Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
July 25 - August 23, 2020
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Marie Cuttoli played a major role in modern art during the first half of the 20th century, only to become a footnote in history. This reversal of fortune took place, sadly, while Cuttoli lived. Her fall from high regard was one of the penalties of a long life-span. However, the causes were much more complex than merely a shift of critical opinion or artistic taste due to the passage of time.
Cuttoli's ill luck continued when the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia mounted a long overdue exhibition, opening on February 23, 2020. Two weeks later, the Barnes closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although museums all over the world have been affected by Covid-19, it was singularly unfortunate that the first exhibition - ever - devoted to Cuttoli should have been subjected to the "lockdown."
However, I am thrilled to relate that the Barnes reopened in late July and Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray is back on view until August 23, 2020.
Marie Cuttoli did indeed live a long time, 1879 to 1973. She was involved in three major developments in the world of art during this period: the growing popular appreciation of Modernism, the 20th century Tapestry Revival and the cultural resistance to Nazism. In each of these spheres of action, Cuttoli made an important contribution to the arts.
Each of these endeavors was founded upon a knowledge of fabrics and an appreciation of style in dress and decor. From this fashion sense, Cuttoli went on to become a patron of the arts and a figure of controversy.
Marie Cuttoli was born in Tulle, a textile center in central France which gives its name to a high quality net fabric much used in wedding veils and ballet costumes. Interestingly, Henri Matisse, who also utilized cloth of all kinds in his paintings, was born in Cambrai, famous for a type of linen cloth called cambric.
There is no way of knowing if early exposure to the textile industry had any effect upon Cuttoli. Her father was an inn keeper in Tulle and only began selling fabrics after the family moved to Paris. Almost nothing is known of Cuttoli's childhood, education or early adult years. But somewhere, somehow, she mastered a "feel" for haute couture.
Cuttoli married a French official in Algeria, but divorced in 1913. She retained her connection with this North African country when she later married Paul Cuttoli, another French politician in Algeria. In her excellent biographical essay on Cuttoli, Barnes curator Cindy Kang writes that Cuttoli likely conceived her plans for a career in high fashion in Algeria, where "she discovered the beauty and craftsmanship of its embroidery and weaving and realized that there was a European market for this work."
What transformed a good plan into a brilliant one was Cuttoli's idea to hire European artists to design clothing and accoutrements in the latest Modernist styles and then have them made in Algeria. Thus, her fashion line would be something strikingly new, rather than trying to revive Orientalism as a twentieth century design concept.
In 1922, Cuttoli opened Galerie Myrbor in Paris. Two splendid displays in the Barnes exhibition evoke the sophisticated ambiance of Galerie Myrbor.
Despite competition from other Parisian fashion houses, Cuttoli's Myrbor was a success, gaining rave reviews from an American guidebook to Paris.
"There is nothing in the French market like the elegant evening wraps," gushed A Shopping Guide to Paris (1929), "rich with embroidery and distinguished in line."
Cuttoli had an eye for talent. The spectacular red and gold evening jacket, shown above, is believed to have utilized embroidery designs by Natalia Goncharova. But in a real leap of creative brilliance, Cuttoli courted first rank artists to design the more prosaic rugs which we see in the photo, below. This ensemble replicates almost exactly how these exquisite carpets were displayed almost a century ago.
The rug on the floor, entitled Le Chleuh, was designed by the Polish-born artist Louis Marcoussis. Pictured on the walls, from left, are Jean Lurçat's The Two Harlequins and Flames and Fernand Leger's Paris.
Where these signature rugs were placed, floor or wall, was a matter of taste, not mark of quality. A Shopping Guide to Paris's authors, Therese and Louise Bonney, noted astutely "the rugs are Cuttoli's most important contribution ... If you live in a a New York apartment, you can very well use them as wall hangings for which they are admirably suited, as the artists, all painters, have given them the painting quality."
"Wall hangings" of "painting quality" are, of course, called tapestries. Cuttoli's decision to include tapestry art as part of the inventory of Galerie Myrbor was to have momentous effects
The quality woven versions of Modernist paintings Cuttoli commissioned challenged established conventions of art. Sonia Delauney, one of the premier artists of the 1920's, "viewed her painting and textile work as a continuum," as Cindy Kang comments in the exhibition catalog. Rather than being mere reproductions, the "rugs" on sale at Myrbor extended the range of Modernist art to a wider, global audience.
Unfortunately, A Shopping Guide to Paris had hardly been printed when the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 occurred. American tourists no longer flocked to Paris to buy high fashion garments. Hard times confronted haute couture.
Cuttoli made the difficult choice to concentrate on the production of tapestry versions of iconic Modernist works. Many of the greatest masters of Modernist art, Fernand Leger, Georges Rouault and Andre Derain, supplied her with striking examples of their oeuvres.
Silk, wool and cotton thread would then replace oil paint and canvas in woven versions of these masterpieces. The tapestries were made at the factory of Aubusson, located not far from her birthplace of Tulle. With many garment and fabric workers in France being laid-off due to the Depression, Cuttoli chose to keep production close to home. Her daring initiative was intended to promote economic growth as well as artistic expression.
The results of this decision can be appreciated in comparisons of an original painting by Joan Miró, commissioned by Cuttoli in 1933, with the tapestry version made in Aubusson a year later.
Rhythmic Figures was one of four paintings made as cartoons for Cuttoli tapestries. It is a masterpiece of Miro's signature style of biomorphic forms set against swathes of color. Close study of Rhythmic Figures by the art scholar K.L.H. Wells reveals that Miro's technique aimed - and brilliantly succeeded - in creating a work ready for translation into tapestry format.
The background of colored patches and the foreground of biomorphic forms share a jigsaw puzzle-like quality, with flat shapes nestled against one another on a single plane. In this way, the compositions echo tapestry's weave, in which the threads interlock to create a single, flat surface.
The success of Cuttolli's Modernist tapestries greatly impressed Dr. Albert Barnes. The tapestry version of Miro's Rhythmic Figures entered the collection of the Barnes Foundation. Dr. Barnes also purchased the tapestry version of Pablo Picasso's Secrets (1934) which was displayed next to Henri Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre, one of the treasures of Barnes' collection.
Cuttoli maintained her composure during this disgraceful incident. Instead of engaging in a bitter exchange with Lurçat, Cuttoli set to work finalizing the arrangements for a major exhibition of her tapestries in the United States. Shortly after the exhibit opened in San Francisco, the outbreak of World War II and the German blitzkrieg devastated France.
The law of "unintended effect" now worked to Cuttoli's advantage - at least temporarily. Cuttoli's tapestry collection was isolated in the U.S. but this provided her with the opportunity to mount an extended touring exhibition. Thanks to Dr. Barnes, who "pulled strings" to get her a travel visa, Cuttoli was able to escape from France and reach safety in the U.S.
Throughout the war years, Cuttoli's tapestries toured twenty cities in the U.S., from the major east coast urban centers to Honolulu in Hawaii. The effect of the exhibition was a spectacular affirmation of French art and culture during one of the darkest hours of its history.
Cuttoli was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government following the defeat of Nazi Germany. But the debate resumed after the end of World War II whether tapestries should be viewed as part of the "continuum" of the visual arts or as unique creative works in their own right. Art scholars during the post-war years increasingly endorsed the latter view.
As this shift in opinion took place, Marie Cuttoli's role as a proponent of modern art was seriously diminished. Lavish accolades were heaped upon Jean Lurçat for having led the revival of tapestry as an art form.
In her book, Great Tapestries, the Web of History from the 12th to the 20th Centuries, Edita Lausanne wrote with empathy of Cuttoli's initiative but concluded:
The result was both admirable and disappointing; admirable for the precision and fidelity of even the subtlest harmonies, disappointing because from a distance it was impossible to distinguish the painting from the woven replica, which amounted to the very negation of tapestry. The operation had led to a dead end ... but at least it was seen that another path must be sought.
This verdict, however, is open to question. Cuttoli's tapestries were never exact woven copies of the originals. Moreover, Cuttoli commissioned these tapestries decades before high quality color reproductions of art works were generally available. Images of art works in books and magazines during the 1930's and 1940's were overwhelmingly black and white "half-tones."
Another thing to remember about Cuttoli's era is that international art exhibitions were a rare phenomenon. Occasionally, major art works were sent abroad to appear in prestigious events like the 1939 New York World's Fair. The rotation of traveling art exhibitions, which we have grown accustomed to in recent times, did not exist.
Cuttoli's wonderful tapestries may have been expensive but the verdict that her "operation had led to a dead end" is unfair and untrue. Cuttoli's tapestry replications of great works of Modernist art was part of a grand tradition - and a novel way of introducing newly created masterpieces to a wide audience.
One of the many merits of Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray at the Barnes is that we are enabled to grasp the importance of Cuttoli's efforts to widen the focus of art. Instead of a few fortunate visitors to Paris, Cuttoli brought the Parisian art world to art lovers in the United States during years of conflict and turmoil.
Marie Cutttoli took tapestry and expanded its role beyond the merely decorative or the "dead end" of replication. Her World War II-era exhibitions outflanked the German occupation of France and asserted humanistic values in response to the Nazi bid to overturn civilization.
How ironic it is, in this age of the Covid-19 quarantine, that Marie Cutttoli also provided a template for today's "virtual" programming.
Confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic, art curators are using Zoom to present their programs to audiences, who would be otherwise excluded. Faced with global war, Marie Cuttoli achieved comparable results with her touring exhibitions of Modernist tapestries.
As the French proverb states so well: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ran at the Barnes Foundation, showing Le Corbusier's Marie Cuttoli (1936), tapestry version on the left and the painted cartoon (right), oil on cardboard. Both works are from the Foundation Le Corbusier, Paris.
Man Ray (American,1890-1976) Marie Cuttoli, ca. 1938. Gelatin silver negative on nitrate film: 3 3/8 x 2 3/8 inches. Collection of Musee National d'art Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of Marie Cuttoli exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, showing evening jackets sold at Galerie Myrbor.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of Marie Cuttoli exhibit showing rugs designed by Louis Marcoussis, Jean Lurcat & Fernand Leger.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Tapestry version of Andre Derain's The Stag Hunt, 1938. Woven in Aubusson. Tapestry: wool and silk, 85 3/8 inches x 72 7/8 inches. Musee d'art Modern, Troyes, France.
Joan Miró, Rhythmic Figures, 1934. Oil on canvas: 76 x 67 5/8 inches. Kunstsammlung, Nordrhein,Westfalen, Dusseldorf.
Tapestry version of Joan Miró's Rhythmic Figures, 1934. Woven in Aubusson, France. Tapestry: cotton and wool with silk, 77 x 69 inches. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Pablo Picasso's Secrets (Confidences) or Inspiration. Woven by Atelier Delarbre, Aubusson, France, 1934. Tapestry: Cotton and wool with silk, 75 x 67 inches (190.5 x 170.2 cm.) The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Marie Cuttoli exhibit showing Georges Rouault's The Wounded Clown (left) and the tapestry version (right).
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Marie Cuttoli exhibition at the Barnes Foundation.