One of the things the Barnes does exceptionally well with its exhibitions, aside from showing us exceptional art, is educate us about important but often overlooked aspects of art history. That brings us to the latest exhibit there: Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray.
Cuttoli (1879-1973) was a native of France who split her time between Aubusson, France and Algeria, then a French colony in North Africa. She is best remembered today for how she helped revive and redefine the largely moribund French tapestry industry in the post-WWI era by enlisting the talents of major artists of the time like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Georges Rouault, and Man Ray to provide designs and art to be adapted to the fabric of tapestry.
Cuttoli did not start out as an artistic entrepreneur. She started out as a designer of couture fashion, then entered the realm of interior design. Her success enabled her to be both a collector of and friend to many of the most renowned artists of the time. So, when she turned her eye towards redefining tapestry as an art form, she was well-positioned.
She was able to capitalize on France’s unique position as home to one of the world’s most vibrant art communities. She persuaded artists of the caliber of Picasso to create designs for the tapestry workshops of Aubusson. This moved what people at the time considered a passé decorative form into the modern era. Cuttoli’s efforts also brought, for the first time, samples of modern-art masterpieces into domestic interiors and corporate offices in major cities throughout the US and Europe.
Cuttoli’s efforts gave artistic legitimacy to the decorative arts, a field previously looked down upon by artists and cognoscenti as a poor stepchild to serious art.
Dazzling fabric artists
Knowledgeably assembled by Barnes Foundation associate curator Cindy Kang, the exhibit features several large-scale tapestries, as well as several of the original works that served as templates (known in industry parlance as “cartoons”). The exhibit also includes drawings, photographs, clothing (early designs by Cuttoli), and a variety of archival materials dating from the 1920s through the 1950s. One of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibit, of course, is when an original work by Miró or Rouault is paired with the resulting tapestry, where you can immediately see how extraordinary those fabric artists in Aubusson were.
For the additionally curious, there is a small video set-up showing scenes of the actual mechanics of the weaving process. Many of the techniques came from North African weavers that Cuttoli encountered in Algeria and promoted in France. Since one of the tapestries are displayed to be viewed from both front and back, the video gives visitors even more appreciation for the artistic proficiency that went into the making of this dazzling fabric art.
Bright lights of modern art
Not being famous as an artist herself, Marie Cuttoli is largely unknown today. Still, her efforts to redefine and legitimize fabric art left a lasting impression both on the tapestry industry and the art field as a whole. More importantly, her efforts brought some of the brightest lights of modern art to an admiring public that otherwise would never have had a clue who Georges Braque or Man Ray was.
Once again, the Barnes has done an extraordinary job of enhancing our appreciation of the value of art.
Joan Miró’s Rhythmic Figures (Personnages rythmiques), or Woman and Birds. Woven in Aubusson, 1934. Cotton and wool with silk. 77 × 69 in. (195.6 × 175.3 cm). The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.© Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2020.
What, When, Where
Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray. Curated by Cindy Kang. Through May 10, 2020 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.
The Barnes is accessible to standard-size wheelchairs. Additional accommodations like ASL interpretation, assistive listening devices, and closed captioning can be made available. Visit online for more info.