Graham Sutherland’s portrait of an 85 year-old Helena Rubinstein can be viewed as an ode to her legacy, which was built upon the deliberate rejection of convention. Rubinstein’s sagging neck and jawline, sallow complexion and thin hair offer a genuine depiction of age, something which is glossed over in many of the other portraits included in the exhibition. The painting’s prominent position in the first room therefore reinforces the exhibition’s primary focus on the formidable story of the woman behind the brand.
Though such realism could be seen to detach the portrait from serving any commercial function, Sutherland’s emphasis on colour and surface textures becomes a purposeful inflection of Rubinstein’s personal ethos, which was inseparable from her company.
Infamously quoted as saying that, “there are no ugly women, just lazy ones”, Rubinstein’s over-rouged cheeks and matching red lacquered nails and lips, become suggestive of the means to instantly participate in established ideals of femininity. On the other hand, the jewellery that adorns Rubinstein’s hands and neck equals the prominence of the cosmetics shown in the portrait. This removes the hierarchy between products of high and lower end, democratizing ideals of taste. In this light, instead of ‘established femininity’, Rubinstein is using cosmetics to promote the ‘new-age’ femininity that her salons made available to all women, and which distinguished her career from contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Arden.
As the exhibition unfolds, and with it Rubenstein’s lifelong preoccupation with primitive and surrealist art, it is clear that she did advocate prescriptive ideas of beauty, nor claim that a monolithic notion of femininity is necessarily the ultimate goal. Indeed, Rubinstein stated that, “I like different kinds of beautiful things and I’m not afraid to use them in unconventional ways”. The priority of self-fashioning as an external expression of personality, rather than as a disguise, unites Rubinstein’s brand of beauty with the essence of the exotic figures that she collected. Femininity is therefore the by-product of participating in the desire to reveal the best, most authentic version of the self.
The Balenciaga brocade gown that Rubinstein is wearing in her portrait embodies the philosophy of her salon, which aimed to inspire its female cliental to make choices that expressed their own personalities. The bright red floral, oriental fabric informs the decision to accessorize with complimentary red and pink makeup. The almost overwhelming use of colour defies the conventional depiction of age that traditionally relies on subdued tones. The gown subsequently becomes an emboldened expression of Rubinstein’s innate qualities that reject convention and look to the modern age. This is further emphasized by the physical inclusion of the gown, and the fact that she had it shortened, to ensure it remained relevant in the years following the portrait’s completion.
Rubinstein’s participation in self-creation connects her aesthetic ideals directly with non-western cultures that place value on individuality and inherent difference. Cosmetics are re-contextualized as they encourage each wearer to be the most powerful version of themselves.
Image source: Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power exhibition catalogue, page 135.
Text source: Mason Klein (2014) Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power. Yale University Press, New Haven.