Prestige items, Art Deco, and the Aga Khan – what could they possibly have in common?
“Prestige item” is a term used to describe something specially commissioned from the finest artists and craftsman of the day, either as an intimidating display of wealth or as a beautiful symbol of devotion, loyalty, and love. There are many examples of both – powerful rulers who flaunt excess at the expense of their charges, and at the other extreme, devout admirers who wish to symbolize their feelings with items of incredible beauty.
Art Deco was an aesthetic movement encompassing art, furniture, architecture, and jewelry, popular from shortly before WWI through the 1930’s. Characterized by clean and flowing lines, elegant proportions, and sweeping movement it celebrated an international hope for the very best promises of modernity. Art Deco was a clean and elegant celebration of humanist aspiration and expectation for an exciting future filled with miracles of modern technology, medicine, and science.
How does the Aga Khan fit in? Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, 1933 to 2003, exemplified a trait most rare among political figures, an honest and sincere compulsion to help those he considered his charges and whomever else he could positively effect. His entire adult life was devoted to celebrating arts and culture, rendering humanitarian aid, supporting environmental concerns, and – of particular resonance today – a profoundly deep-seated need to provide succor and safety to refugees from all corners of the globe. He considered himself a citizen of the world, and took his responsibilities very seriously.
Family was vital to the Aga Khan, and especially his wife Catherine. Although not blessed with children, his devotion to his wife was extraordinary, and the principle reason for this amazing exhibit “Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection”. These are astounding examples of Prestige items for the best of reasons – to celebrate love and devotion to one truly admired. Commissioned from the finest international jewelry houses – Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Locloche Freres among them – these are more than 100 of the finest examples of the Art Deco style.
There are some interesting subtleties I found extraordinary. Some of the pieces are “vanity cases”, compartmented boxes for cosmetics and the “freshening up” needs of a woman on the go. Although to our contemporary eyes this may seem quaint, for the time period this gives an insight into the esteem the Aga Khan held his wife. These style of cases were made specifically for independent and self-reliant women, women daring to assert their individuality and break conventions. The Aga Khan cared deeply for his wife, respected her, and celebrated both her beauty and strong independence.
There is another, overarching quality I find exciting. The objects in the collection are very obviously Art Deco, and this to the highest degree – with one understated but significant difference. The humanist element which helps define Art Deco is replaced with imagery and design subtly more meaningful; there are motifs running throughout of animals, birds, trees, and other elements which tie artfully to Islamic themes. Glimpses of the Celestial garden, hints of the abundance of Paradise, and suggestions of traditional poetical works – perhaps I am reading more into these beautiful pieces than I should, but overall they feel more soulful and spirited than pieces commissioned, perhaps, by someone other than an Aga Khan.
As with the present Aga Khan, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan felt his position and authority made him a caretaker for his people, and he felt a responsibility for all those in need. This collection, I feel, was never intended for solely private consumption but rather was meant as an ongoing celebration of his own wife and, by extension, the love of family. Knowing so many people would see and enjoy these incredible celebrations of devotion would, I believe, make him very happy indeed.
This remarkable collection will be on display in the Carnegie Mansion’s Teak Room from April 7 through August 27, and is documented with an accompanying 256-page catalog.
Previously on Ismailimail…
Rehana Tejpar, National Program Facilitator: Righting Relations Initiative for Adult Education for Social Change