A strange sense of familiarity welcomed me while I stood on line for the coat check. I felt obligated to internally review the reasons that fueled my visit.
I had gone to the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit “Beauty is Power”, a look at the legacy left by Helena Rubenstein (1872-1965) on the beauty industry.
I was also there to check out the aesthetic of the museum itself, which underwent a rebranding this year by the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh.
Yet waiting on the line for the coat check, I realized another layer of significance embedded in the place itself. The lobby evokes a modern, minimalist synagogue, with a list of donor names carved into the white walls. The gift shop sells Judaica, with a modernist edge. It’s a very secular space, with delicate hints of tradition, like a mosaic made of mostly white with a few specks of rich, bright colors.
This is a very special space.
The cherry on top was the free iPhone app, a custom-designed exhibit audio guide. A blended experience of art, culture and technology? Let’s do this.
I pushed open the heavy doors to the exhibit and was immediately swirled into a slow-moving current of fellow museum-visitors: heavily perfumed ladies, decked out in furs and covered in layers of makeup and jewelry. None of them was using the iPhone app…yet their presence played a role in the experience of the exhibit.
The rooms were as luxuriously designed as the crowd they contained. Lavender walls with velvet tuffets in a deep shade of crimson produced a sense of decadence. The moment you enter the exhibit it is impossible to not feel transported into a sort of parlor, where an appreciation for style and taste is celebrated.
Rubinstein left Poland and moved to Australia where she opened her first beauty salon in Melbourne in 1903. Later, she expanded her business into London and Paris and eventually New York. “Beauty Is Power” includes over 200 objects taken from Rubinstein’s personal art collection (which included work by Picasso, Matisse and Ernst) in addition to travel keepsakes, jewelry and a few garments. Her exposure to and appreciation for a diverse aesthetic led her to expand definitions of what made something “beautiful”.
She “delighted in mingling ‘western and nonwestern works’.
She appreciated African art around the same time it was inspiring Cubist artists, like Picasso and Braques. She opened salons in Paris, whose clientele included Josephine Baker, a personification of the new “beauty” and a sort of muse for Rubinstein. In Mexico she met Frida Kahlo, with whom she felt an “immediate personal connection”.
In early 20th century Western society, beauty was something to “aspire” to. It wasn’t something you could capture; it was an ideal against which you would measure yourself. The wealthy and the powerful determined what was in style, and makeup was deemed appropriate only for actresses and prostitutes.
Rubinstein challenged this by championing the cosmetic use of makeup for the everyday woman – as an expression of femininity, power and individualism. She democratized beauty, celebrating it as limitless and undefined.
“There are no ugly women – only lazy ones”.
Rubinstein built an empire selling products and beauty advice to women everywhere. She envisioned salons as places of education, where women could study color, makeup application techniques, as well as general health and beauty advice. Her line of cosmetics, which was eventually bought by Lancôme, included the first waterproof eyeliner, and the introduction of the mascara wand.
My grandmother, who has a strong eye for the aesthetic and is herself an avid art collector, recently shared that in sixty years of marriage, “Your grandfather never saw me without my makeup on.” Nana stated this as a proud declaration, describing a daily decision she made out of a place of strength.
Rubinstein’s eclectic style and taste, cultural sensitivity and business prowess made her a key player – almost a composer – in the symphony of 20th century beauty, art and fashion.
The “Beauty Is Power” exhibit is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City through March 22, 2015.