As the curators at the Jewish Museum will tell you, most of today’s beauty and cosmetics companies are owned and run by men—an unusual phenomenon in a culture obsessed with the “empowered” female CEO. The original and most legendary female CEO was Helena Rubinstein, the self-made cosmetics magnate and grande dame, and the Jewish Museum’s “Beauty Is Power” show is an irreverent and heartwarming arrangement through which the force of Rubinstein’s personality can be felt.
Rubinstein (who is endearingly referred to as “Madame” on the wall texts) fled an arranged marriage in Poland. When she started out in business in Australia at the turn of the century, most women didn’t wear make up—it was for actresses and prostitutes. Rubinstein was one of the first to encourage ordinary, middle-class woman to use cosmetics as a form of expression, a practice which has reached the point of banality today.
She was a phenomenal businesswoman. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “In December of 1928, she sold her business to Lehman Brothers for the equivalent of eighty-four million dollars in today’s money—and, when Lehman’s mismanagement and the Depression brought the stock price down from sixty dollars to three dollars, she bought her firm back for a pittance and took it to even greater success.”
The first room features a wall of portraits of Madame, at various stages of her life, by artists she commissioned. Even though every portrait is faithful to her signature hairstyle and form of costume, the differences in her appearance and expression in the pictures is remarkable. One can’t help but wonder if the painters were striving to please her in their depictions.
Walking through the show during a press preview one recent morning, Mason Klein, the Jewish Museum’s curator of fine arts, who organized the show, explained that Rubinstein “learned who to listen to in creating cosmetics, just as she did in collecting.” But the collection she built is not one of a market-minded professional collector. It’s idiosyncratic and varied. It’s also huge, and what’s on view is only the tip of the iceberg, Rebecca Shaykin, the museum’s assistant curator, told me over bagels and lox, courtesy of Russ & Daughters, which will soon run a new restaurant in the museum.
Rubinstein was clearly obsessed with representations of the face, and of the female form, and apart from the many portraits of herself, the show is a curiosity cabinet of busts, heads, and figures. Rubinstein had one of the first and most important collections of African and Oceanic art. There are also plenty of big names—Picasso, Léger, Braque, Kahlo, Miró, and Warhol, though most of them are represented by off-beat examples of their work.
Positioned throughout the show are mannequins wearing her ensembles, as well as several recognizable examples of her jewelry, most of which came from private collections. Klein admitted to having tried on some of her four-strand pearl necklaces and finding them almost unbearably heavy. Rubinstein, who was 4 feet, 10 inches, was never photographed without her signature black chignon hairstyle and a number of decorative jewels. One of the most recent photographs shows Rubinstein as a nonagenarian, conducting meetings from her bed with a full face of make up on, surrounded by her male executives. (She died in 1965, at the age of 92.)
The show contains several surprising treats, like a collection of miniature interiors that she commissioned and a reel of her interviews and advertisements. For the graphic design examples alone, the show is worth visiting, in the form of a number of well-chosen beauty product cases, pamphlets, and posters (Man Ray and Dalí both designed ads for her).
On your way out, be sure to walk through the gift shop, where aspiring Rubinstein imitators can purchase nail wraps, pocket mirrors, and jewelry inspired by Madame, as well as the catalogue, edited by Klein, the cover of which features a photograph of Madame in a veil and Chanel gloves, holding up a mask from the Ivory Coast.
The show will run until March 22, and between now and then the museum will host several concerts, film screenings, and talks. (There’s a panel on Monday, November 17, titled “Women Collectors and ‘Matrons’ in Today’s Art World.”) Take your sisters, mothers, aunts, and doulas—this show is a joyful celebration of a proto-powerhouse businesswoman, and an opportunity to travel back in time to a heyday for modernism and self-invention.
As the preview ended, and I stepped out of the Jewish Museum and into Central Park, I saw a woman of about 60 wearing red lipstick, green aviators, and a kimono. She was using the handrail by the lake as a ballet barre, practicing her pirouettes.