The Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power,” is about biography and art, telling an uncommon life story and showcasing the spectacular art collected over a lifetime and reassembled here. What links the personal history and 200 objects is Rubinstein’s own pioneering, eclectic and highly inclusive take on beauty.
Among the family photographs, vintage advertisements for Helena Rubinstein cosmetics, portraits by leading artists, works from her distinctive collection of European and Latin-American modern art as well as African and Oceanic folk art, items of clothing and jewelry, and her collection of miniature rooms, viewers can almost feel the presence of Madame, as she was known.
The 4-foot-10 icon was a self-made powerhouse. While she may not have used the word feminism, she viewed her business as advancing women’s freedom. She saw makeup as a way for women to make choices for themselves and assert their independence. Both wealthy and working women found her approach and her products appealing.
Helena Rubinstein had a kind of fairy tale life, making the trajectory from growing up in Poland to building a major international cosmetics empire and transforming the way women think about beauty. But as curator Mason Klein points out in an interview with The Jewish Week, fairy tales can be embellished, and sometimes details like dates are hard to pin down. As he writes in the handsome book that accompanies the show, “Beauty is Power” (Yale University Press), she was “famously unforthcoming with details of her early life.”
Rubinstein was born Chaja Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland, in 1872, to an Orthodox family. She was the oldest daughter of eight sisters (four other siblings died early), and in a family photo from around 1888, she is at the center, looking regal and stylish. Her father arranged for her to marry an older man that same year and she rejected his choice, and instead left home to live with an aunt for the next eight years. Some say that her father pursued the match after learning of her romance with a non-Jewish medical student.
Independent in spirit, she made her way from Krakow to Vienna to live with another aunt, and then to Melbourne, Australia, where she had other relatives, bringing along some of the skin cream her mother used in Poland. Barely speaking English, she soon opened her first beauty salon and established a business producing a skin cream called Valaze — she had success marketing her cream to Australian women whose pale skin was affected by the harsh climate. “Beauty is Power. Dr. Lykuski’s Valaze Will Make You Beautiful” was an early advertising headline. (Lykuski was a Hungarian chemist in Krakow who created the cream her mother used in Poland, blending herbs, essence of almonds and extract from the bark of the Carpathian fir tree.)
Rubinstein grew the business in Sydney and Wellington, New Zealand, and then moved into the European market, opening salons in London and Paris. In 1908, she married Edward Titus, a Polish-born Jewish American journalist she had met in Australia; he had literary aspirations and creative ideas about copywriting, advertising and public relations. Their marriage wasn’t particularly happy, but they had two sons, Roy and Horace. (They divorced in 1937). She was determined to launch the business in America, and opened her first New York salon in 1915.
When we hear the word salon, we think of a contemporary hairdresser’s shop, but Rubinstein had in mind something altogether different. At her beauty salons, inspired by European literary salons, she wanted to teach women how to improve their looks and also wanted them to learn about art and design to broaden their outlooks about beauty — and ultimately to express their own personalities.
In 1936, she opened her flagship salon at 715 Fifth Ave., with seven floors, a library, auditorium and café, with exhibitions like an art museum. In many of the company’s ads, Madame’s image was featured, with her clear and radiant skin and her hair usually pulled back in a severe but elegant chignon. Sometimes she’d wear a white medical coat.
One wall of the exhibition features portraits Rubinstein commissioned from artists including Christian Berard, Roberto Montenegro and Graham Sutherland (an Andy Warhol drawing, created when she met him on tour in Japan, hangs in another gallery). Some of the portraits make her look exotic and most make her look younger than her years, with the exception of the Sutherland, which she didn’t like at first as she looks her age (then in her 80s). She is wearing what was once a Balenciaga evening gown that is now shortened into a day dress.
Another wall includes a series of sketches done by Pablo Picasso, showing Rubinstein from a number of angles, with a range of expressions, not all of them becoming. For decades she had been trying to commission Picasso to paint her portrait, but he would decline. He made these sketches in 1955, after she appeared at his home on the French Riviera They were to be studies for a future painting, which he never made. Nor did she ever see these. Here, they are exhibited in the United States for the first time.
The galleries are filled with many faces; both her occupation and her preoccupation were described as the theater of the face. The biggest smiles in the show come from a pair of Mexican masks, with a man and woman laughing, circa 600 to 700. Rubinstein owned many works by Elie Nadelman, a Polish-born sculptor she met in London in 1911. That year, she bought an entire gallery show of his work and featured many of his smooth-faced modern interpretations of classical works in her salons; she also sponsored his move to New York.
Her collection included paintings by Henri Matisse, Fernando Leger, Picasso and Frida Kalho. Rubinstein met Kalho and Diego Rivera in 1940 on a trip to Mexico City. She acquired some of their work. Intrigued by Kalho’s exotic looks and personality, she wrote of their “bonds of simpatico.”
Another gallery features jewelry and clothing and a Venetian rococo mirror, also seen nearby in a magazine shoot in her apartment that was published in a 1956 issue of Life. Glance into the mirror and lots of African figurines from the previous room come into view.
The seven miniature rooms, all on loan from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, include a Victorian English parlor and Amedeo Modigliani’s Paris studio; they are filled with the most refined of dollhouse-sized furnishings. Klein explains that Rubinstein had a lifelong fascination with miniatures and would tell a story about her father’s gardener — Klein’s not sure they had a gardener — carving tiny figures for her.
In 1938, she married again, to Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, who may or may not have been of Georgian nobility, more than 20 years her junior. The press would sometimes call her Princess Gourielli
At a time when many Jews changed their names in the public sphere, she stayed with Rubinstein. Klein points out that she wasn’t a practicing Jew, but didn’t hide her identity. She employed her sisters and other relatives in the business. One sister who stayed in Europe was murdered during the Shoah. During the war, her palatial home in Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and they used her classical sculpture for shooting practice.
Her Judaism came up when she tried to rent an apartment at 625 Park Ave. in 1941 and she was told they wouldn’t rent to her because they didn’t accept Jewish tenants. So she bought the building. She was ever practical, altering evening gowns for daytime wear and bringing lunch to work, usually chicken, in a paper bag.
Rubinstein worked hard for more than seven decades. Soon after she died at age 92 in 1965, her collections were sold in auction. This exhibition is the first time they have been brought back together.
“She advocated a sense of exceptionality in a world that discourages nonconformity,” Klein says.
One of the last lines that one hears in the exhibition is from a reel of promotional films and newsreels. “No one can stay young forever.”
“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., through March 22, 2015.