National Gallery of Victoria (Part V) – Dobell’s Portrait of Helena Rubinstein

Friday, 13 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria (Part V) – Dobell’s Portrait of Helena Rubinstein

Little prepares you for the visual and mental leap from the playful exuberance of the early 20th-Century Australian art to the austere sobriety and psychological re-examination of the human condition by Australian artists from the 1940s onwards. Paintings by Nolan, Tucker, Boyd, Blackman, and Hester provide a striking and almost violent contrast to those by Lambert, Bunny, and Fox. The landscapes and still-lives of the 1920s and 1930s could not be more dissimilar than abstract compositions by Crowley, Balson, Miller, and Hirschfeld-Mack. The nature of avant-garde Australian portraiture undergoes a similar metamorphosis, and I spent a long time gazing at William Dobell’s portrait of Helena Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was a Polish/Jewish-born cosmetics entrepreneur, who had a good eye for niche marketing as much as for men who were able to support financially her growing enterprise and social ambitions (one of her husbands was a prince). She was also a well-known philanthropist, who established a travelling fellowship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales enabling a number of young aspiring Australian artists to travel and study overseas.

At first glance, Dobell is able capture in his enthralling vision this larger-than-life character. Everything in this portrait is over the top – Helena’s extravagant red and orange patterned dress with puffed sleeves and crinoline skirt; a tight corset that barely contains her expansive bust; and oversize jewellery the blue stones of which are dripping from her ears and weigh down her milky-white arms. Dobell chose to portray Rubinstein from a low view-point, which visually increases the stature of the physically diminutive woman, and relates to the viewer her forceful, ebullient, and formidable personality. The swirls of a rich brocade in the background add to the sensation of movement, drama, and – if you will – majesty within the portrait.

But subtly and slowly the artifice within the composition becomes increasingly apparent. It is known that before sitting for the portrait Rubinstein exasperated Dobell by changing her choice of jewellery and dresses umpteen times, and the way in which they almost overwhelm the sitter emphasises the vanity. The awkwardly drawn prominent black brow is almost a caricature; and the bulbously-aquiline nose exaggerates Semitic features of Dobell’s octogenarian sitter.

Like with many of his portraits, Dobell strives to combine the individuality of the sitter with the creation of a character stereotype. He painted Rubinstein at least eight times, and in a later portrait of Helena seated in a green interior Dobell captured her as the personification a genteel grand dame she purported to be, rather than a vision of a formidable personality, over-emphasised vanity, and exaggerated femininity that comes forth from this striking and highly individualised portrait.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]

1 Response to “National Gallery of Victoria (Part V) – Dobell’s Portrait of Helena Rubinstein”

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2012


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