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'Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power' her first-ever show at N.Y.'s Jewish Museum

The first museum exhibition focusing on cosmetics titan and arts collector Helena Rubinstein, the first modern self-made woman magnate, is at The Jewish Museum in New York through March 22, 2015.

Helena Rubinstein with one of her African masks, c. 1935. Helena Rubinstein Foundation Archives, Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY. Special Collections.
Helena Rubinstein with one of her African masks, c. 1935. Photo by George Maillard Kesslere. Helena Rubinstein Fndtn. Archives

"Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power" is a powerful exhibit. It reunites much of Rubinstein's (1872-1965), renowned art collection, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Elie Nadelman, and Andy Warhol; famed selection of African and Oceanic art; plus miniature period rooms; jewelry, and fashion:

  • More than 30 works will be displayed from her collection of African and Oceanic art -- one of the most important private collections ever assembled of such art.
  • The elegant fashions were designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (fascinating new biography "Elsa Schiaparelli" by Meryle Secrest); Cristóbal Balenciaga; and Paul Poiret, to name only a few. And oh, what extravagant jewelry.
  • "Madame" commissioned portraits of herself by leading artists of the era, from Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol to Marie Laurencin.

Rubinstein, a Jewish Polish immigrant, built a cosmetics empire extending across four continents and became known as "Madame".

"She an avatar of female entrepreneurship, and a tastemaker in the worlds of art, fashion, and design," The Jewish Museum says. "As businesswoman and arts patron, Rubinstein helped break down the status quo of taste by blurring the boundaries between commerce, art, fashion, beauty, and design."

"Beauty is Power" takes its name from one of the first slogans she used to promote her early Valaze cosmetics line, in 1904.

At the turn of the 20th century, cosmetics were associated with the painted faces of actresses and prostitutes. "Rubinstein, a model of independence and modernity, boldly confronted the parochial constraints faced by women at the time by advancing the notion that makeup could be a means of asserting female self-expression and identity," the museum noted.

Rubinstein founded her first beauty salon in Melbourne, Australia, in 1903. Inspired by the tradition of European literary salons, she conceived of her beauty salons as intimate environments where progressive ideas were exchanged under the guidance of a sophisticated patroness.

Early in the 20th century, Rubinstein opened salons in London and Paris, and soon brought her ideas of personal transformation and female empowerment to the United States.

Her first New York salon opened in 1915, following two revolutionary events in the city:

  • The Armory Show of avant-garde European art in 1913.
  • A major rally for women's suffrage in 1911, where some female marchers wore lip rouge as a badge of emancipation.

"Rubinstein's salons embodied this alliance of creativity and self-determination, using art and fantasy to inspire her clientele to think independently," the museum added. "Rubinstein pioneered the use of modernist display at her salons and numerous homes, collaborating with such artists, architects, and designers as Salvador Dalí and interior designer David Hicks to showcase her art and outlandish décor."

"Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power" is organized by Mason Klein, curator at The Jewish Museum, with Rebecca Shaykin and Leon Levy, assistant curator.

For more info: "Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power", The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, N.Y. Oct. 31-March 22, 2015. 212-423-3200 or info@thejm.org. "Beauty Is Power" catalogue written by Jewish Museum curator Mason Klein, distributed by Yale University Press.