Helena Rubinstein with African art from her collection, including a Kota-Obamba reliquary figure, in her Paris residence on Boulevard Raspail, early 1930s.
Photo Lipnitzki  Roger-Viollet  Topfoto

‘Mirrors of beauty’ — two Kota figures and a Bobo mask once owned by Helena Rubinstein

Alongside the avant-garde works that the cosmetics pioneer hung on her walls were many superb examples of African art. Christie’s specialist Rémy Magusteiro talks about three such pieces coming to auction at Christie’s in Paris on 3 December

Helena Rubinstein, doughty entrepreneur and pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry, lived a life surrounded by art. Her sumptuous apartment in Paris, as well as her residences in London and New York, were filled with works by celebrated contemporaries such as Picasso, Matisse and Dalí, all of whom were friends of hers.

Rubinstein’s homes were also populated with a great many works of African art, which she began to take an interest in as early as 1908 under the tutelage of another artist friend, the sculptor Jacob Epstein. By the 1930s Rubinstein had amassed more than 250 masks, reliquaries, carved heads and statuettes.

‘I think that, for her, such pieces were like mirrors of beauty,’ says Rémy Magusteiro, a Christie’s specialist in African & Oceanic Art. ‘She saw something of herself, an extension of herself, in her collection as a whole.’

Kota-Obamba reliquary figure, Gabon. Height 38  cm (15  in). Estimate €50,000-70,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), LUNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Kota-Obamba reliquary figure, Gabon. Height: 38 cm (15 in). Estimate: €50,000-70,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), L'UNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Certainly Rubinstein was proud enough of the collection to have it photographed by two other illustrious acquaintances, Dora Maar and Man Ray. And those commissioned photographs, taken inside her apartment, make it clear that she was happy to display masterpieces by African artists alongside the new-minted creations of the Parisian avant-garde.

So her interiors were a living testament to the fact — universally acknowledged by art historians — that the Cubists and other trailblazers of Modernism found inspiration and validation in the classical art of Africa. 

Yet the debt that modern art owes to Africa was less visible at the time, and Rubinstein was one of the first to appreciate that correlation, as well as the independent artistic worth of her African artefacts. She trusted her own aesthetic instincts, and her instincts were on the right side of art history.

‘We can discern her quest for beauty in the business that she built, in her devotion to the avant-garde, and of course in her collection of African art’ — specialist Rémy Magusteiro

‘People were surprised by a certain disparity in what appealed to me most,’ said Rubinstein, ‘because they failed to understand the mysterious link that can exist between an African mask, a romantic piece of furniture and a painting by Matisse. 

‘But this link seemed obvious to me. The secret connection between the works that move and inspire me — it is like a lyrical force that has been placed at the service of joy.’

Kota Janus reliquary figure, Mbulu Ngulu, Gabon. Height 58.5  cm (23  in). Estimate €180,000-250,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), LUNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Kota Janus reliquary figure, Mbulu Ngulu, Gabon. Height: 58.5 cm (23 in). Estimate: €180,000-250,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), L'UNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Rubinstein’s collection was dispersed after her death in 1965. But three of her African pieces are about to be re-offered at auction: two Kota reliquary figures and a ceremonial Bobo mask.

‘Kota is the name of a people who live in Gabon,’ says Magusteiro. ‘Each reliquary would be mounted on a basket containing the remains of an ancestor. It is a guardian figure, placed there to oversee the tie between the living and the dead.’

These two reliquary figures, with their sickle-shaped crests and their rhomboid legs, clearly hail from the same culture — but their differences are as intriguing as their similarities. One has much more stylised features, and is a rare Janus figure: it has a face on both sides. ‘That duality, and the sheer elegance of the handiwork, make this piece quite exceptional,’ says Magusteiro.

Bobo mask, Burkina Faso. Height 114  cm (45  in). Estimate €50,000-70,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), LUNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Bobo mask, Burkina Faso. Height: 114 cm (45 in). Estimate: €50,000-70,000. Offered in SHAPE(S), L'UNIVERS DES FORMES, African and Oceanic arts on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

The Bobo mask, meanwhile, hails from Burkina Faso. ‘The Bobo people had a caste of blacksmiths, who alone were allowed to make such masks,’ says Magusteiro. 

‘They were used in funeral rites, as well as in initiation ceremonies and harvest festivals. What I love about this piece is the combination of human and zoomorphic features. And the tall crest, with its angular wings, gives strength to the play of lines on the long face.’

All three pieces — and Rubinstein’s collection generally — are surely a testament to a lifetime spent thinking about the human face, about what elements combine to create a beautiful visage, about whether beauty itself is an abstraction, nothing more than a conventional and convenient idea. Is that the message the African masks whispered to Rubinstein as she drifted from room to room in her fabulous homes?

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‘Jean Cocteau called her “the empress of beauty”, and I think it is true that for her beauty was power,’ says Magusteiro. ‘Perhaps that is what she meant when she spoke of the lyrical force of this art, and the joy it gave her. 

‘From our vantage point we can discern her quest for beauty in everything she did — in the business that she built from nothing, in her devotion to the avant-garde, and of course in her collection of African art. The beauty is there to be perceived in every piece, and each one of them contributed to her happiness.’