The Maharaja of Indore
Signed by Man Ray and stamped on the verso:
‘Man Ray/31bis Rue/Campagne/Première/PARIS-14’
Paris, circa 1930
Vintage gelatin silver print
23 x 17 cm
This very rare gelatin silver print of Yeshwant Rao Holkar III, the Maharaja of Indore, taken by his friend, the surrealist artist and master photographer Man Ray [1890-1976], is emblematic of Man Ray’s supreme ability to capture the essence of his sitter but also of photography as a medium where light and shadow play equal dramatic parts. In this image, Man Ray eulogizes the Maharaja as a rare aesthete in the outward portrayal of formality and the intimate revelation of natural charm.
In the present portrait, the Maharaja adopts an engaging pose as he looks directly at the viewer in a position of open dialogue. With his hands held out in front of him and on his legs, there is something of the youthful vigour and curiosity that so defined his attitude to life. Man Ray is able to offset the majestic presence of a monarch against the sensitive and open humanity reflected in the guise of the man: although dressed in white-tie, the ultimate western approach to formality, he is also approachable with open eyes and a discrete underlying smile.
As a great collector of early modernist design, Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar surrounded himself with the aesthetic and philosophy of the 1930s avant-garde. As such, he collaborated with the greatest artists and designers of the time, including Man Ray, with whom he travelled and collaborated on numerous projects and personal images of himself and his beloved wife, the Maharani, Sanyogita Bai Sahib Holkar of Indore.
The Maharaja engaged great photographers and painters of the time to create portraits of him. Among these was Man Ray, the provocative American photographer (his name was the clever contraction of Emmanuel Radnitzky) and a master of experimental and fashion photography (also a painter, a filmmaker, a poet, an essayist) who had made Paris his home in the 1920s and 1930s and was greatly sought after. And the person who sought him out, and whom Man Ray described in his autobiography in the words above, was the young Maharaja. At home in India, the Maharaja bore the title ‘Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shri Sir Yeshwant Rao II Holkar XIV Bahadur’, and the royal bride described by Man Ray was ‘Maharani Shrimant Akhand Soubhagyavati Sanyogita Bai Holkar’. There are painted portraits of the young Maharaja dressed and looking most elegant in typical Marathi style, with the Holkar-cut turban on his head. But in Paris the royals were simply a young couple: dressed in western clothes, soaking themselves in the haut monde of the western world, maintaining there a stable that was the envy of the racing fraternity, buying the most exotic of cars then being made. The biographers of the Maharaja all make special note of the fact that the cars that he owned were “designed by himself and finished in Art Deco style with many great features”. A different setting almost meant a different persona for the Maharaja and the Maharani.
Man Ray recalled his first encounter with the Maharaja and Maharani, “The Maharaja of Indore came to the studio (in Paris) to be photographed, also in Western clothes—sack suits and formal evening dress. He was young, tall and very elegant. I got a substantial order from this sitting. …Next year, the Maharaja was in the South of France with his young bride. He had taken an entire floor of a hotel in Cannes for himself and his retinue. I arrived in Cannes before noon, was assigned to my room in the suite … The Maharanee was an exquisite girl in her teens. She wore French clothes, and a huge emerald ring. The Maharaja had bought it for her that morning while taking a walk. …The next day I was asked to bring my camera to their suite … to make a series of photographs that would be a record of their honeymoon. First, I had to play some jazz to which the subjects danced, and then they sat down holding hands. I made a few exposures, after which I suggested that they pose separately for individual portraits.”
It was in 1922 that Ray made his first rayographs (a word created by combining his surname with photography). The images were photographs made without a camera, by moving objects, materials, or even body parts around on a sheet of photosensitive paper and exposing them to light and varying the angles of his light source to create a negative image. In his rayographs, Ray created surreal, irrational combinations of objects and in doing so emphasised the abstraction of images. His experiments with photography led him to the Surrealist movement, and he contributed to the three major Surrealist journals in the 1920s and 1930s.
As he became absorbed in his rayography, Ray claimed that he was leaving behind painting, stating: “I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.” However, he continued to paint throughout his life, using what he had learned from his experiments in photography in his paintings. Still, he rarely showed the paintings.
Man Ray once famously said: “I paint what cannot be photographed, and I photograph what l do not wish to paint.” The artist was greatly interested in taking portraits, whether informal or staged. When, in one of his more famous portraits—that of Yeshwant Rao Holkar—he saw the possibility of rendering a celebrity who sometimes assumed a persona not originally his own, he showed the England-educated Maharaja “in a fashionable pose with crossed arms and a slight torsion of the body, looking away from the viewer, but bearing an almost imperceptible smile”. Strong lighting was pressed into service, creating a bright halo around the figure but also a “crisp shadow” that blended with the Maharaja’s clothing. As a critic noted, and a gallery note emphasises, Man Ray’s strength as a portraitist consisted of “the simultaneous ability to let the sitters display their presence and bedazzle us with their significance, their long afterglow”.
Today, Man Ray’s revolutionary oeuvre is spread among private collections and the most prestigious cultural institutions across the globe, from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The young Maharaja’s persona was not captured, however, only in photographs: having developed a taste for modern art, and being a patron of the arts in any case, he also sat for painters in Paris, including for Bernard Boutet de Monvel who, a bit like Man Ray, was several things rolled into one: sculptor, engraver, fashion illustrator, interior decorator and a portrait painter for high society clients. Clearly, de Monvel was greatly attracted to the Maharaja’s personality: incredibly refined and poised as he was even though only 21 at that time. He made several studies for the portrait, some preparatory sketches on drawing paper marked with a grid pattern having survived. Once again, both in the drawing, and the finished painting in which the Maharaja stands, next to a large mantelpiece, dressed in the western fashion of tail coat and white tie, with a black evening cape, there is a concern for capturing in full measure the elegance of the subject—in particular the delicate taper of the fingers of his hands—and his supreme serenity of manner.
Provenance: Acquired directly from a descendant of the Maharaja of Indore.
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