“The little lady from Krakow,” as Life magazine described Helena Rubinstein in 1941, lived large. No shrinking violet, the “world’s greatest beauty specialist” swathed herself in bold colors and heaps of accessories, boasted a Park Avenue apartment with 40 closets and preferred to think of herself as “Madame” rather than Chaja, the name her Jewish parents had given her. At the time of her death in 1965, at the ripe old age of 94, the New York Times estimated Rubinstein’s fortune to be in the neighborhood of $100 million, noting coyly that she had “wrought more marvels from a jar of face cream” than anyone could possibly have ever imagined.
Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that runs through March 22, celebrates this outsized personality, a household name of the interwar years and the 1950s, who stood 4 foot 10 inches in her stocking feet. Rubinstein’s beauty products were sold at better stores everywhere and at her salons, “sanctuaries of beauty” that promised to eliminate “many a little heartache.” But this high priestess of self-improvement no longer commands attention—and hasn’t for years, not since her company and its vanishing creams were sold in 1988 to the American affiliate of L’Oréal. These days, when Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier, Tom Ford, and Shiseido dominate the cosmetics counter, no one knows her name.
Inside the precincts of the Jewish Museum, it’s a different story entirely. Visitors to the exhibition, most of them women of an age likely to have used Rubinstein’s “remarkably adherent” lipsticks and “quick and easy as a wink” Mascara-matic, are drawn to the behind-the-scenes story of the immigrant Jewish woman who made good. Their curiosity is amply rewarded. The galleries are awash in the extravagant baubles and flamboyant clothing Rubinstein fancied and in images of the overstuffed interiors she called home. Also on hand is a series of miniaturized, dollhouse-like interiors, or dioramas—among them, a French garret, a Spanish dining hall, and an Austrian country kitchen—that Madame, as she is called throughout the exhibition, assembled as conscientiously as any curator. To gild the lily, there’s an entire platoon of portraits, showcasing Rubinstein’s fascination with the “theater of the face”—her own and those of her customers. A gallery of products and helpful pamphlets, such as “Beauty for You,” in which she briskly dispenses dermatological advice, concludes the exhibition on an entrepreneurial note, as does a sequence of advertising clips, one more unintentionally hilarious than the next.
But all this is commentary, a sideshow. The heart of the exhibition is Madame’s storied art collection. Well before African art became a mainstay of the Modernist aesthetic, Rubinstein made a point of adorning her salons and homes with wooden Fang masks and Yoruba heads fashioned out of sandstone. Paintings by Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Dalí, and Picasso, as well as a large number of Elie Nadelman’s sculptures (which she reportedly bought in bulk), made up the rest of her collection. In the years following her death, these works were sold at auction by Parke-Bernet Galleries and scattered to the four winds. It’s to the great credit of the exhibition’s curator, Mason Klein, and its assistant curator, Rebecca Shaykin, that many of Rubinstein’s paintings and sculptures have been reunited in this show.
Smartly designed and effectively paced, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power is as spare as Rubinstein’s interiors were extravagant. Taking a cue from, rather than literally reproducing, her aesthetic preferences, the design team painted some of the gallery walls a stylish lavender color; and the floors mimic the black-and-white tiles that graced the foyers of Rubinstein’s Paris apartment. The gallery furniture also hints at Madame’s sense of style. The available seating, positioned just-so, takes the form of burgundy-colored ottomans of the sort more likely to be seen in a swank midcentury Park Avenue apartment than in the austere galleries of a 21st-century museum. Even the vitrines are far more dainty, their armature more curvy and feminine, than the sturdy, traditional display cases we’re accustomed to seeing at the Met, the Morgan, and the Jewish Museum itself.
The exhibition is good to look at and great fun, too, but it is not an entirely satisfying experience. Even as we ogle Rubinstein’s jewels, marvel at the tufted cellophane walls of her living room, and delight in an amusingly designed compact of pressed powder, something is missing: This is an exhibition that is only skin-deep. In an introductory panel, Klein makes the case that Madame’s life was a study in transformation. “The sense of individuality Rubinstein fostered was new and profound,” he writes. “She advocated exceptionality in a world that discouraged non-conformity. She offered women the ideal of self-invention, a fundamental principle of modernity. One’s identity, she asserted, is a matter of choice.” If only he hadn’t left it at that.
More dismaying still, it is left up to the viewer to connect the rest of the dots that pepper this exhibition. The relationship of Jewishness to modernity, for instance, let alone the relationship of Jewishness to the project of self-invention, is hinted at, but never developed. On such matters, the exhibition is content to simply note—in the small, hard-to-read print of a label housed unobtrusively inside a vitrine—that Rubinstein didn’t change her last name and that when the tenants of a highfalutin’ Park Avenue building rejected her potential tenancy, she retaliated by purchasing the entire edifice. But that’s as far as Klein’s curatorial voice is willing to go. The astute and careful visitor might also notice allusions to Rubinstein’s background, some of them forthright and others more sly and subtle, in contemporaneous articles about her career. They, too, are housed inside a vitrine rather than presented on a wall. None of this contextual material is put into the foreground; instead, it’s allusive and indirect, passive and inert. Of a piece with Rubinstein’s touted Valaze cream, which promised to banish all manner of wrinkles, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power erases the interpretive wrinkles that might otherwise complicate its celebratory narrative.
One can only speculate on why this strategy was adopted. Perhaps the exhibition’s curators thought it in bad taste to call attention to Rubinstein’s Jewishness. Or maybe they were determined to avoid the interpretive pitfalls of racializing their subject or of dignifying anti-Semitic, or, at the very least, stereotypical, views of Jews. Then again, one can’t help wonder whether the exhibition’s interpretive stance simply reflects the museum’s current penchant for softpedaling the complexities of Jewishness. No one at 92nd and Fifth Avenue is about to deny them, but, at the same time, the institution in its current avatar doesn’t seem prepared to wrestle with their implications, either.
Tant pis, as Madame might have said in her curiously accented French. What a missed intellectual opportunity, a potentially bracing, but now lost, chance at contextualization. Rubinstein may have been the mother of cosmetic invention, but she played into regnant associations of Jewish women as exotic creatures, given to extravagance and loucheness. It’s hard to look at the colorful portraits in the opening galleries of the exhibition and not be mindful of the ways Jewish women of Rubinstein’s era were often sexualized and orientalized. There she sits, in the middle of one picture frame after another, a pulchritudinous figure dressed opulently in red all the way down to her fingertips, ensorcelled by pearls and rings. Madame in all her finery puts me in mind of the late-19th- and early-20th-century observations that “jewels were synonymous with Jewess,” and that the clothing of immigrant Jewish women was so colorful that it “shrieked.” But of this, we don’t hear a word.
How to square Rubinstein’s Orientalist stance with her public posture as the “first lady of beauty science,” a true believer in authority rather than artifice, is likewise unexplored, leaving a fundamental conundrum at the heart of this modern Jewish woman who felt just as much at home in a white lab coat as in sequins. Even Rubinstein’s continuous acquisition of art was no idiosyncratic or isolated form of expression. Rather, the collecting of art was central to the aspirations of emancipated, bourgeois Jews, a form of cultural insistence that they, too, belonged: Art served as a calling card.
The exhibition also falls critically short when it comes to exploring the relationship between marginality and makeup. Surely it is no coincidence that both American Jewish immigrant women such as Helena Rubinstein and African-American women such as Annie Turnbo Malone were responsible for transforming cosmetics into a socially acceptable, and daily, practice, as well as a lucrative business that steadily employed the members of both communities. As Kathy Peiss observes in her incisive Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture,* these two groups had the most to gain from redefining notions of beauty and femininity. In their respective bids for acceptance, they “made the pursuit of beauty visible and respectable.” It takes nothing away from Helena Rubinstein to place her in the company of others.
In the absence, then, of a concerted effort to reckon with the social construction of beauty, what are we left with? Perhaps Picasso put it best. Cajoled by Rubinstein into producing a series of sketches of her fabled countenance, he grudgingly came up with a series of 30 different perspectives, 12 of which are now on view at the exhibition. In one, Madame is grimacing; in another, she’s scowling; in a third, she’s pursing her lips. A fourth version pictures her simply as an oval, without any distinguishing features. The woman who did so much to rejuvenate and restore, beautify and lift the face doesn’t have one of her own.