November 29, 2014

"Beauty is Power" @ The Jewish Museum

Walk into any department store cosmetic department today and one is immediately accosted by a swarm of vendors spritzing perfume or offering free makeovers.  But "back in the day" the world of beauty and cosmetics was ruled by three main purveyors - Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder and Helena Rubinstein - women who founded and ran enormously successful enterprises based on face creams and eye shadows and whose names remain inscribed in the annals of business and beauty to this day.

The biographies of these prescient entrepreneurs all speak of determined, savvy women who provided their customers with a means to improve their natural looks to express their femininity, individuality and confidence.  But of this trio of tycoons, it was arguably Helena Rubinstein who left behind the greatest legacy as a self-made woman magnate and an icon of art, fashion and philanthropy.

Chaja Rubinstein was born to a Jewish shopkeeper and his wife in Krakow, Poland, the eldest of eight daughters.  When her family emigrated to Australia in 1902, the local women were fascinated with Chaja, now Helena, and her beautiful skin.  A merchant by nature, she started by selling the jars of beauty cream she had in her luggage, and when that supply ran out she began to make her own using lanolin from the abundant sheep in the region.  It was the start of her empire.  After a few years she had amassed $100,000 in seed money - enough to leave one of her sisters in charge of the Australian operation while Helena herself relocated to London.

At a time when painted faces were for prostitutes and actresses, the beauty salons of Helena Rubinstein & Co. provided a sophisticated, intimate environment where middle and upper class women could be comfortable exploring how make-up could enhance their appearances.  Madame, as she liked to be called, saw cosmetics as a means of independence and self-expression, a way for women to achieve their own vision of who they were.  She empowered women.

With the outbreak of World War I, Helena Rubinstein, her husband the journalist Edward Titus, and their two sons, moved to New York where her enterprise continued to grow.  By the 1920s she was a very wealthy woman with a world-wide enterprise and a significant collection of avant-garde art.  And now we come to the topic of this blog - the special exhibition "Helena Rubinstein:  Beauty is Power" now on view at The Jewish Museum.

Helena Rubinstein was obviously a trail blazer as a woman entrepreneur in the early 20th century.  But her singularity in the worlds of art, fashion and design set her even further apart from her peers.  She was an early patron and collector of works by European and Latin American artists such as Elie Nadelman, Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Leonor Fini and Henri Matisse, to name just a few.  She sported a marvelous collection of jewelry and fashions by such designers as Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristóbal Balenciaga and her portrait was captured by masters from Paul Helleu (above left) to Marie Laurencin to Andy Warhol.

Her numerous residences, including a triplex on Park Avenue (when she was initially rejected as a tenant because of her Jewish faith she bought the building), and townhouse on the Île Saint Louis in Paris, were each decorated in a lavish and personal style that showcased her extensive collections of art and furniture.  But at the end of the day, it is without a doubt her exceptional collection of African and Oceanic Art that set her apart from the regular collectors of her era.  Helena Rubinstein recognized, long before most people had even accepted Cubism, the cultural and artistic value of sculptures by the indigenous people of Africa and the Pacific Islands.  She acquired and displayed extraordinary examples of masks and figures by primitive peoples alongside more recognizable Western art and was decades ahead of her time in her appreciation of the power of these deceptively simple pieces.

By the time World War II had consumed the world, Helena Rubinstein had, through a new marriage to a much younger man, upgraded her identity to include the title of Princess.  Now known as Helena Princess Gourielli she had a thriving business enterprise, amassed a sizable real estate empire and had established several medical and cultural philanthropic foundations that bore her name.  By the time she died in 1965, Helena Rubinstein's slogan of "Beauty is Power" had come to illustrate her own remarkable life.  By taking nature's gifts and capitalizing on them, and spreading that possibility among millions of women world-wide, Madame had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

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