THE BLOG
10/30/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Helena Rubinstein at the Jewish Museum: Mascara for the Masses

In a week when talk focused on the revamping of Renee Zellweger's face, whether or not the Oscar winning actress went generic with plastic surgery, a voice from history affirmed choice for women of all ages and economics when it comes to feminine enhancement: "Beauty is power," said Helena Rubinstein at a time when makeup was only associated with showgirls and prostitutes. A canny businesswoman, as a splendid new exhibition at the Jewish Museum establishes, the four foot ten inch Polish-born Rubinstein led the cosmetics field in face creams, and reinvented mascara wands; a rival to Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein surprisingly kept her Jewish name.

Even before the twentieth century's world wars, Rubinstein was established in New York but traveled widely taking in a wide range of cultural influences. A connoisseur of fashion and jewels, "Madame" was also a collector fine art. Room after elegantly appointed exhibition space features paintings and sculpture by Elie Nadelman, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and the Surrealists Max Ernst and Leonor Fini. As the show's fine catalogue limns her career, she created "her commercial beauty parlors in the tradition of the domestic literary salon, in which advanced ideas were exchanged under the guidance of an elegant, educated patroness, merging beauty, art and modernism under a mercantile umbrella."

With her black hair pinned back in a chignon in Madame's signature look, she was painted or photographed wearing Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, and Poiret. Pieces from her wardrobe are some of the riches of this show. With memorabilia on display, the exhibit provides data from her personal life, how employing her sisters was trouble at times, and how avoiding sadness in marriage, she shopped for pearls, the exhibit illuminates her contribution to women's empowerment and offers a flesh and blood sense of this iconic figure.

Among minor details of her cultural reach, however, is that she was aware of the work of Brion Gysin. Known for philanthropy, she owned one of his Dreamachines, perhaps in an effort to help him promote this device on a rotating turntable to produce a flickering light and the effect of hallucination. Madame experienced herself "on a speedboat between Venice and the airport" and used it at several beauty functions. As Gysin reported to Charles Henri Ford, the first American surrealist, in a 1963 letter, "I seem to have pushed the beauty business into a new field."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.