“Beauty is Power” is a controversial statement. Feminists of the past and of modern day often dismiss cultivating “feminine” beauty as oppressive. The makeup industry itself tends to shy away from linking their products to a powerful image, and instead, imbues them with a dainty, graceful, and gentle persona. It took an unconventional and eccentric woman to see the great profitability in melding these two seemingly disparate terms into a slogan that sold not only beauty products, but created a much coveted lifestyle.
The Jewish Museum’s Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power unpacks this brilliant phrase that was vital to Helena Rubinstein’s success. Rubinstein’s famous mantra was emphasized explicitly and implicitly throughout the exhibition. However, the exhibition mainly focused on how Rubinstein became powerful, instead of exploring how beauty is power.
The opening of the exhibition began with curator Mason Klein’s perspective on the poignancy of Rubinstein’s “beauty is power.” According to Klein, the phrase is an early indication of Rubinstein’s “distinctive blend of commercial savvy and inherent feminism.” A large portrait of a 62 year-old Rubinstein in front of a green theatrical curtain spoke to the glamorous, artistic identity that she cultivated throughout her lifetime. The portrait by Laurencin with Rubinstein as a “youthful maharani, a heavily bejeweled Indian princess” showed how the image that Rubinstein construed for herself was much like makeup: artificial, beautiful, and fantastical. A largely printed short biography on Helena placed next to this painting read as a biased encyclopedia account. This overview of Rubinstein’s life was as worshipping as the painting that depicted her as an Indian princess. Two elderly women next to me cooed, “ahh…a self-made woman,” “a modern-day woman,” after reading the three-minute story of Rubinstein’s life.
The first out of eight rooms in the exhibit quickly drew the connection between Rubinstein’s love of art and its centrality to her work and life; Baris Lovet-Lorski’s God Unknown (1926) had an information card presented next to it that read Rubinstein’s “universe both aesthetically and in business was the theater of the face.” Mason Klein points out from the beginning of the exhibition how Rubinstein developed a strong sense of self at a young age by noting how Rubenstein “shows the flair, sense of self and image in the early stages of her life that would become essential to her when branding her products and developing her company.” An article called “Tiny Tireless Tycoon of Beauty” from a 1964 Life magazine, also in a well lit glass case along with a family portrait, portrayed Rubinstein as a lager-than-life personality who loved publicity: “She was 4ft 10 inches tall. She continued to run her vast company, taking morning meetings, in bed and regularly appearing in publicity photographs.”
In the first room was a 1957 House of Balenciaga Silk evening ensemble, with a caption beside it lauding Helena as a woman who “wore clothes by the most stylish couturiers.” This dress was out of context in the first room and would have been more appropriately showcased in the “glittering armor” room with designs by Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. The ensemble was successfully put on a headless mannequin that allowed the exhibition goer to imagine Helena’s face that was re-envisioned by various artists. In reference to multiple enormous portraits displayed on a plain white center wall in a linear manner, the curator acknowledges that many of the portraits of Rubinstein may not have conveyed her “real” self, but an idealized version of her self: “most of Rubinstein’s portraits made her look far younger than she was.” The William Spratling Helena Rubinstein Necklace circa 1900 that depicts Helena as the “Virgin of Guadalupe who is surrounded by Sunrays” again shows how Rubenstein used art to engender a goddess-like image. The exhibition suggested throughout its duration that Rubinstein knew that image, rather than beauty, is power. Rubinstein was well aware of the concept that lies at the core of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “whoever produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products wins the race.”
The second room of the exhibit title “democratizing art” would have been more adequately titled “appropriating art for personal gain.” Rubenstein’s sponsorship of art can be seen as allowing women, who were her primary consumers, to be more aware and educated of what was then seen as “unusual” African art, but also can be viewed as her exploitation of this art for an exotic image of herself and her brand. Beside a row of Elie Nadelman’s heads of statues evenly displayed on crisp white iconic columns was a largely printed passage that read: “Rubenstein met Elie Nadelman in 1911 in London, and immediately realized that he would be the perfect artist to show in salons.” This again reminded me of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “The effect, if not always the original intent, of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make it the star. It is not to sponsor culture but to be the culture.” Although, Mason Klein does not really view Rubinstein’s appropriation of art as exploitive, but rather as “genius.” For instance, the curator writes in a passage placed on the side-wall in the third room, “Makeup thus becomes a metaphor for modern art’s patina of enigma and symbolism. It was Rubinstein’s genius to sense instinctively that there was a connection between these two modernist phenomena.”
Though he overlooked Rubinstein’s somewhat exploitive incorporation of art into her image and company, Mason Klein effectively showed how Rubinstein was extremely attentive to the carefully crafted image that she constructed. In the room “glittering armor,” the curator selected a quote from one of Rubinstein’s memoir to reveal Rubinstein’s awareness of this self-constructed identity and placed it beside an exquisite case of sparkling jewels: “I feel that these accessories, combined with my clothes, give a definite identity.” In the section “collector’s fantasy,” the curator builds on Rubinstein’s beyond-her-times ability to cultivate a public image. Precluding a sizable yet not oversaturated display of magazine articles and clippings of Rubinstein’s apartments, Mason Klein reinforced Rubinstein’s keen ability to develop a public image in a passage displayed on the wall that read: “As fashion and home-décor magazines proliferated Rubenstein began to use her apartments in Paris and New York for publicity. She knew that her home as well as her salon were essential to the prosperity of her company.” Likewise, in the last room titled “putting on a face,” which displayed various Rubinstein self-help beauty manuals such as My Life for Beauty, The Art of Female Beauty, and This Way to Beauty” along with a promotional video, the curator noted: “Beyond providing virtually every conceivable beauty treatment, Rubenstein’s publicity instructional books and innumerable brochures with advertisements on dangers of sun-tanning, the necessariness of good nutrition and other topics were personal and offered insight into her thinking.” While the exhibition hinted at how beauty was power by seeking to show how, in the curator’s words, Rubinstein’s “dual enterprise of modern art and personal beauty” gave women a “sense of individuality and independence” by emphasizing “self-invention,” it mostly exposed how Rubinstein became the image of a reputable, yet albeit uncommon beauty expert and master of marketing in the 20th century. The exhibition left me questioning if its title should be changed to Image is Power.
Klein, Naomi. New Branded World & The Brand Expands. In: No Logo. London: Flamingo, 2001. Pp. 270-310.