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December 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1413

Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray

Reviewed by Sarah Parrish

By Cindy Kang. 160 pp. incl. 100 col.ills. (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020), £35. ISBN 978–0–300–25131–9.

The title of the exhibition Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (closed 23rd August), may seem initially to announce its subject in fairly straightforward terms. Pioneering French textile designer and entrepreneur Marie Cuttoli (1879–1973) is the focus of the presentation and publication, whereas the ‘modern thread’ refers to her medium of tapestry. Yet Cuttoli is also the thread herself, weaving together disparate strands, sites and practitioners of Modernism. In a bold reversal of her reception during her own lifetime, Cuttoli is the exhibition’s headliner while her renowned contemporaries are subordinated after the colon. At the same time, she remains locked within the alliterative bookends of her male peers as the ‘modern thread’ between the two. The unconventional italicisation of the prepositions from and to underscores her in-betweenness. In its phrasing, grammar and even its font style, the exhibition title subtly registers the gendered complexities of the artist’s reception that are elaborated and challenged in the body of the catalogue.

As the first contemporary monograph on the artist, the well-researched publication that accompanies the exhibition provides essential information about Cuttoli’s biography and projects. In the introductory essay, ‘Marie Cuttoli’s Modernism’, the Barnes Associate Curator Cindy Kang offers an overview of her life. Born in the French town of Tulle, Cuttoli moved after marriage to Constantine, Algeria, the culture of which would inspire the designs produced by her couture house, Myrbor, which opened in 1922 in Paris. Cuttoli engaged Algerian labour to produce textiles initially for fashion garments for French clientele. In response to changing market needs, she shifted her focus from clothing to rugs and, ultimately, to tapestries. From the 1930s through to the early 1960s, Cuttoli engaged a number of established modern artists to design tapestries for her to produce in Aubusson or Beauvais, traditional centres of French tapestry making. Her collaborators included Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger (cat. fig.73; Fig.18), Jean Lurçat, Man Ray, Joan Miró (fig.85; Fig.19), Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault. She also arranged for these tapestries to be exhibited in Europe and the United States and contributed to diffusing not only Léger’s figurative, classicising Cubism but also a wide spectrum of Modernist ideals transnationally.

Kang transcends the purely biographical approach that has long plagued monographs on craftspeople and designers to situate Cuttoli’s production within the critical discourses surrounding gender, colonialism and the decorative. Kang tells a compelling story of Cuttoli as a ‘self-made woman’ who has been largely erased from history on the basis of her gender. As with the exhibition’s title, however, the curator faces the difficult task of arguing for Cuttoli’s importance without measuring this value by her proximity to her famous male colleagues. This endeavour is complicated from the outset by the professional relationship with the collector that has occasioned the exhibition. Albert C. Barnes was anearly supporter and patron of Cuttoli and the exhibition showcases and contextualises his collection against other works of hers.

In addition to her analysis of gender discrimination, Kang offers the intersectional argument that Cuttoli’s marginalisation in the historical record is also the consequence of other ‘arthistorical discomforts’ surrounding her medium of tapestry. Kang writes, ‘Tapestry as a medium confuses the distinction between original and reproduction; in addition, interior decoration, which carries associations of bourgeois and corporate taste, usually lies outside the boundaries of fine art’ (p.9). The other essayists all elaborate on this proposition from various angles. ‘Myrbor: a photoessay’ tackles consumerism, using the pictorial format to give the reader the experience of visiting Cuttoli’s boutique. Glossy photographs of luxurious garments (fig.17; Fig.20) and well-designed interiors are captioned with quotes from contemporary reviewers that read like sales pitches.

Laura Pirkelbauer’s chapter, ‘The Algerian experience of Marie Cuttoli, 1920–1935’, explains the Algerian inspiration and labour used to create these and later designs, drawing connections to colonial policies and Orientalist tastes. Pinkelbauer’s assertion that ‘Cuttoli played with this Algerian and Orientalising, without presenting it as ‘exotic’ in the caricatural and stereotypical sense of the term’ (p.50) is a difficult one to argue based on the evidence available. Instead – and perhaps more interestingly – the facts and histories that Pirkelbauer recounts frame Cuttoli as an ambivalent product of her time, negotiating her own agency as an affluent white woman in a male-dominated, Western-controlled industry.

Virginia Gardner Troy has written elsewhere on the theme of cultural appropriation in textile history, but here her focus is ‘The Cuttoli tapestries in the United States: a paradox of verisimilitude’.(1) She chronicles the tapestries’ exhibitions across the country and their mixed reception due to misunderstandings and missed translations about the value – both financial and aesthetic – of tapestry as a fine-art medium relative to painting. The reception of tapestry was very different in Cuttoli’s native France, as Bruno Ythier explains in ‘Marie Cuttoli and the making of tapestry’. There, Cuttoli’s work belonged to a larger conversation about reviving the national industry and maintaining jobs at traditional tapestry centres such as Aubusson. Cuttoli’s complex production approach came into conflict with that of her competitor and former collaborator, Jean Lurçat, but Ythier defends her rationale in a detailed art-historical analysis of her technique and materials.

Concluding the volume, K.L.H. Wells’s essay, ‘Marie Cuttoli’s postwar legacy: pictorialism in the age of abstraction’, synthesises Cuttoli’s reception in the United States and abroad while arguing – as she has done convincingly in other publications – for the centrality of tapestry as a vehicle of Modernism.(2) Whether later commentators critiqued or commended Cuttoli’s early figurative approach, the designer remained an important touchstone in post-war conversations about the medium. Her collaborative process also anticipates contemporary practices in which artists design works for others to execute. Indeed, Cuttoli is repeatedly introduced throughout the catalogue as an ‘entrepreneur’, an anachronistic but apt label that brings her into conversation with contemporary business trends. Emphasising her business acumen is a curatorial strategy to reposition Cuttoli according to criteria that viewers value now, but which were dismissed – or even denigrated – during her lifetime.

The cumulative thesis of the catalogue is that Marie Cuttoli ‘revitalised a French artisan tradition in crisis – tapestry – and propelled modern art into an ambitious experiment with decoration’ (p.9). Although it may seem contradictory for the authors to argue that their protagonist is overlooked and neglected on one hand and central and influential on the other, the significance of Cuttoli’s narrative is that she occupies both positions simultaneously. Her ambivalent, unresolved relationship with the fraught legacies of colonialism, gender and systems of production and consumption are what make her story so compelling to unpack. By raising these tensions, the exhibition catalogue leaves one wondering what other figures may be ‘rediscovered’ if previous art historical biases are recalibrated.

1. See V. Gardner Troy: Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain, London 2002.

2. See K.L.H. Wells: Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York, New Haven and London 2019; reviewed by Ann Coxon in this Magazine, 162 (2020), pp.909–10.