Paper-cutting is a popular art form in India, Persia, Spain, Mexico, Africa, and China, among other places. In fact the silhouette as an art form has been about since 399AD.
The Swiss and Germans call it “Scherenschnitte;” the French call it “Decoupeur;” to the Japanese it is “Mon-kiri;” and the Polish paper-cuts are called “Wycinanki.” All these are different names for paper-cutting!
As an age-old artistic medium, paper remains a key player in contemporary art. From folded forms to colossal installations, paper art continues to inspire artists. One practice that has become particularly popular is paper cutting, a genre defined by its inventive and intricate cuts.
The art of Scherenschnitte, which means “scissor cuts” in German, was founded in Germany and Switzerland in the 16th century. The extremely delicate paper cut outs are usually pasted onto a white or colourful background. The artwork often has rotational symmetry within the design. It combines a number of intricately patterned scissor and knife cuts on various forms of paper. They can be overlaid to create anything from abstract designs and political messages.
It typically begins with a photo or drawing. The artist will cut out features, like the branches of a tree which is transferred to various papers and superimposed to create a unique design.
It began in China with the invention of paper, around 100 A.D by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Chinese paper-cuttings (called Jianzhi) were very popular during the Sung Dynasty (10th-13th centuries). Cuttings were placed in windows and on doors as protective images from evil.
Paper-cutting came from China to Austria by way of Indonesia, Persia, and the Balkan Peninsula. By the 14th century, it had spread to the rest of the world. After being ‘exported’ to Europe, where it became a very popular tradition, particularly in European traditions. These early types of cuttings were usually ‘palm-sized’ and consisted of tiny landscapes. Many of these antique cuttings have been found inside old pocket watches and usually collected by the wealthy.
Polish paper-cutting has its own unique style, called Wycinanki (vee-cee-non-key). Their particular version of paper-cutting traditions was first practiced by shepherds in Poland who cut out images from tree bark and in later years transitioned it to paper. This form dates from the early to mid-19th century and was used for home decorations and window coverings. Each region in Poland established its own signature style of cutting and was made with many layers of very colourful papers. Today they still have festivals in various parts of Poland honouring paper-cutting.
Mexican paper-cutting is called Papel-Picado or ‘perforated paper’ and originated in ancient Mexico. Aztecs used mulberry and fig tree barks to make a rough form of paper, called ‘Amatl.’ In Mexico, during the mid-1800’s, people were forced to buy from ‘hacienda stores’ and it was here they discovered paper from China. In more recent years, tissue paper had become the paper of choice for Papel-Picado. Artisans layer 40 to 50 sheets of various colours of tissue paper at a time and punch out their designs using fierritos, or chisels. When completed, they are hung on string to make long banners used for weddings, religious festivals, and other special events. Featured designs include birds, flowers, and animals, skeleton designs are used to honour the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations.
The art has recently enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with a growing number of artists and collectors discovering its unique characteristics and visual appeal. Antique and vintage cuttings have always been quite collectible but are becoming more difficult to find.
Modern Scherenschnitte is still a growing art form, influenced by innovative techniques and inspiration, including cutting instruments (sheep shears, scalpels, surgical scissors, etc.), papers (hand-made, naturally dyed, rice paper, etc.) and design (original sketches, free-form, traditional)