A visionary, a patron of the arts, an aesthete, an Indian royal with a passion for the European avant-garde, the Maharaja of Indore was a living legend of the 20th century from both worlds.
With a beautiful exhibition, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) pays tribute to the extraordinary life of the Maharaja of Indore, an Indian prince with one of the most important private collections of Modernist furniture and decorative arts in the world.
This visionary patron of the arts became a central figure of the international elite and the European cultural milieu of the 1920s and 1930s.
Yeshwant Rao Holkar II (1908-1961), better known under the name of Maharaja of Indore, is the perfect incarnation a modern man in the 1930s. Attracted to the beautiful, the young man with a thin silhouette and tapered hands combines tradition, intuition and audacity.
He spent the majority of his youth in the luxurious and stately conditions afforded to the princes of India. During the 1920s, Holkar II was sent to study at Oxford in England where a French-speaking private tutor, Dr. Marcel Hardy, introduced him to the cultural milieu of European modern artists. Under the guidance of Dr. Hardy, Holkar II met two figures who would become instrumental in his artistic pursuits: the German modern architect Eckart Muthesius (1904-1989) and French artistic advisor and writer Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959), both of whom were closely linked to the avant-garde. Together, they visited England, Germany and France, exploring art fairs, museum exhibitions, galleries and artist’s workshops, rousing in Holkar II a passion for Modern Art.
Upon his father’s abdication in 1926, Holkar II acceded to the throne as Maharaja of Indore and became entitled to vast wealth and influence. In 1929, shortly after meeting the eminent French couturier and collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) in Paris and seeing his studio and collection, the Maharaja decided to erect a grand palace in his native India where he would combine luxury, comfort and modernity, embracing the features of the Modernist movement.
In 1930, Eckart Muthesius, the Maharaja’s good friend and mentor, was put in charge of drawing up the blue print. This entailed transforming the foundations of a pre- existing building in order to construct a Modern private residence for the Maharaja and his wife, the Maharani Sanyogita Bai Devi (1914-1937). Designed with their daily needs in mind, the Manik Bagh Palace was decorated with fittings and furniture that glorified the most innovative materials of the period such as metal, synthetic leather and glass, while paying special attention to color within each room. Nearly twenty hand-selected interior designers furnished the rooms, now iconic of the Modern period.
Some of the most emblematic pieces include Transat armchairs by Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976); a pair of red synthetic leather armchairs with integrated lamps by Eckart Muthesius; beds in metal and glass by French designers Louis Sognot (1892-1970) and Charlotte Alix (1892-1987) designed for the respective bedrooms of the royal couple; and rugs by French painter and weaver Ivan Da Silva Bruhns (1881-1980) that covered the palace floors like vast abstract paintings.
Unlike his peers, the Maharaja is involved in the design of the works he orders and acquires artworks from Brancusi, is photographed by Man Ray, portraited by Boutet de Monvel (whose paintings are gathered for the first time).
The death in 1937 of the Sanyogita Maharani, who shared his same avant-garde vision of the arts, marks the end of orders. The prince travels and makes two new marriages as the world sinks into a war leading to end of the British Empire in India and, with it, the collapse of the Indian royalties. The palace and its contents are sold in 1980.
The exhibition unveils the Maharaja’s innovative world, unerringly representative of Modernism and a central moment in the history of decorative arts. It begins with an introduction of the Maharajah of Indore and the Holkar Dynasty to which he belonged and the construction of the palace.
A highlight of commissions given to Eckart Muthesius follows, including a furnished private train, an airplane and a caravan, as well as unrealised projects such as a riverboat and a summer palace.
The Central Hall of MAD displays previously unseen films by Eckart Muthesius, offering a glimpse of the Maharajah and his wife at home as well as overseeing traditional ceremonies throughout Indore.
The Maharaja was an active collector of Modern furnishings. The museum has recreated his office, the royal couple’s respective bedrooms, and the library.
His activities as a collector are also the focus of a section devoted to the salons and exhibitions of the 1920s and 1930s, namely the Salon of the Union des Artistes Modernes and the Salon d’Automne in Paris, where the Maharaja made numerous acquisitions of furniture and objects.
Important commissions for the dining room will also be displayed, including china by French ceramicist Jean Luce (1895-1964) and silverware by Jean Puiforcat (1897- 1945).
The exhibition also evokes the Maharaja’s marked interest in the great jewellery houses of the time such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and Chaumet, all of whom created majestic pieces for the Maharani.
The BGC Studio scenographers turned the MAD into a palace with a red and black floor and walls giving the illusion of mirrors to amplify the space. Curators Raphaëlle Billé and Louise Curtis have spent many months in the often unpublished archives.
The exhibition runs until From January 12, 2020 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Picture credits and acknowledgements: Adagp, Paris, 2019; Collection Vera Muthesius; Prudence Cuming; Phillips Auctioneers Ltd; Sotheby’s / Art Digital Studio, Ecl’art – Galerie Doria, Paris; Man Ray 2015 Trust; Centre Pompidou MNAM-CCI; Guy Carrard; Patrimoine Puiforcat; Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Jean Tholance; Collection Heribert Neuwöhner.