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A masked woman in a foaming milk bath at Helena Rubinstein's New York salon, 1937. (© Corbis)

Growing up, I had very little exposure to the world of cosmetics. But I did have a great deal of admiration for my uncle who was a senior ad man at Revlon. Throughout the 1970s whenever he would come down south to visit us for a few days in suburbia, I’d drill him incessantly on one subject that filled me with true and breathless admiration: his famous Charlie campaign. My uncle’s television commercials made me feel famous by association, caught in the Warholian glare of a seminal work of televised pop art.

My uncle had the appearance of a silver fox living in a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. He would call me “nephoo” in a baritone that blended musically with my pre-pubescent alto. He was also nasal, with a beak the size of the plastic ones attached to dark-framed Groucho glasses. (I’m a member of the JBPS, the Jewish Beak Preservation Society.) It was my unc, I’m proud to say, who hooked most of the TV-watching world on Charlie and who got us to realize that when a gorgeous blonde walks by with the name Charlie you’d best keep your catcalls to yourself.

With an Ab-Ex painter mother and a li’l Susan Sontag sister, I was conditioned to see the world through a woman’s eyes, as well as my own. Charlie certainly struck me as decidedly feminist. In the ad, Charlie was a young female urban professional who runs around town in a pants-suit to the tune of big band jazz and a scent that was magically to her advantage. Men adored her everywhere she went, so much as to move aside. Even though he created her, neither he nor any other man could possess her sublime charm-power; Charlie’s charm-power belonged to women—women who used the perfume, that is.

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How did a daughter of a Jewish kerosene merchant living in Krakow Poland rise to become the first woman magnate? Wax. Basically. Wool fat. Lanolin—the greasy secretion from a gland in sheep that coats their wool, making it water resistant. One day, a sheep farmer realized why his hands were so soft and began to spread the word about this lanolin junk. Just boil some fleece in salt water and you wind up with a pretty good wad of lanolin at the bottom of your pot.

But how to profit from it? Enter Helena Rubinstein, or “Madame,” as most people called her. It turns out HR knew how to turn a profit because she was a naturally gifted entrepreneur. Etymology: entrepreneur: 1828: manager or promoter of a theatrical production. Money is not a theater prop, however. And this skilled entrepreneur knew how to make it—by selling a large quantity of lanolin to an even larger number of “repeat” customers.

Wherever she went, women longed for HR’s porcelain complexion, and one day she had the idea to turn her little sheep’s-wax secret (which came from a family friend who was a chemist) with the world. She renamed lanolin “Valaze”—and off she went with a product that claimed to give all women a porcelain-smooth face. According to an early promotional advertisement Valaze was: “Russian skin food that will make you beautiful” and that “eradicates freckles, wrinkles, sallowness, sunburn, blackheads, acne, pimples, roughness, and all blemishes and eruptions of the skin, rendering it soft, white and transparent.”

Around this same time, 1888 to be exact, HR made the wise choice of dodging an arranged marriage in Krakow, running away to Vienna, and then all the way to Australia (where eruptions of the skin are quite common, I hear). She opened her first beauty salon (inspired by the literary salon concept) and stocked it with enough Valaze to mask an army of women.

By the turn of the century, the women’s rights movement was in full swing. Women in Australia had won the right to vote and were steadily joining the work force. HR made it her business to get her share of this new wealth. Her strategy: overpricing. “Women won’t buy anything cheap,” she would say. “They need to have the impression they’re treating themselves to something exceptional.”

HR learned how to whip up quite a treat for the skin. She cut Valaze with various herbs and flowers, using the formulas she’d learned after a brief stint working in a chemistry lab. Her exposure to Bunsen burners and test tubes also made an impression, and she cleverly introduced the “science lab” aesthetic to the world of beauty. Images of HR depict this “beauty scientist,” as she liked to call herself, in her laboratory in Saint-Cloud, France, in 1939, at work on a potion, dressed appropriately like a pharmacist in a white lab coat.

From the basic formula—scientifically preserved youthful skin—HR essentially primed the blank canvas of the human face, preparing it to be re-conceived, that is, as a work of art. One provocative image illustrates HR’s first articulation of this sculpted face called “Circulotion Mask.” It is a rendering of a beautiful face-like mask in the hands of a woman with virtually the same beautiful face:

Circulotion Mask is a fine, transparent film of animating herbs. Give it twenty minutes, no matter how weary the face, and see a beauty miracle! A years-younger look. A complexion glowing, refreshed, radiant. Don’t deny yourself Circulotion Mask.

Madame’s assignment was to dab the pale cheeks with a touch of rouge. This was enough to conjure a youthful, healthy appearance—like a kid coming in from the cold. Women, in other words, were being taught how to fake their inner thermostat. Why not?

It may have been a mere dab of blush, but it represented so much more. It was 1910 and womankind was preparing for a radical make-over (if not takeover). Thousands of suffragists turned out for a giant march in New York City, and HR opportunistically armed as many women as she could with a stick of red lipstick.

Women were now prepared to reinvent their place in the world, as well as their place within, well … the face. And HR was on board to do some hardcore branding: “Beauty Is Power,” she announced, first in a 1904 newspaper advertisement.

Prior to this epoch-making gesture, the use of cosmetics had been limited mainly to prostitutes. Imagine being an aging prostitute passed over for a younger sex worker. Prostitutes had good reason to hide their age. It was a necessary evil, the price of doing business. But for the ordinary housewife, indulging in such extraneous enhancement was not considered proper. But HR could sure be convincing. “Beauty as a Duty,” plugged one magazine ad from 1918. And this was its rather preposterous logic:

It is a woman’s duty at the present time to further the cause of the allies. There is another duty however, which is sometimes classed as an extravagance. it is the duty of beauty. The husband, brother, or friend, after the horrors of war, deserves to be surrounded with brightness, and beauty, which cheers and heartens—not by depressing unattractiveness.

I’d hate to depress someone with my appearance. But I guess this was a legitimate anxiety. Soon this gimmick—aided by pseudo-scientific jargon and bogus claims—would fuel a truly unprecedented international cosmetic feeding frenzy. By the outbreak of World War I, HR had moved to New York where she opened her first salon. After a few hours in one of her beauty salons, and the average modern woman could walk out with a commitment to the daily crafting and maintenance of a new appearance. Her beauty salons were totally innovative storefront shops where women would congregate and digest progressive ideas taught by articulate beauticians in neatly-tailored white uniforms. They were like beauty laboratories merged with the ethos of an art academy, where motivated professional women could drop in regularly and receive the newest products and application techniques, and most importantly the miraculous age-erasing Valaze.

Before too long HR had forged a global cosmetics company balanced between supply and demand; between society women and working girls; between science and art. And one must not underestimate her interest in modern art. Many women may have been blessed with artistic talent and encouraged to draw or paint from early childhood on, but few women understood or had the balls to use art commercially to manipulate people through branding, advertising, product design, and public relations.

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With the mounting of its capacious new HR exhibition, The Jewish Museum is reflecting not only on the nuts and bolts of the HR empire, but even more so on the extravagant woman behind it all, as she expressed herself through her lavish, eclectic, and wildly profitable midcentury aesthetic. When HR died at 92, she’d lived in London, Paris, New York, the south of France, and Greenwich, Conn.—her salons and homes were all intriguingly designed, with daring juxtapositions of furniture and art. Some of her rooms were designed by the legendary interior designer David Nightingale Hicks. Her New York living room, as it is shown in one photograph, featured magenta velvet chairs, a puke green carpet, puffy silver curtains, gold floor lamps, and a hilarious Salvador Dalì painting from 1930 titled “The Average Bureaucrat.” In the middle of the photo sits HR in an unflattering short-sleeved, silk, Asian-looking top.

HR was no stranger to the fashion faux pas. And yet, admirably, her closet was always filled with the most daring dresses by the bravest fashion designers of her time, such as the Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre, Elsa Schiaparelli (known for her hat topped with a shoe), and the kimono guy, Paul Poiret.

HR had nothing against frivolous ornamentation. She wasn’t the reductive type. She wouldn’t have been considered modern by any Bauhaus standard. Form, to her, did not follow function; it followed … impulse. Her taste came first. Pragmatism came second. If anything, HR was pre-postmodern—a happy embrace of pastiche and the ever-nonsensical clashing of cultures. In another photographed interior there are gorgeous, comfy-looking rugs with strong geometric patterns, a brilliant frizz of white flowers (a flower arrangement that truly pulls the room together) and, most important, numerous, floor-to-ceiling oak cases lined with an array of super-intense African masks and standing figures carved in wood and other organic materials.

Helena Rubinstein wearing her celebrated Schiaparelli bolero jacket, embroidered with elephants, from the designer’s 1938 Circus collection. (Photo: Roger-Viollet / Image Works).

It’s easy to dismiss HR for her eclecticism and at times gaudiness, but there could be depth and integrity to her collecting. Her African and Oceanic art are no joke: There are Puni masks (a favorite Yoruban head with coiffure from Nigeria); a figure from New Guinea; a Fang Male reliquary guardian head from Gabon; a Bamana puppet headdress from Mali; a dance mask from Melekula … and a Constantine Brancusi from Paris (“Bird in Space,” 1927) that has probably never looked so at home. A Bakota reliquary guardian figure from Gabon bears a resemblance to Lee “Scratch” Perry, and another makes Picasso appear to be a lightweight of Abstract figuration.

It is clear from these works and others that HR had a deep appreciation for all things facial. One can sense that she was in awe of what artists were able to extract from the human face. When I stare at this image of HR holding an African mask up to the camera, I hear this dialogue in my head. “Pablo, you applied primitivism to the canvas, but watch and learn, little man. I’ll show you how to apply primitivism to the actual human population. And by the way I recommend you try Valaze.”

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As a result of her bold, ultra-colorful personality, HR attracted the interest of many great artists. And it was through such relationships that she was able to acquire so many excellent paintings and sculptures. In her collection are lesser-known stylized artists like Elie Nadelman and the exotic underrated female surrealist Leonor Fini, as well as the usual suspects: Matisses, Picassos, Kahlo, Ernst, Miró, Brancusi, Ray, Warhol—and there is one hell of an early De Kooning (“Elegy,” 1939). She had a great deal in common with many of her artist friends, and her infatuations were often reciprocal. HR idolized Picasso, for example, but Picasso also found a muse in HR. Twelve exhibited drawings of HR by Picasso (all from 1955) really held my interest. The series exhibits Picasso’s slicing line as it cuts deep into his model and gets tangled up in the fractured, volatile personality that shines through. Something inside this woman poses a challenge to Picasso, who expresses genuine intensity trying to render her perplexing features. These drawings struggle to locate and expose a personality that was present but not visible on the surface. Compare his artistic struggle to the average woman powdering on make-up in a mirror in order to hide a wrinkle that can be seen all too well. How ironic.

HR’s inner belief in a woman’s potential to rise to the top of the corporate ranks shows that she was far ahead of her time. And she led by example, making her own life a demonstration of unconventional choices. Everything about her seemed to pose a challenge to the refined, elitist fashionable circles—people known for their understatement, and at times anti-Semitism.

Yet as interesting as HR is—her iconoclastic personae, her collections, her connoisseurship, her philanthropy, her furnishings, her relationships, her art—I am wary of celebrating her for the wrong reasons. I suspect that her beauty salons, while novel and dynamic, did not actually get women to let an inner beauty beam out. Imagine the gloriously wrinkled Louise Bourgeois trying out a new blush in one of HR’s mirrors.

I am also reminded of the feminist poet Mina Loy, who was famous for going out on the town with her partner-in-drag Marcel Duchamp (it was Marcel who was wearing the make-up). Loy wrote about a woman’s need for transformation in order to unmask her true identity. She described the old formula where a woman essentially trades in her beauty to a man in exchange for his taking lifelong responsibility for her. In a Feminist Manifesto she sums up a woman’s “cosmetic project of making herself becoming” as a purely demeaning form of barter. In her fairly obscure pamphlet “Auto-Facial Construction,” she describes what sounds to me like an Alexander technique of the human face—a means of training the muscles in the face to cast an honest expression. “We have the inherent right,” Loy said, “to be ourselves and to look like ourselves.”

If poets like Loy were set on breaking the facial tissue of its bad habits, in de-commodifying the mask by mind-over-muscle techniques, HR was moving in quite the opposite direction, focusing instead on making the female mask even more viable and provoking women to become totally dependent on her line of overpriced products.

So, in a nutshell, I interpret HR’s feminine propaganda with a bit more cynicism: We will make it a priority to fight the erosion of our desirability, to prolong our childish purity in appearance, and to alleviate anxiety of abandonment to the best of our ability. We will power our way through beauty’s slow fade.

HR accomplished the commodification of the liberated woman using misleading product names and a phony progressive lexicon. But she was a wordsmith, and her language exposes the underlying psychology and fetishization behind the success of her empire. Her products were designed verbally to control people and gear up their imaginations toward the realm of total fantasy. HR, it seems, was aware of her subversive use of language—a regular Barbara Kruger she was.

But I can’t stop thinking that even if beauty is power, the means of achieving it through make-up is conformity. Cosmetics are used to make small features bigger and big features smaller until the face approximates an idealized standard. HR even sold a lip-shaped stencil at one point for use in applying lipstick—what a mess! And isn’t the natural outline of the lips already clear enough?

And worse than conformity, there’s addiction. The industry that allowed HR and many of her competitors to prosper enormously came at a pretty major cost to the users and abusers, the addicts. Dependency is never an empowering position. And the further cosmetics go, the deeper and deeper the dependency, the obsession to conform to a standard.

And where has this led us? First, a callous butchering of the beautiful schnoz, and now the face has morphed beyond recognition with surgical prosthetics: The mask has been implanted under the skin, surgically. Cosmetics is no longer about shading; it has become an industry of architectural enhancement.

Identity, HR asserted, is choice. And beauty is power. But I don’t buy it. “Powerless to beauty” would have been a more accurate title for this show. It would have exposed the less popular idea that women were, in fact, powerless once HR had them in her grasp, and that men too were powerless. In other words, we were and still are all powerless to beauty.

The article of ephemera that stood out most to me in the show is an image of an HR beauty queen circa 1930-1945 submerged in a “Foaming Milk Bath.” The woman’s head sticks out, but she is entirely encased in a form-fitting white shroud (a “Beautylift Mask” according to the caption). She looks like she’s recovering from a head-on car collision or a terrorist bombing. It is a shocking image, surreal as surreal gets, haunting and yet horrifyingly absurd. The woman in the mask does not look empowered by beauty in this picture. She looks like the naive victim of a silly gimmick—the brunt of a cosmetic joke.

As I reflect again on Charlie, I have to say I think I get it. Finally, I get it!

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