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The Polished Surface: Muthesius and Brancusi in India 1930-37
It is not known to many, that the foremost sculptor of the 20th century Constantin Brancusi travelled to India and became a lifelong friend of Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar and Eckart Muthesius, the visionary architect and designer.
India’s greatest collector of the avant-garde of the 20th century, Yeshwantrao Holkar – Maharaja of Indore attracted the great minds of his day. He was educated at Oxford, travelled to Paris and New York, where he met the most discerning dealers, artists and designers of his time. His sophisticated taste was backed with intuition and a keen eye for the extraordinary.
He chose the young German architect Eckart Muthesius to build and to furnish his modernist palace Manik Bagh and Constantin Brancusi to design and to build a temple of meditation at Maheshwar, on the banks of the Narmada river. Works by other designers and artists, such as Jacques Emil Ruhlman, Eileen Grey, Ivan Da Silva Bruhns and Man Ray, were chosen for Manik Bagh palace (1930-39).
Manik Bagh became the stuff of dreams: a modernist oasis in the heart India. The commission has gone down in history as one of the greatest design project of the 20th century. The Temple that Brancusi envisioned was sadly never built, but the Maharaja purchased three versions of “Bird in Space’ by him; one in polished bronze, one in white marble and one in black marble.
Brancusi’s strong ascetic mystical inclination ‘which would defy all historical and stylistic classification’, his highly individual approach immediately struck a chord with the young Maharaja. The day YRH visited Brancusi’s studio in Paris with the dealer / poet, Henri Pierre-Roche, he acquired the bronze bird in space of 1931. The sculpture is not about a bird but about the notion of flight.
Muthesius spent considerable periods of time in Indore, working on the entirety of the palace project, while Brancusi visited in 1937 and spent a month and the two became friends. They travelled together to the historic Sultanate period sight of Mandu where the fountains particularly left a lasting impression. Brancusi incorporated ideas for his temple project from here. A photograph of the two men at Maheshwar, survives in a private collection.
It is noteworthy and important to examine the strong affinities between the work of the sculptor and the designer/architect. The key author on Eckart Muthesius, Reto Niggl writes: ‘There are unmistakable parallels between the sculptor’s polished primitive shapes and stereo-metric metal objects and the much younger Muthesius’s furniture and design works. Avant-garde pictorial art and the spatial and light objects created and shown in Berlin at the time by Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy are related to the modern design pieces of the period. Muthesius drew on the ideas presented in these Berlin exhibitions and the line between fine art and functional form was blurred’.
The key conceptual aspect in Brancusi’s sculpture that connects with Muthesius’ polished metal forms / metal stars of the two sideboards is the ‘Polished surface’ and its symbolic meaning and function. Frederich Teja Bach, the scholar on the Rumanian artist’s oeuvre succinctly discusses this in his Pompidou exhibition catalogue of 1995. The interest in ‘metamorphosis’ and the play of light is a key theme to be addressed to understand this.
“A Polished surface is the logical corollary and indeed reinforcement of the rigour of perfect form, but there is more to it than that. The polish simultaneously undermines the ‘closed mass of form': it disturbs its clarity by wrapping it outlines in a play of multiple reflections that leaves the eye uncertain where exactly the sculptural form begins and where it ends. Thus by vibrating in its radiance, the form transcends the contour-defined boundary of its own finiteness…
In the polished surface the material transmutes itself into expansive energy. Brancusi’s understanding of the energetic dimension of his sculpture finds expression in a number of his photographs where the sculptural form radiates in sunlight”
In the Manik Bagh sideboards the multiple rays create a halo around the sharp lines of the sixteen-pointed star. Here the symbol is a reference to the Sun, from which the Holkars claim ascendancy.
We would like to thank Professor Frederich Teja Bach for his insight on the meeting between Muthesius and Brancusi.
Bach, Friedrich Teja, Rowell, Margit, and Temkin, Ann, Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995.
Niggl, Reto, Eckart Muthesius 1930: The Maharaja’s Palace in Indore, Architecture and Interior, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 1996.
Niggl, Reto, Eckart Muthesius: India, 1930- 1939, Berlin, 1999.