Criticism, Fashion Studies

“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” at the Jewish Museum

Helena Rubinstein at the Jewish Museum

I went yesterday to the Jewish Museum to see the exhibition Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, on view from October 31, 2014 until March 22, 2015. Although it showed a wonderful array of the artwork collected by Rubinstein throughout her life, including beautiful portraits of her by the most relevant artists of her time, amazing sculptures from Gabon, and a few of her miniature rooms, I must say that the exhibition was far less than I expected.

I arrived to the exhibition because I have to write a review about it as part of my Fashion History coursework… So I did expect to see some fashion. And although the exhibition contained a wonderful Bolero jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli –a Bolero jacket with an elephant pattern – that was pretty much it. No fashion at all…

But what is even more surprising is the lack of talk about beauty.

Rubinstein, many of you may know, was the absolute beauty master. In an exhibition dedicated to her and to her role as a pioneer of the beauty industry, it was more than necessary to include in-depth beauty-related content – not just a few seconds of her advertising videos at the end, and less than a dozen samples of her beauty products. Although the curator did seem to admire Rubinstein for being a genius marketer and challenging the stigma associated with makeup in the early twentieth century, these issues were left mostly untouched. The focus, it seems, was exclusively on her art collection.

Showing Jewish ‘heroes’ without elaborating much on the reasons for their importance is a kind of bias not uncommon of the Jewish Museum. But as valuable as Jewish pride – or any type of pride – is, museum exhibitions need to be well-grounded on real arguments. Museums are meant to be informative, to teach their public. And an exhibition that claims to explore the importance of a woman that completely transformed the beauty industry in the last century, that aims to explore her ideas and innovations, should present more than a nice layout of her stunning art collection.

The art collection was wonderful, her many portraits revealing that beauty, more than business, was at the core of Rubinstein’s lifestyle. The juxtaposition of works of art by Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Miro with tribal sculptures from Nepal, Gabon and Ivory Coast was both interesting and breathtaking. And the magic of miniature rooms, suggesting probably some kind of control psychology underlying the collection are beautiful. I really recommend paying a visit to the museum if you’re interested in any of those…

But if you want to learn about this genius of the beauty industry, I wouldn’t say this is the place to go. And if you want to transform the banality associated with fashion and beauty, or to make fashion in museums more substantial, this might not be the best way to do it.

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