We had the great honor of receiving an invitation to the opening night of Beauty is Power, The Jewish Museum's exhibition devoted to exploring the fascinating background of Helena Rubinstein (or Madame, as she was known to everyone) and her meteoric rise to unimaginable fame, wealth and influence through her cosmetics empire. We didn't know what to expect, but were astonished and delighted by both the exhibition and the woman, and wholeheartedly recommend this exhibition to anyone. Madame is a wonderful examplar of female self-empowerment at a time when powerful women making their way through the world on their own terms were few and far between.
Helena (nee Chaja) Rubinstein (1872-1965) was a 20th century cosmetics entrepreneur whose beauty salon empire, lifestyle, art collection, and luxury residences helped transform women's perception of themselves. The exhibit traces her rise from small-town Polish Jew to successful businesswoman, feminist and art patron with eclectic tastes in art, furniture and furnishings, clothing and jewelry. (You will observe throughout this post how she gives new meaning to the term "statement jewelry"!)
Among the most memorable personal aspects of the exhibition are Madame's portraits, which prominently feature her legendary wardrobe and jewelry, and often the color red. (Above: portrait by Toni Berli, 1947; below: portrait by Kurt Ferdinand von Pantz, 1944.)
Over a vitrine of jewelry containing a particularly striking necklace of silver-topped gold, pearls, and rose-cut and single-cut diamonds was this memorable anecdote and hilarious, yet telling, text:
On her honeymoon in 1908, Rubinstein had a fight with her first husband, Edward Titus. "I rushed out and for no reason at all hastened into the nearest jewelry shop where I bought myself an expensive string of pearls! Subsequently, whenever we quarreled over anything, I would go out and buy more pearls. Buying 'quarrel' jewelry is one of my weaknesses. Some women buy hats, but I am more extravagant in anger, as I am in most things." (Titus, who published the then-scandalous Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence while they were living in Paris, helped Rubinstein gain access to avant garde society.)
Despite her incredible reputation for collecting, Madame had a very practical side, as evidenced by her re-purposing of the Balenciaga evening ensemble gown below into a suit wearable in daytime or to dinner. She often altered her formal clothing into more wearable clothing. (This suit is in the collection of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Roberto Montenegro's 1941 portrait "Helena Rubinstein in a Mexican Silver Necklace" captures Southwestern influences on her wardrobe and jewelry.
The silver necklace designed by legendary silversmith William Spratling was also on display at the Jewish Museum.
Likewise, this magnificent cabochon ruby gold ring with emeralds and round diamonds shown on her right hand in the Montenegro portrait was also on exhibit.
Madame wore and collected jewelry that she liked, not caring whether she mixed precious with semi-prescious stones. She is quoted as saying "I like large, beautifully colored stones, and I am not concerned about their value." This arresting Art Deco cuff bracelet, lent by Fred Leighton, combines a pink cabochon tourmaline, rock crystal, onyx, baguette diamonds, white gold and platinum.
In an interesting sixth-degree-of-separation connection, Helena Rubinstein met Andy Warhol in Tokyo during her 1957 world tour when she was in her eighties and he drew her portrait. (Don't you want to know what he was doing there way back then, and how their paths crossed? We do.)
An avid collector himself, Warhol later acquired some of Rubinstein's jewelry, including this silver ring with the initials "HR" in rubies. Interestingly, the accompanying exhibition catalogue notes that Rubinstein, a lifelong master publicist on her own behalf "was constantly interviewed and rarely ended a session without giving a reporter a packet of products or a ring from her jewelry-laden fingers (chosen in advance for the purpose.)"
Her collection of art work is as multi-faceted as the woman herself, encompassing a range from African and Oceanic art to Surrealist paintings, photographs and sculpture. Madame did not follow trends, she created them. In 1935, having already been collecting African art for over 20 years, she loaned seventeen works to the Museum of Modern Art's seminal exhibition of African sculpture. This wood, brass and copper Bakota reliquary guardian figure (mbulu ngulu) is from Gabon (date unknown). Although Madame collected what she liked, she also had access to the best known and respected artists of her time, from whom she delighted in learning.
Below, Madame with Brancusi's White Negress II. One of Rubinstein's innovations was the beauty salon, where middle class women were taught not only wear make-up (previously the province of only actresses and prostitutes), but skin care, exercise and nutrition. Rubinstein's salons stretched from Europe to North and South America, and were decorated with pieces from her collection. "Women who visit the salons on a regular basis develop a sense of discrimination and appreciation. It is like visiting museums… Every woman who can should have at least one salon experience", she said. "It will teach her much and give her knowledge about herself." Rubinstein famously used her art collection in her advertising as a way to distinguish herself from her competitors.
On display are works by Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Frida Kahlo, Georges Braques and Max Ernst, as well as a number of pieces by sculptor Elie Nadelman in a variety of mediums. This wooden "Hooded Head of a Woman" dates from 1916-1917.
Of course, THE artist of the century was Picasso, and Rubinstein approached the artist countless times to do a portrait of her. Picasso, who did not do commissions, steadfastly refused. Madame was not accustomed to not having her way, so one day she simply showed up at his doorstep. As a result, Picasso finally grudgingly did a number of sketches of her. Rubinstein's art collection was dispersed at auction not long after her death, but it is a testiment to her acumen that many of them were borrowed, for the purposes of this exhibition, from some of the most highly reputed museums of the world.
Making her way in the world as a Jew in overtly anti-semitic times (it is particularly notable that she never changed her name), Madame sought to show herself as a worldly, cultivated person. Here she is photographed in a Paul Poiret dress that she wore in ad campaigns of the 20s.
The dress itself, in silk crepe de chine and velvet with metallic thread, is also part of the exhibition, lent by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Another Rubinstein garment on display is this Schiaparelli bolero, covered with embroidered dancing circus elephants and swinging trapeze artists against a background of decorative braiding from the surrealist designer's 1938 circus collection. Madame wore it on her honeymoon that year with her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, who was some twenty years her junior. She had divorced her first husband earlier the same year, completely reversing the usual male-female roles in conventional marriages and divorces.
Want a closer look at the workmanship?
A small room is devoted to Helena Rubinstein's ground-breaking cosmetics empire, empowering women to take care of themselves. One of her war-time ads declares "Beauty as a Duty" and advises that in addition to a woman's duty "to further the cause of the Allies", another duty "sometimes classed as an extravagance" is the Duty of Beauty. Women should surround the husband, brother or friend, after the horrors of war, with brightness and beauty, rather than "depressing unattractiveness". In addition to advertisements and a video collage of news and advertising footage are actual examples from her cosmetics line.
In the 1939 classic The Women, we see the newly wealthy Joan Crawford indulging in a day of beauty in the comfort of her own home. (Haven't seen the movie? You MUST!)
You don't think Hollywood or Clare Booth Luce came up with that idea in a dream, do you? Here is a shot from one of the film strips we saw demonstrating various treatments available at Rubinstein's salons.
Her packaging evidences Art Deco, Orientalist and Surrealist influences, with hourglass lipstick cases, modernist powder boxes and makeup product boxes featuring Dali-esqe floating eyes and lips. Madame loved Man Ray's 1924 painting "Observatory Time" and deftly repurposed the dramatic floating lips theme for her packaging.
Man Ray was a friend of her then-husband, Edward Titus, when this photograph was taken in 1924 of her wearing her signature pearls. Claiming to have created Theda Bara's Vamp style a decade earlier, Madame appropriated the haunting look featuring dark eye shadow and mascara and dark, bold lips with a white face. Many of her cosmetic products and treatments were focused on achieving a lily white complexion, encouraging women to use products "to refine and whiten coarse skin", asking "Have You a Smooth, White Neck?", and manufacturing a water-lily powder for any readers who might answer "no". It is said that one of Rubinstein's first face creams, in Australia, where her business opened, cost ten pence to produce and six shillings to buy.
Jean instantly recognized the round gold rouge container on the left of the photo, the rectangular red Persian Black Mascara case on the right, and the sculptural lipstick cases as long-time fixtures on the mirrored tray on her mother's bureau. The clear red shade in the packaging was as strong and distinctive as the product's creator.
Readers will have noticed that all the portraits shown above portray Rubinstein as glamorous and youthful - even the opening portrait by Marie Laurencin, painted when Madame was 62. By contrast, her 1957 portrait by Graham Sutherland was very realistic. The accompanying text reads " '…Look at me… so old… so savage… like a witch!' But after the painting was acclaimed at the Tate Gallery, she admitted, 'The picture grew on me.'" This is the portrait that was chosen for her autobiography, "My Life for Beauty". Here we see the Balenciaga silk evening gown (shown above in its shortened suit form), her signature pearls and several rings.
Okay, let us show you one more ring. On her right hand in the portrait, she is wearing a gold carved ruby cameo ring surrounded with diamond and rubies. Here is what it looks like up close and personal.
This review hasn't even scratched the surface of Beauty Is Power. If you can't visit the show in New York before it closes on March 22, 2015, take heart. It travels to the Boca Musuem of Art, April 21 - July 12, 2015. If you can't see the exhibition -- or even if you can -- get the catalogue, exhaustively researched and documented by Mason Klein and published by Yale University Press in conjunction with the exhibition. Among his acknowledgements, Klein recognizes Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator, for managing numerous aspects of the exhibition, while also serving as chief coordinator of loans. Rebecca and Senior Publicist Molly Kurzius arranged our visit last Thursday evening to view the exhibition and take additional photographs for this posting, for which we are extremely grateful.
The cover, below, shows Madame in a 1934 publicity shot. In a wonderful juxtaposition of cultures, she displays an Ivory Coast mask while wearing Chanel gloves in straw and velvet ("meant to suggest the accouterments of a conservator").
If you do go to see the show in New York, be sure to visit The Jewish Museum's gift shop. As museum gift shop connaisseurs, we guarantee you will find all sorts of great things to fall in love with. We did! Including, among countless other things, Danielle Gori-Montanelli's felt tongue-in-rouged-cheek make up kit brooch. (Seen here behind a lucite case. Sorry!)
Or Maira Kalman's equally tongue-in-cheek pocket-sized Jewish Mother Gum.
For the more serious minded shopper, The Jewish Museum's store has a costume version of one of Helena Rubinstein's multi-strand pearl necklaces (not shown, but you can imagine!).
Listen to us: You have to go! You'll thank us later.