© Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris, 2019

MODERN PALACE: Maharajas often conjure up ideas of white elephants and elaborately decorated palaces. Less often are they associated to Bauhaus and modern art.

Through its latest exhibition, “Modern Maharaja,” the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is shedding the light on the life of Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, who became Maharaja of Indore in 1930.

“This Maharaja was unlike any others: He was of the most important arts patron in the 1920s and ’30s, at the same level as Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles,” said Olivier Gabet, director of the museum. “That’s what fascinated us — we wanted to go against clichés and preconceptions. The exhibition is surprising because people usually think that modernity is an Occidental topic. But the truth is one of the greatest supporters of Western art was this Indian prince.”

Opening on Thursday and running until Jan. 12, the exhibition traces back to the prince’s education in Europe, where his passion for modern art started. He met budding architect Eckart Muthesius while studying at Oxford and tasked him to build a modern palace for him and his bride, the Maharani. Manik Bagh, a surprisingly unfussy building made of bright white cubes, was completed in 1932.

To furnish it, the prince took his inspiration from Jacques Doucet, the couturier and great art collector who showed him his entire collection of Chirico and Picasso pieces at his Parisian atelier a month before passing away. Muthesius, who acted also as aesthic adviser to the prince, introduced him to the works of contemporary designers such as Charlotte Alix and Louis Sognot, who designed a stunning pale-green bed for the Maharani’s bedroom, and Ivan Da Silva Brun, who created a number of carpets for the palace, including a huge piece shown under the nave of the Arts Decoratifs.

The Maharani’s bedroom, circa 1933. © Collection Vera Muthesius/Adagp, Paris, 2019*  Courtesy

The Maharaja also met sculptor Constantin Brancusi, from whom he bought the “Oiseau Dans L’Espace” sculpture — a plaster cast of which is exhibited in the museum — and tasked him with building an elaborate fountain for Manik Bagh palace, a project that was interrupted by the Maharani’s sudden death in 1937.

The royal couple’s movie-star looks fascinated Paris society. The Maharani, who sported a short bob, was often dressed in gowns by Schiaparelli and Vionnet, and collected high jewelry by Van Cleef & Arpels and Chaumet, some of which are shown in the exhibition.

Photographer Man Ray was particularly entranced by the couple’s beauty. The exhibition features stunning photography by the artist, who captured the Maharaja and Maharani in a subtle embrace that is still quite racy in terms of royal etiquette. A number of pictures show how the photographer crops his pictures to focus on a detail, such as a zoomed-in view of the couple’s two faces or a study of their hands.

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