At a recent press event, this Clerk reporter was treated to a sneak peek at the newest Barnes Foundation exhibition, “Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray.” Now open to the public, it is the first major event ever to highlight the impressive life and oeuvre of Cuttoli, an early-twentieth-century French entrepreneur commonly credited with reviving the ailing French tapestry industry and popularizing style movements such as Cubism and modernism. By the time of Cuttoli’s death in 1973 at the ripe old age of 94, she had been awarded France’s Légion d’honneur, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a citizen of the nation, for her contributions to art. In short, she was a force to be reckoned with—which is part of the reason why Barnes Foundation Associate Curator Cindy Kang, a slender woman with a pert black bob, thinks it’s such a pity she’s been all but forgotten by the public.
She “[falls] through the cracks between categories,” Kang, who first encountered Cuttoli’s work in graduate school and went on to write her dissertation on the intersection of fine and decorative arts, says of the reasons for the innovative businesswoman’s relative obscurity. “I think people tend to specialize in either painting or the decorative arts, and this training you get as an art historian, as a curator, doesn’t allow you to see certain connections and figures that pass between genres. So, it’s really hard to do a project like this if you aren’t well-versed in both areas, and very few people are—that’s just not how you’re encouraged to specialize.”
Plus, Kang adds, textiles, like the tapestries Cuttoli’s workshop was known for, “are very fragile, very light-sensitive. You can’t display them a lot, you can’t display them for long periods of time, so they are, as a result, less well-known and less appreciated and less understood.”
Cuttoli was, in short, Kang says, one of very few public figures at the time who “treated textiles as if they were works of art in of themselves.”
Born into a middle-class family in the small town of Tulles on November 8, 1879, Marie Bordes went on to work in the fashion and interior design industries for a time before marrying Paul Cuttoli, a wealthy French-Algerian senator some fifteen years her senior. Newly equipped with the financial means to strike out on her own, she started a joint fashion house and clothing boutique whose trademark, “Myrbor,” was a portmanteau of the first three letters of her Arabic name, “Myriam,” and the first three letters of her maiden name. Not content with simply raking in cash, however, she soon began displaying oil paintings alongside Myrbor products in a bid to elevate her company from a common retailer to a creative force. The strategy worked like a charm, and by 1931, she had successfully commissioned the likes of Jean Lurçat, Georges Roualt, and Pablo Picasso to develop both derivative and original designs for tapestries. To the end of her life, she counted Picasso, who coincidentally died the same year she did, among her closest friends.
“I think that’s what her goal was, to make modern art more mainstream,” says Kang. “And textiles are a way of integrating art into your daily life, which is why she started with the most intimate objects, like clothing or rugs, objects that you live with. This was a way of making modernism more friendly, so I think that is her impact and her importance.”
Myrbor products, including rugs, jackets, dresses, and tapestries, make up the bulk of the pieces that comprise the exhibit. In many cases, the latter are hung with the paintings that inspired them, a configuration that enables the viewer to appreciate the skill and dexterity it must have taken Cuttoli’s weavers, many of them native Algerian women, to reproduce brushstrokes in thread. And that skill and dexterity are considerable: Roualt’s The Little Family (La petite famille) and The Wounded Clown (Le clown blessé) are almost indistinguishable from their wool-and-silk counterparts, as another journalist present for the preview noted in a tone of awe. In a display case located elsewhere in the five-room gallery, letters, telegrams, and transcripts of radio addresses reveal tidbits of Cuttoli’s personal life, including her decades-long friendship with Barnes Foundation founder Albert Barnes.
“Albert Barnes was a huge supporter and patron of hers,” says Kang. “He really admired her work, and she really admired his—she visited him in Merion, she visited him in Chester County, and in terms of personal life, as I said, Barnes was an incredibly important figure for her because in 1940, when Germany invaded Paris, Marie Cuttoli was looking to flee to the U.S., like many other artists and intellectuals at that time. But in order to do so, you needed to have a letter invitation, you needed to have a purpose here in this country. And it was Dr. Barnes who wrote that letter for her and allowed her to get a visa and come to New York.”
In an ironic twist of fate, however, Cuttoli’s tapestries ended up seeing more of this country than Cuttoli herself ever did. Following their world premiere in Manhattan in the spring of 1936, a small selection embarked on a series of tours of the continental United States, hitting major cities like Chicago and San Francisco and attracting buyers as high-profile as Helena Rubenstein, the first self-made female millionaire, and Nelson Rockefeller, heir to the Rockefeller fortune, along the way. Perhaps it’s not surprising in that case that Kang had a terrible time consolidating the Barnes exhibition’s 14 Myrbor tapestries and the paintings they were modeled on in one place.
“It is a major project to bring all of these works together,” Kang says with an emphasis that hints at late nights and large amounts of coffee. “They also are huge. And when you think about logistics of shipping and transporting these works into the spaces, I mean, it’s a huge project. It’s an amazing institutional investment in this research and in this story.”
But the two years she reports she sank into planning, researching, organizing, and curating this exhibit gave Kang plenty of time to pick a favorite.
“Oh, it has to be our Miró!” she says without hesitation when asked if she has one. “The Rhythmic Figures that I was able to hang double-sided and reunite with the painting, which is in the K20 [exhibition venue] in Düsseldorf. That was a really key loan and an amazing loan to get.”
A quintessential example of Spanish painter, sculptor, and ceramicist Joan Miró’s style, Rhythmic Figures (Personnages rythmiques) and its corresponding tapestry depict a white-skirted figure with a toucan-like beak, a semi-transparent headdress, and a single, slender limb that tapers to a lobster claw against a background that transitions from burnt sienna to green. Completed in 1934, it is beautiful in that strange, slightly alien way so typical of surrealist artwork, simultaneously drawing the viewer in and pushing them away.
But, of course, that’s what the exhibit is all about.
“The intimate relationship of the viewer to these objects,” Kang muses. “Yeah, I think that is absolutely part of this project.”