PARIS — Helena Rubinstein’s beauty adventure — buoyed by her belief that beauty helps emancipate women — is the subject of a new art exhibition that opens Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Art and History here.
“L’aventure de la beauté,” which is on through Aug. 25, marks the first time an exhibit devoted to Rubinstein has been mounted in France.
She is best known to most for the Helena Rubinstein beauty brand, which she built into a powerhouse and is now owned and run by L’Oréal, and her high-profile rivalry with Elizabeth Arden. But at Paris’ Jewish Museum, the exhibition, an abridged version of which was shown in Vienna, raises the curtain on Rubinstein’s deep involvement in the arts and architecture as a collector of works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Georges Braque, and her love of fashion. She had a penchant of sporting creations by designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Poiret, Balenciaga, Chanel and Dior.
The exhibition is organized into geographical sections themed by cities that were important to the entrepreneur and key to her development. It springs to life with more than 300 objects, including documents, photographs, prints, paintings, sculptures, tapestries and beauty products that illustrate Rubinstein’s life and times.
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“This exhibition invites you on a trip,” said its curator Michèle Fitoussi. “It’s a voyage with an extraordinary character, a woman out of the ordinary…an avant-garde woman, a small woman who measured [4′ 8″], who built both a culture and an industry of beauty. She is a woman who throughout the 20th century was busy emancipating women with beauty. Her credo was: ‘Beauty is power.’”
The show begins with an area devoted to Krakow, Poland, where Rubinstein was born in 1872. Vienna is the next stop, where she was sent to live with family members after refusing to marry the men her parents had chosen, and Melbourne, Australia, where Rubinstein moved after a solo boat voyage at age 24. There, she first lived with family in Coleraine. Later, in Melbourne, she opened a beauty salon, using actresses and singers as faces.
In London, in 1908, Rubinstein inaugurated her first salon in Europe, on Grafton Street. In that city, she also discovered the Ballets Russes, with its vivid colors that inspired the interior decoration of her institute. After meeting the artist Jacob Epstein, she began buying art — particularly from Africa and the Pacific Islands — at Parisian auction houses. The pieces would ultimately constitute one of the largest collections of that kind worldwide.
Rubinstein moved to Paris in 1912 and opened a beauty clinic there, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, furnished by André Groult and decorated by Paul Poiret, a friend. She expanded her work offices and institute ultimately at another location on that street.
While in the French capital, Rubinstein came into contact with more artists and writers, such as Amedeo Modigliani, Colette, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, and held artistic salons weekly. In the suburb of Saint-Cloud, she had constructed a laboratory, which was later replaced by a factory. On the fashion front, Rubinstein met many of the major designers of the time, and became one of Yves Saint Laurent’s first clients.
Meanwhile, Rubinstein’s art collection kept expanding with works from living artists in Paris, such as Pierre Bonnard, Aristide Maillol and Joan Miró. More than 30 artists, including Raoul Dufy, Marie Laurencin and Sarah Lipska, made portraits of her, while Picasso created 40 sketches of Rubinstein.
She hung art in her beauty institutes, and involved some artists in her advertising campaigns and apartments’ decor. Rubinstein began collecting jewelry, among other items, as well.
She lived in New York on a few occasions, and her business grew substantially in the United States, with the opening of salons and department store corners, and a beauty school. Rubinstein hosted gatherings with artists in New York, as in Paris. Her Fifth Avenue salon, which debuted in 1937, was decorated with art of many genres, and in 1948 Rubinstein inaugurated a beauty institute for men.
In a state of depression after some personal losses, Rubinstein visited Israel in the Fifties and ultimately financed the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, opened in 1959. A room from one of the miniature houses she had on display at that museum is in the Paris exhibition, as is a photograph of her with Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel.
Some objects from Rubinstein’s former collection can be seen at the Jewish Museum, although they aren’t owned by members of her family any longer. Photographs of Rubinstein, like in her Paris apartment on Quai de Béthune with her primal art collection; advertising images, such as one lensed by Richard Avedon for the Jazz lipstick featuring Dave Brubeck and Suzy Parker, and floral wrapping paper created by Federico von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini help bring the entrepreneur’s world to life.
As the wide-ranging show kicks off in the City of Light, other beauty-related exhibits are in full swing in Paris, as well, including “Dans Ma Peau,” at the Musée de l’Homme, which is backed by L’Oréal and the Natural History Museum, and gives a deep dive into the workings of skin. There’s also “Red Hair! From Jean-Jacques Henner to Sonia Rykiel” at the Musée Jean-Jacques Henner.