Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros17ReviewsRaphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis ...

Reviews

Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis (eds.), Moderne Maharajah. Un mécène des années 1930

Johan Lagae
Référence(s) :

Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis (eds.), Moderne Maharajah. Un mécène des années 1930, exhibition catalogue (Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, 26 September 2019-12 January 2020), Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2019

Texte intégral

  • 1 My visit to the exhibition was facilitated through my residence in Paris as a fellow of the Instit (...)

1Between 26 September 2019 and 12 January 2020, the Musée des arts décoratifs (mad) in Paris hosted an exhibition entitled Moderne Maharajah. Un mécène des années 1930. Bringing together a wealth of historical documents (drawings, photographs, letters, rare film footage, etc.) as well as 500 pieces of “Modern design,” from furniture to tapestry, sculpture, painting, and even cutlery, the exhibition provided fascinating and profound insights into what is described in the promotional brochure somewhat rhetorically as “the very first modernist construction of India, the Manik Bah palace.”1 The project was commissioned by Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, Maharajah of Indore, and constructed between 1930 and 1933 according to a design by the German architect Eckart Muthesius (1904-1989). In many respects, the palace of the Maharajah as a project speaks of the quick outreach of modern architecture and design beyond Europe. Eckart Muthesius was the son of the famous Hermann Muthesius, one of the pioneers of the Modern Movement and a figure firmly embedded in both German and English cultural circles. The interior of the Manik Bagh palace was decorated with furniture designed by the architect himself, as well as pieces by some of the most progressive designers of their time: Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer, and Lilly Reich, along with some of the protagonists of the so-called French Moderne like René Herbst, Louis Sognot & Charlotte Alix, and Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann.

  • 2 Agnoldomenico Pica, “Eckart Muthesius in India 1930-1934,” Domus, no. 593, April 1979, p. 1-11. An (...)
  • 3 Reto Niggl, Eckart Muthesius. Der Palast des Maharadschas in Indore. Architektur und Interieur. 19 (...)
  • 4 See a.o. Regina Bittner and Kathrin Rhomberg (eds.), The Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of Cosm (...)

2The mad exhibition’s curators are not the first to “rediscover” this remarkable dwelling and its fascinating interior. The first articles devoted to the complex, which had fallen into oblivion due to the Maharajah’s death in 1956, in fact already date from the 1970s, and include a substantial essay published in 1979 in the Italian architectural magazine Domus.2 The palace gained further notoriety in 1980, when a number of pieces of furniture from the Manik Bagh palace were auctioned off, ending up in various collections, both private and public, such as German museums like the Bauhaus in Dessau. As the captions in the well-researched catalogue accompanying the exhibition in the mad make clear, some prominent items designed by Eckart Muthesius, such as the bedroom furniture or the coiffeuse mobile électrifiée, were even acquired by the avid art collector and former Minister of Culture, Arts, and Heritage of Qatar, Sheikh Saud Bin Muhammed Ali Al Thani. As early as 1996, an exhaustive investigation on the Manik Bagh palace, its interior, and its architect, Eckart Muthesius, was published in the form of a well-documented monograph by the German antiquities expert Reto Niggl.3 Although the recent exhibition in the mad was indeed a treat, as it brought together a truly impressive amount of original objects from the palace in an appealing scenography, the accompanying catalogue under review here, when compared to Niggl’s book, is less novel on a documentary level than its editors might have hoped. Yet the fact that Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis approached the complex from the perspective of its commissioner-prince, rather than from that of its designer, as Niggl did, does offer a welcome complement to the existing literature and provides us with new insights into the project and those involved in its making. By depicting the spheres in which Yeshwant Rao Holkar II navigated and the kinds of relationships he built with personalities in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, the exhibition and book shed new light on some of the mechanisms and vectors underlying the spread of modern design to regions such as India. Being situated outside the framework of colonial trade and exchange relationships, these mechanisms can easily be overlooked. But then again, as recent scholarship on the Bauhaus connections to the country illustrate, within specific circles of India, strong cultural connections to Germany and Europe already existed, and they created particular encounters between cosmopolitan milieus.4 The case of the Manik Bagh palace-project, however, is different, as what is at play here is not an encounter between avant-garde actors, but rather a particular commission by a specific kind of client, well informed of the development of luxury good design in Europe, and fascinated by it.

  • 5 For an early exception, see “I clienti di Le Corbusier,” Rassegna, no. 3, 1980. For more recent ex (...)
  • 6 Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A social and Architectural History, N (...)
  • 7 Gérard Monnier, L’architecture en France. Une histoire critique 1918-1950. Architecture, culture, (...)

3Despite some notable exceptions,5 the role of the client often remains strangely underexposed in the way the history of twentieth-century architecture is written. When investigating the topic of commissioning architecture, however, it is useful to make a distinction between various roles which can be situated within a spectrum defined, on the one end, by the figure of the patron, who gives the architect carte blanche, and, on the other, a client who engages in a direct dialogue with the designer, thus having a substantial impact on the final project. In her seminal 1998 book titled Women and the Making of the Modern House, Alice Friedman, for instance, has argued that a series of canonical twentieth-century houses resulted from a particular and often intense collaboration between a prominent architect and his female client, thereby inviting us to reconsider the authorship of these homes.6 One well-known example of a project built, on the contrary, for a patron is the Villa Noailles in Hyères, not far from Marseille, France. Designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, it was commissioned by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, described already in 1990 by architectural historian Gérard Monnier as “les stars d’une aristocratie parisienne riche, et d’un ‘clan’ de mécènes, qui laissera des traces dans l’histoire des arts plastiques, de la musique et du cinema,” and who were recently the subject of a book entitled “Mécènes du XXe siècle.”7

4Not surprisingly, the Villa Noailles and its commissioners surface on several occasions in the catalogue Moderne Maharajah. One can indeed trace a number of parallels between the projects, not in the least in the overlap of figures whose work features in both residences: from furniture designers like Marcel Breuer or Charlotte Perriand to artists like Constantin Brancusi. Yet it is perhaps Monnier’s early analysis of the Villa Noailles that is most useful to understand the role of the Maharajah as a commissioner of architecture. For Monnier, the Villa Noailles attests to what he called “la crise de la tradition aristocratique du mécénat.” While Monnier still recognized a genuine architectural patronage in a project like the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, one of Josef Hoffman’s masterpieces, he felt such patronage was absent in the Villa Noailles. Being a patron of new art forms like cinema, Charles de Noailles was not, as Monnier argues, “le mécène d’un travail d’architecture: il n’a pas la vision dynamique d’un programme et d’un projet.” As an avid collector of art, Noailles’s attitude rather reveals “une curiosité enthousiaste pour le mobilier modern, choisi, pièce après pièce, pour son caractère stimulant,” but this expertise of the “collectionneur” is not sufficient, writes Monnier, to nourish “un grand project d’architecture.”

  • 8 Louise Curtis, “Visions photographiques d’un architecte: Eckart Muthesius et le palais Manik Bagh (...)

5I would argue that Monnier’s analysis of Charles de Noailles can also be applied to Yeshwant Rao Holkar II. Indeed, it would be stretching the truth to state that the Manik Bagh palace is a masterpiece in architectural terms and the promotion of a novel architecture did not really seem a priority on the Maharajah’s agenda. It is, in fact, quite telling that Eckart Muthesius found it necessary to “edit” photographs of the executed palace for publication in journals like Fortune, Berlin Illustrierte Zeiting or The Illustrated Weekly of India, in order to align the edifice more with the stylistic characteristics of the Neues Bauen the architect originally had in mind when designing it in 1929. In these “edited photographs” (or “images truquées” as one author in the exhibition catalogue has it),8 the conventional roofscape with tiles, enforced on the architect in order to adapt the project to the challenging climatic conditions, was masked, as were the decorative elements signaling the main entrance, while the individual windows of the built edifice were replaced in these images by what seemed continuous strip windows. Moreover, other architectural projects that Muthesius drew for the Maharajah, such as a country residence or a houseboat, remained paper architecture. But this did not prevent the two men from developing a genuine relationship built on respect, after their first meeting in 1929, in Oxford, where the Maharajah was studying at the time. As the mad exhibition and catalogue make clear, Eckart Muthesius and his family soon became intimi of the Maharajah’s circles, navigated by a number of fascinating personalities who played a major role in the shaping of the Manik Bagh palace.

  • 9 Louise Curtis, “Visions photographiques d’un architecte: Eckart Muthesius et le palais Manik Bagh (...)

6The editors of the mad catalogue, Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis, provide much evidence to sustain the idea that the Maharajah should not be thought of as a patron just giving carte blanche to his architect. Instead, he was more of a figure who, in his discussions with the architect on the Palace’s interior, acted more as an informed commissioner, building on insight gained from advice offered by a number of other personalities. The latter feature in the mad catalogue much more prominently than in Niggl’s earlier study, which largely remains a narrative built around the architect. The first, and somewhat more obscure of these figures is Dr. Marcel Hardy, a Belgian botanist. The contact with Hardy came through his former role as a collaborator of the famous biologist, sociologist, and urban planner Patrick Geddes, who had been brought to India in 1918 by the father of Maharajah Yeshwant Rao Holkar II in order to help modernize the state of Indore. Hardy, who would become the Maharajah’s personal secretary, in turn was instrumental in setting up encounters with Eckart Muthesius, but also with the colorful persona of Henri-Pierre Roché, described in the mad catalogue as an “artiste, écrivain, agent d’artistes, collectionneur et conseiller en collection.” In France, Roché was the man behind the promotion of avant-garde artists like Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Constantin Brancusi. Based on meticulous research in various archives, Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis provide convincing evidence of the central role played by Roché in the Manik Bagh palace-project and Yeshwant Rao Holkar II’s development of a distinct taste for French and international modern design. It was at the advice of Roché that Man Ray was commissioned between 1927 and 1930 to produce a series of intimate photographic portraits of Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and his wife. These intimate images, one of which features on the cover of the catalogue, show a couple deeply in love, and stand in strong contrast to the somewhat austere, official portraits painted by Bernard Boutet de Monvel for the interior of the palace. That the Maharajah purchased works by Constantin Brancusi and even commissioned a design for a Temple de la Méditation from the artist again can be traced back to the intervention of Roché, who also brought the Maharajah into contact with Jacques Doucet, the most famous art collector in Paris at the time. That meeting would turn out to be decisive for developing the Maharajah’s taste in art. But Roché was also providing essential advice on the interior furnishing of the palace. Although a large part of the furniture was designed by Eckart Muthesius, including some fascinating club chairs for the master bedroom ensemble and for the library, Roché was behind the purchase of the carpets by Ivan Da Silva Bruhns which prominently decorated many rooms of the palace, or pieces commissioned for the Manik Bagh palace-project from key figures of the French moderne, such as Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Jean Puiforçat, and the duo Louis Sognot and Charlotte Alix. It is not exaggerated, then, to state that Roché, rather than Muthesius, was the key figure behind the Manik Bagh Palace becoming an emblematic case of a dwelling incarnating what Louise Curtis in her contribution to the mad catalogue describes as “une approche éclectique et internationale de la modernité artistique de la période de l’entre-deux guerres, dans lesquels sont mêlés luxe et fonctionnalité.”9 It is in presenting these multiple agencies at play in the Manik Bagh palace, as a result of the particular and somewhat chance cosmopolitan encounter between a young Indian Maharajah, educated in Europe, and a fascinating array of colorful personalities from Germany, Belgium, and France, that the mad exhibition and catalogue serve as a strong and welcome reminder that modern architecture and design sometimes traveled beyond Europe in unexpected ways.

Haut de page

Notes

1 My visit to the exhibition was facilitated through my residence in Paris as a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies from September 2019 till January 2020.

2 Agnoldomenico Pica, “Eckart Muthesius in India 1930-1934,” Domus, no. 593, April 1979, p. 1-11. An earlier documentation appeared almost 10 years earlier, see Robert Descharmes, “En Inde un palais 1930,” Connaissance des arts, no. 223, September 1970, p. 50-57.

3 Reto Niggl, Eckart Muthesius. Der Palast des Maharadschas in Indore. Architektur und Interieur. 1930 = The Maharaja’s Palace in Indor: Architecture and Interior, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 1996 (International Styles, 1).

4 See a.o. Regina Bittner and Kathrin Rhomberg (eds.), The Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of Cosmopolitan Avant-Gardes, exhibition catalogue (Bauhaus Dessau, 27 March-30 June 2013), Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013; the Bauhaus imaginista website, http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/. Accessed 5 August 2020.

5 For an early exception, see “I clienti di Le Corbusier,” Rassegna, no. 3, 1980. For more recent examples, see two theme issues of architectural journals: “Commissioning Architecture,” Oase, no. 83, 2010; “Clients,” San Rocco, no. 12, Spring 2016.

6 Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A social and Architectural History, New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, 1998.

7 Gérard Monnier, L’architecture en France. Une histoire critique 1918-1950. Architecture, culture, modernité, Paris: Philippe Sers Editeur, 1990 (Histoire des arts), p. 74. Alexandre Mare and Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne, Marie-Laure et Charles de Noailles Mécènes du XXe siècle, Paris: Bernard Chauveau, 2018.

8 Louise Curtis, “Visions photographiques d’un architecte: Eckart Muthesius et le palais Manik Bagh à Indore,” in Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis (eds.), Moderne Maharajah. Un mécène des années 1930, exhibition catalogue (Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, 26 September 2019-12 January 2020), Paris : Les Arts Décoratifs, 2019, p. 53.

9 Louise Curtis, “Visions photographiques d’un architecte: Eckart Muthesius et le palais Manik Bagh à Indore,” Ibid., p. 68.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Johan Lagae, « Raphaèle Billé and Louise Curtis (eds.), Moderne Maharajah. Un mécène des années 1930 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2020, consulté le 20 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/7933 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.7933

Haut de page

Auteur

Johan Lagae

Professor, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search