailed as the inventor of the still used buzzwords “problem skin types” which her salons in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro and eventually New York would diagnose and treat. The salons were not only about skincare however as they took the whole woman into the picture and advised on diet, exercise and were the first to counsel on the benefits of avoiding too much sun exposure. Rubinstein invented the first automatic mascara “Mascara-Matic opens like a pen” in 1957 containing her previously developed first waterproof mascara.

A Life magazine feature from 1956 in her apartment at 625 Park Avenue wearing a pearl-embroidered Balenciaga dress.

In 1941, wanting to rent a triplex apartment at 625 Park Avenue, Madame was told that the building did not rent to Jews.  She instructed her accountant to buy the building, no matter the cost, at which point she set to decorating all twenty-six rooms in a different manner.  The top floor of her triplex became a private art gallery. She worked with many of the most famous interior decorators of the day including David Hicks and Donald Deskey who had decorated the interior of Radio City Music Hall. By mid-century she owned homes in London, Paris, New York, the south of France, and Greenwich, Connecticut. She also appointed her salons with her varied collections in artwork as well as in decorative arts. An astute businesswoman who bought back her business after the stock market crash at a profit from Lehman Brothers because she didn’t like their mass marketing, she was also very charitable. The Helena Rubinstein Foundation which funded many programs for women and children (think the PBS announcement at the end of Sesame Street stating that “major funding for this program” had come from the Helena Rubinstein Foundation).

This pearl necklace was purchased in 1908 by Rubinstein during a honeymoon fight with her husband.  It set a pattern of what she termed “quarrel” jewelry.

You might think that a woman as diminutive as Madame would need to show restraint in her manner of dress and particularly her taste in jewelry but that was contrary to her style.  She favored untraditional clothing designers particularly those of Poiret and Schiaparelli including modernized versions of historical costumes several of which are on display. To continue her flair for the dramatic, her jewelry tended to the extremely outsized. “Since I am quite short, I feel that these accessories, combined with my clothes, give a definite identity…Although I no longer need the added courage the handsome jewelry once gave me, it was not easy being a hard-working woman in a man’s world many years ago.” Amen, sister…it’s still not that easy. One final note: Curator Klein, a rather tall man, admitted to having tried on Madame’s large pearl choker. He found the weight of it crushing and wondered aloud how someone of her size could have carried it.

For more information:  The museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd St.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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