“Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray,” a new special exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, documents a short-lived and now largely forgotten style sensation: tapestries designed by Paris-based modernist artists and designers during the Great Depression.
More particularly, it is the story of a woman entrepreneur who built a series of businesses that combined the latest looks in both fine art and fashion with the ancient craft — and French national industry — of tapestry weaving.
Marie Cuttoli began by making high-fashion garments, then moved to making rugs designed by modern artists and crafted by Algerian artisans. Ultimately, she commissioned key modernist figures to design tapestries, produced mostly in Aubusson, long one of the centers of tapestry making in Europe.
Tapestry making is like the movies: big, expensive, collaborative, bound to technology, and often a bit impersonal. While painters are free to make their own marks on their canvases, tapestries are created painstakingly and systematically on the grid of a loom. Europeans tend to look at tapestries as art, while Americans are more likely to see them as decor, if at all.
This show, organized by Barnes associate curator Cindy Kang, brings together a dozen tapestries Cuttoli commissioned and sold, along with the cartoons or paintings on which they were based. Its fascination lies in the ways the master weavers realized the artists’ expressions in a different medium.
In his cartoon for the tapestry Marie Cuttoli (1936), the Swiss architect-artist Le Corbusier paints a nude woman whose head appears to be a caricature of Cuttoli, with a boat and a rope, in a flat, abstract composition. But when translated into wool and silk, the figure feels rounder and more sensual, while the look in Cuttoli’s eye is wilder.
Sometimes the differences between cartoon and tapestry are subtle. In photographs, Andre Derain’s oil The Stag Hunt (1938) seems indistinguishable from the tapestry based on it. Seen in person, though, the softer texture of the tapestry somehow makes the figures seem more alive.
Georges Braque anticipated the matte finish of a tapestry by mixing sand into the oil paint in which he executed his cartoons. Raoul Dufy seems to have paid little attention to the process, in which finished tapestries are not duplicates but a mirror image of the cartoon. As a result, the ebullient bird’s-eye Panorama of Paris (1934) shows the city backward, with the Left Bank where the right should be.
The buyer of the Dufy was Cuttoli’s important American client, Albert Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation, who later donated it to the people of France. The show features a recording of a national radio broadcast by Barnes extolling Cuttoli and the tapestries she brought into being. “I do but simple justice in terming it an epoch in art history,” Barnes declared. He added he had bought some for the foundation’s collection, which, he said, would be incomplete without them.
He placed two — Secrets (1934) by Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault’s The Little Family (1933) — on the stairway of the foundation’s building in Merion, flanking Henri Matisse’s great fauvist canvas, The Joy of Life (1906). The other, Rhythmic Figures (1934) by Joan Miró, has a place of honor on the second-floor balcony, where it is juxtaposed with Matisse’s mural, The Dance (1934).
For this show, all three have been moved from the permanent galleries, and Rhythmic Figures is displayed so that its back is visible. That lets us see the loose ends that are hallmarks of the Aubusson masters’ work.
This is the first show in many years to focus on Cuttoli’s production. However, a show of her tapestries, which was stranded in the United States by the outbreak of World War II and the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, crisscrossed the country for six years, alighting at 21 art museums from coast to coast.
This wartime showing was viewed, at the time, as a gesture of solidarity with occupied France. Its nationwide exposure helped make Cuttoli, who was also exiled at the time, more renowned in the United States than in her homeland. She was a pioneer of introducing modern art to tapestries, but not the only one. And as the exhibition catalog notes, in France, a country that has taken tapestries seriously for many centuries, there were those who argued that she was doing it wrong.
The problem critics found with these tapestries grows directly from one of the things that makes them remarkable: the immense technical and artistic ability of the Aubusson weavers. It seems like they could take almost anything and turn them into tapestry.
One of the more remarkable pairings in the exhibition is Jean Lurcat’s cartoon for the border of his wonderfully weird tapestry The Seasons and the Arts: Woman, or Pomona (1936). Lurcat chose not to paint or draw this border. He cut pieces out of magazines, many in butterfly shapes, and made them into a collage. One of the collage elements showed pieces of cloth, which meant that the weavers were reproducing in fabric the appearance of a picture of cloth on paper.
Two years earlier, Picasso had taken this idea even further. The cartoon for Secrets is not on display, but it was obviously a collage, because that is what the finished tapestry looks like. Man Ray’s Shadows (1938) was based on a camera-less photographic exposure; time has made the tapestry look sepia. The tapestry version of Rouault’s The Wounded Clown (1935) reproduces the artist’s bold brushstrokes in its weave.
Clearly, such bravura imitation was at odds with the modernist principle of expressing technology and materials honestly. Barnes and others loved Cuttoli’s tapestries because they were so much like paintings. But even Lurcat, one of her earliest collaborators, came to believe that tapestry should not be imitative of other media, but should rather express its unique qualities. It would have been interesting to see some other tapestries of the time and compare them with Cuttoli’s.
I am probably on the modernist side of this divide, but it is noteworthy that even Le Corbusier, advocate of purist modernism, collaborated so fully with Cuttoli’s operation. And since tapestries are such a small part of contemporary visual culture, perhaps the argument is not worth having.
I confess that when visiting museums, I tend to skip the tapestries in order to save my energy for things that interest me more. This show calls attention to some remarkable, if often overlooked objects, along with the process that brought them into being. Even if you don’t love Rouault, Dufy, and Derain, or tapestries in general, they are worth a close look.
Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray
Feb. 23-May 10 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Mon. (members admitted at 10, closed Tue.)
Admission: Adults, $25; seniors, $23; college students with ID and youth ages 13-18, $5 (children under 13 free).