Portraiture exhibitions in Miami and New York City

Having recently returned from New York where I saw two wonderful portraiture exhibitions I’ve been thinking a lot about portraiture lately, and the role it has played in the history of art. At the Neue Galerie, I saw Gustav Klimt’s portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 along with the numerous pencil drawing studies for the work; the subject of the documentary Stealing Klimts, shown last year at the Jewish Museum in Miami Beach and more recently the Hollywood version Woman in Gold.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 Oil, silver, and gold on canvas 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in (140 x 140 cm) Neue Galerie, New York This acquisition made available in part through the generosity of the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer
I have been a devotee of Klimt since I first saw his drawings in a small exhibition in Rome and later his masterpieces at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria. Visiting the works at the Neue Galerie felt like visiting old friends— the setting beyond comparison. At the Brooklyn Museum I saw Kehinde Wiley’s first major retrospective of his contemporary portraiture, A New Republic, another brilliant exhibition of portraits another artist whose work I have admired since seeing it on the Cover of Art in America in 2003.

Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power
The Boca Raton Museum of Art
April 21 through July 12, 2015

Kehinde Wiley Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps 2005, Oil on canvas Collection of Suzi and Andrew B. Cohen
Meanwhile here in South Florida, the Boca Raton Museum of Art is exhibiting Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, works collected from private collections lovingly pieced back together for a traveling exhibition which started at the Jewish Museum in New York. With all of these portrait exhibitions, I am struck by fact that the commissioning of a portrait by prominent art patrons has largely disappeared from important contemporary art collections. The last collection I recall seeing with a portrait of the collector herself was that of Dorothy Blau, the Bal Harbour gallerist and private dealer who had her portrait by Andy Warhol hanging in her dining room. I vividly recall sitting with her at her home full of exquisite works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring tucked between a family Xavier Lallane sheep and her proudly telling me about the portrait she had commissioned by Andy Warhol.

Throughout the ages, artists have been commissioned to create portraits of their patrons to hang in their homes usually in a distinguished location. Often, it was how artists supported themselves. While very common in the nineteenth century among the elite, highly realistic portraits in oil on canvas became less in-vogue after the introduction of the camera, which was able to more perfectly capture the countenance of the subject— an example of the camera as disruptive innovation. Today, commissioned portraits it seems have gone away, with the exception of the generic corporate “head shot” while family portraits in more relaxed settings seem to be more acceptable in contemporary society.

Marie Laurencin, Portrait of Helena Rubinstein 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 27 in. Private collection, Stowe, Vermont. © Fondation Foujita / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris, 2015.
Of course, it’s likely more than just technology that has taken its toll on portraiture; art has always been something of a luxury and the display of bejeweled art patrons might today be interpreted as flashy or self-aggrandizement. Today, major art collectors still exhibit their trophies but not in their likeness.

As I toured the Boca Museum of Art’s jewel of an exhibition of Helena Rubinstein’s collection assembled, Beauty as Power, I could not help but have the feeling of exaltation while viewing Portrait of Helena Rubinstein, 1934 by Marie Laurencin. There is something of the painting that is completely mesmerizing having nothing to do with its subject, Helena Rubinstein herself. You look at the painting and wonder what was the occasion commemorating the portrait, how did she decide what to wear, what significance does the scarf or the earrings she wears hold? Did she sit for the portrait or were photographs taken? Were any studies done prior to the final painting? Did she have any input into the final painting? In fact, one could create an entire fictional story each more interesting than the next about this portrait—if you had the inclination, that is.

Graham Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein in a Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown, 1957. Oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 36 ½ in. Daniel Katz Gallery, London. © Estate of Graham Sutherland.
Helena Rubinstein, herself, was as interesting a person as any one of her portraits and confirms to me that it is the Art Collector who determines who the important artists of our time will be. I was amused to learn that prior to Helena Rubinstein, it was considered “vulgar” for women to wear make-up; that lipstick and rouge were for actresses and harlots. It was Helena Rubinstein, born in Krakow in 1872, who through her marketing efforts made it acceptable for middle class women to wear make-up allowing ordinary women to indulge themselves in their own beauty – fascinating piece of history.

The exhibition includes several vintage interviews of Rubinstein talking about her life in Poland and Australia before she ultimately moved to the United States at the dawn of the World War I. Listening to her speak in her very serious eastern European accent about cosmetics, I couldn’t help but smile — this is a woman who took herself quite seriously, regardless of what anyone else thought — a triumph of the human spirit.

Andy Warhol, Madame Rubinstein in Kyoto, Japan, 1957. Ink with white highlights on paper, 16 ¾ x 22 in. Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Richard F. Holmes, Class of 1946. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Helena Rubinstein holding one of her masks from the Ivory Coast, 1934, Photograph by George Maillard Kesslere. Helena Rubinstein Foundation Archives, Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, Gladys Marcus Library, Special Collections.
Helena Rubinstein in front of a montage of some of the many portraits she commissioned throughout her life; clockwise from top right: Roberto Montenegro, 1941; Cândido Portinari, 1939; Marie Laurencin, 1934; Margherita Russo, 1953; Pavel Tchelitchew, 1934; Christian Bérard, 1938; and Graham Sutherland, 1957. Helena Rubinstein Foundation Archives, Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, Gladys Marcus Library, Special Collections.

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