One of the many disappointments of living in the Selfie Moment is how little this genre (gesture? fad? fate?) allows for the intense pleasures of deep looking. (Of course, that’s actually the capital brilliance of the selfie: to create instantaneous uninterest in its hyperactive productions, transforming images into slip-and-slides for the eye and mind. Swipe, swipe, swipe.) To be fair, portraiture — self- or otherwise — has always been a complex practice. Whether a display of power or propaganda or a far more intimate memento, it entangles artist, subject, and viewer, marrying presence and projection, materializing an I through an eye. Two shows on view in New York give audiences a welcome chance for some quality face time, and to reflect on the why and the who we’re looking at.
“Madame Cézanne” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an exquisite exhibition that brings together 24 of the 29 known portraits Paul Cézanne painted of Marie-Hortense Fiquet, his longtime mistress turned wife and the mother of his only son. Fiquet (1850–1922) was not the youthful, sensual muse we love to hang as the model inspiration for a modern master. Cézanne’s friends wickedly nicknamed her “La Boule” for her doughy figure; artist/critic Roger Fry once called her “that sour-looking bitch.” Her legacy on canvas isn’t necessarily more flattering, yet flattery was never of interest to the artist, whose obsessions were far loftier: looking, painting, perception, sensation, color, touch.
For countless hours over more than two decades, Fiquet sat silent and still for Cézanne, becoming both a subject and a surface at and through which the painter could look, and look again, and look harder still. In couplehood, familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also free one from certain banalities of attention. It certainly did for Cézanne. Looking over the many portraits, drawings, and sketchbooks — each rendered so distinctly — one could easily get the impression Madame hardly ever moved at all but that the painter was endlessly restless. Young Woman With Loosened Hair (circa 1873–74) presents her as soft and sexual. She is nude save for a necklace, yet her skin is morbidly pale, composed in licks of white, gray and pink. Around that same time, Cézanne also painted her clothed, one arm stiffly propped on a table, the other angled into her lap (Madame Cézanne Leaning on a Table). Here his brush concerns itself with the odd weight of her dress, and how it so solidly betrays the body beneath.
At the center of the exhibition is a quartet of paintings of Fiquet in a red dress, all circa 1888–90, displayed together for the first time. Here there’s no end of delight in seeing Cézanne see. Though her composure is generally the same throughout — Fiquet is seated, hands in lap, face quite expressionless — each canvas possesses its very own dynamic.
And there’s the rub with Cézanne. What do these portraits reveal of Fiquet’s essence, or her character? Any attempt to describe the nuances that distinguish one portrait from another invariably boils down to painterly jargon, which is never resonant enough to capture the rich rewards of looking so intensely. If you find yourself wrestling for words while gazing at a Cézanne canvas, think of the painter’s famous command to his models — “Be an apple!” — as an appeal for you to sit still too.
For an altogether different experience of portraiture, the Jewish Museum offers “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power,” up through March 22. This smart, oddball show is in effect a sweeping portrait of the cosmetics mogul told via pieces from her collection of fine art, costumes, jewelry, dioramas, advertisements, films, and ephemera. Most notably, “Beauty Is Power” includes commissioned portraits of Rubinstein by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Marie Laurencin, Roberto Montenegro, Paul César Helleu, and many others.
For Madame Rubinstein (1872–1965), unlike Madame Cézanne, portraiture was in no small part self-promotion, a fact that’s hardly out of character for a self-made, self-possessed woman whose name was also her brand, whose visage served as the public face of her global company, and who earned her vast fortune insisting that a woman should “make herself attractive along the lines of whatever is most characteristically herself.”
By the time she opened her New York salon in 1915, makeup was no longer just for actresses and harlots. It was a sign of women’s liberation, an expression of a vision of oneself. As part of her business, Rubinstein devised “cosmetic self-portraits” to instruct her clientele how to use color and brush to enhance their features, and she mass-produced the lotions, potions, and paints to help them do so. An advertisement from 1915 declaring her “the accepted advisor in beauty matters to the Royalty, Aristocracy and the great Artistes of Europe” features an etching of a fetching young Rubinstein in profile, which she’d commissioned from Helleu in 1908 — one meant to prove that in every way, Rubinstein could give good face.
She proudly produced herself over and over again as a sitter possessed of regal carriage and fortitude. The face of Laurencin’s pale, languid figure of Rubinstein from 1934 is masklike in its porcelain perfection, while Graham Sutherland’s and William Dobell’s portraits, both from 1957, depict her as a poised doyenne, monumental and unbending. Picasso’s drawings from 1955 — which he wryly referred to as “dossiers” on Rubinstein — are a hoot. Apparently Madame R. simply showed up at his doorstep one day after having tried for years, unsuccessfully, to commission a portrait from him. Picasso seems to have taken the surprise visit with good humor; his renderings of Madame R. even go a little loopy, as though sweetly lampooning both his hand and her face.
In each canvas Rubinstein seems to bask in seeing herself through the eyes of others, and in her own way she manages to weave herself into an art history that would never otherwise admit the artfulness of her particular achievements in face painting.