The Visionary Collector Who Transformed Works by Picasso and Matisse into Tapestries
Raoul Dufy (woven by Atelier Delarbre, Aubusson), Paris, 1934. Wool and silk. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Man Ray, Marie Cuttoli, 1938. Gelatin silver negative on nitrate film. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2019. Courtesy of Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Painter Georges Rouault said yes to Marie Cuttoli’s strange request, but he had conditions and he put them in writing. The Parisian entrepreneur had asked the artist for a modernist design to transform into a tapestry, a historic art form that was dying in France. Rouault was intrigued, but suspicious. The contract he drew up stated—among other things—that he could destroy the finished product if he wasn’t pleased. Rouault and Cuttoli signed the agreement in July 1931, and the expressionistic artist set to work.
The tapestry process was foreign to Rouault. He expected the tapestries to look exactly like his drawings, which he did not realize would be damaged in the process. Rouault branded Cuttoli a “difficult woman,” claiming she “didn’t seem to know what she was doing.” In the end, though, it appears she did—Rouault created over a dozen tapestry cartoons for Cuttoli and was one of the first in a line of early 20th-century artists designing tapestries for her, infusing this traditional art form with new imagery.
Le Corbusier, Marie Cuttoli, 1936. Oil on cardboard. © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019. Courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Le Corbusier, Marie Cuttoli, 1936. Wool and silk. © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019. Courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
“This was totally risky, and a totally new thing that hadn’t been done before by these artists, by anyone,” said Cindy Kang, the Barnes Foundation curator behind the first major exhibition devoted to the entrepreneur, “Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray” (on view through May 10th). The exhibition—which features tapestries, rugs, and other objects Cuttoli commissioned— showcases work by Natalia Goncharova, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Derain, among others who joined her in weaving together textile traditions and avant-garde art.
“Tapestry was—at least in French art history—such a prestigious medium,” Kang added. “It was in decline, but it still had this historic tradition.” Whether or not she was difficult, as Rouault claimed, Cuttoli’s idea to create modernist tapestries was completely innovative—and a success. The art collector, gallerist, and self-made businesswoman spent years trying different ways for painters to work in fabric, from women’s fashion to rugs and, finally, tapestry.
It helped that Cuttoli was friends with many of the leading artists of her time. Years before she asked Picasso to design a tapestry, his work hung in either her French home or her Algerian home (she divided her time between the two, as the former wife of an Algerian-French civil servant). Later, when she opened a gallery in Paris, she befriended more painters and sculptors. “The fact that she was a collector and a gallerist was instrumental to her being able to do this project at all,” Kang said. “That’s how she established relationships; that’s how she established trust.”
Joan Miró, Rhythmic Figures (Personnages rythmiques), 1934. Oil on canvas. © Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2019. Courtesy of Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Joan Miró, Rhythmic Figures (Personnages rythmiques) , or Woman and Birds , 1934. Cotton and wool with silk. © Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2019. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Cuttoli’s first forays into fabric were in the early 1920s, when she started a fashion line called Myrbor and commissioned designs from artists such as Goncharova and Sarah Lipska. Soon after, Cuttoli added rugs to her inventory, enlisting artists she had personally collected to design small carpets that would be just as impressive on walls as on floors.
These rugs were so arty that when Cuttoli rebranded herself as Galerie Myrbor in 1926 and began hosting exhibitions (eventually giving a young Alexander Calder his first show of mobiles, for example), she installed them alongside the artworks. “There are only five rugs made from a single design, so that collectors buy a Léger rug as they would a Léger picture,” American writer Therese Bonney advised readers in her 1929 shopping guide to Paris. “The artists, all painters, have given them the painting quality.” Louis Marcoussis designed a geometric rug with asymmetric black shapes, and Jean Lurçat conceived a flattened garden surrounded by golden yellow.
Within a few years, Cuttoli became focused on rugs and contemporary art exhibitions. “She starts with the rugs, and then she’s hanging the rugs on the wall like they’re mural paintings, or like they’re tapestries,” Kang said. “You go from the floor to the wall, and the next thing is woven murals.”
Fernand Léger, Composition with Three Figures— Fragment, 1932. Oil on canvas. Photograph © 2019 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
May Ray, Enlargement of Tapestry Project (Projet pour une tapisserie), 1938. Two-panel copy photograph of a rayograph. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2019. Courtesy of Kicken Berlin and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
In the 1930s, Cuttoli went bigger, to tapestries, and started commissioning designs from artists like Rouault, followed by Man Ray, Henri Matisse, and others. Such large-scale woven hangings were a luxe art form between the Middle Ages through the Baroque era, only affordable to the super-wealthy due to how labor-intensive they were, plus the high level of necessary skill. The usual patrons for these monumental artworks (seen mostly in castles and cathedrals) were kings, nobility, and members of the clergy.
Cuttoli wasn’t the usual suspect for commissioning tapestry, but her 20th-century sensibilities helped revamp the fusty medium. By the time Cuttoli’s tapestries were shown at New York’s Bignou Gallery in 1936, 7 artists had devised a total of 17 works. Braque designed a Cubist still life of a pipe, with a wood grain frame imitated first by him in paint and later in textile by skilled weavers at the Aubusson workshop; Raoul Dufy produced a decorative view of Paris, with his loose brushwork skillfully translated into wool and silk. These tapestries appealed to major modern art collectors—like Dr. Albert Barnes, Helena Rubinstein, and Nelson Rockefeller—who preferred collages, biomorphic shapes, and rayographs rendered in textile to mythology or religious narrative.
Today, these “nomadic murals” (as Le Corbusier called them) cover the big walls of secular places—like the chambers of the municipal government in Antibes, museums across France, or the boardrooms of the Miró Foundation. Rouault was right to be wary; they’re not exact reproductions of the original paintings, collages, and photographs. But they allowed artists to play with new textures at a regally grand scale, to bring their designs to new spaces, and to bring a storied art form into a new century.