This is the first exhibition to explore the ideas, innovations, and influence of the legendary cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (1872 – 1965). Madame (as she was universally known) helped break down the status quo of taste by blurring boundaries between commerce, art, fashion, beauty, and design. Through 200 objects Beauty Is Power reveals how Rubinstein’s unique style and pioneering approaches to business challenged conservative taste and heralded a modern notion of beauty, democratized and accessible to all.
Rubinstein rose from humble origins in small-town Jewish Poland to become a global icon of female entrepreneurship and a leader in art, fashion, design, and philanthropy. As the head of a cosmetics empire that extended across four continents, she was, arguably, the first modern self-made woman magnate. Rubinstein was ahead of her time in her embrace of cultural and artistic diversity. She was not only an early patron of European and Latin American modern art, but also one of the earliest, leading collectors of African and Oceanic sculpture.
The exhibition reunites selections from Rubinstein’s famed art collection, dispersed at auction in 1966, featuring works by Pablo Picasso, Elie Nadelman, Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse, among others, as well as more than thirty works from her peerless collection of African and Oceanic art. Other highlights include Rubinstein’s beloved miniature period rooms, jewelry, and clothing designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Paul Poiret. Rubinstein’s savvy for self-promotion is seen in portraits of her made by the leading artists of her day, from Marie Laurencin to Andy Warhol. Also on display are vintage advertisements, cosmetics products, and promotional films related to her beauty business.
Madame established her business, Helena Rubinstein & Co., in Melbourne in 1903. Inspired by the tradition of European literary salons, Rubinstein conceived of her beauty salons as intimate environments where progressive ideas were exchanged under the guidance of a sophisticated patroness. After her initial success in Australia, she opened beauty salons in the grandest districts of London and Paris. At the outbreak of World War I she moved to the United States, where she founded her first New York salon in 1915. By the 1920s Rubinstein was a wealthy and influential businesswoman with salons worldwide, and was becoming known as an art collector. Her eclectic tastes distinguished her from the conservative elitism prevalent in fashionable circles. Rubinstein’s fascination with different cultures and artistic approaches was reflected in her clothes, art, furniture, and jewelry. The kaleidoscopic variety of styles represented in the decor of her salons and homes served to level snobbish aesthetic taste and expand the notion of who and what could be considered beautiful.
The exhibition title refers to one of the first slogans Madame used to promote her cosmetics. “Beauty is Power” is a bold phrase that evokes Rubinstein’s distinctive blend of commercial savvy and inherent feminism. At the turn of the century the use of cosmetics – associated with the painted faces of actresses and prostitutes – was widely frowned upon by the middle class. A model of independence, Rubinstein rejected this convention, producing and marketing the means for ordinary women to transform themselves. Her business challenged the myth of beauty and taste as inborn, or something to which only the wealthy were entitled. By encouraging women to define themselves as self-expressive individuals, Rubinstein contributed to their empowerment.
Today the term “beauty salon” means a hairdresser or a day spa. But the Rubinstein salon was a place designed entirely for women, where a client could learn not only how to improve her looks, but also how to reconceive her standards of taste, and to understand design, color, and art in order to express her own personality. Art and cosmetics embodied Rubinstein’s overarching dual enterprise: to establish a correspondence between modern art and personal beauty, both of which she felt should be interpreted individually and subjectively. Now we take such subjectivity for granted, but the sense of individuality and independence Rubinstein fostered was new and profound in the early twentieth century. She offered women the ideal of self-invention – a fundamental principle of modernity. One’s identity, she asserted, is a matter of choice.
The exhibition is organized by Mason Klein, Curator, with Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.
The audio guide is made possible by Bloomberg Philanthropies.