A brief history of papercutting

As I discovered papercutting, I began to read into it’s history and realised that it is a long established art form that has been practiced in many cultures. In this post I’ve summarised some interesting facts I’ve come across about the history of papercutting, and hopefully sharing this contribute to giving paper artists from the past and future the respect they deserve within the canon of art.

Papercutting is a term that is applied to a variety of different ways of creating an image by cutting into paper. Often we think of 2D illustrative images, but papercutting is also used in paper sculpture, collage, installation, stencil making, shadow puppets and other arts. I think its wonderful how such a simple material can be used in so many ways.

Papercutting is thought to have begun in 4th century China with the invention of paper. The oldest surviving paper cut is thought to be a symmetrical circle pattern cut from paper in China in the 6th century (read more about this and see the image here). In 2009 Chinese papercut art was added in 2009 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

It many different cultures papercutting and papercraft are used in symbolic ceremony or religious events. For example in parts of China papercuts are put up around the home to mark the Spring Festival and bring good luck, as well as for other festivals and celebrations. In Japanese culture it is known as Kirigami, the art of cut paper. Papel Picado is the Mexican folk art of papercutting, and literally translates as ‘punched’ paper. Tissue paper is cut with scissors or a chisel to create ephemeral banners that are hung at all major holidays, and well as celebrations such as weddings and funerals. In Indian art papercutting is called Sanjhi, and the paper is used as a stencil on the floor in which colours are placed to create Rangoli. In Jewish culture papercutting is a traditional folk art, with papercuts often created as symbolic artworks for religious ceremony, as well as using paper artwork to decorate windows. Papercutting also has a long history in Swedish, Swiss, Filipino and Eastern European culture where it is known as Wycinanki.

Papercutting has traveled with people to represent their daily lives and traditions. In Germany and Switzerland Scherenschnitte, which translates to English as ‘scissors cutting’, was a very popular folk art in the 16th century. These designs would sometimes involve folding the paper to create symmetrical patterns, but could also be cut directly into a single sheet of paper to create a pictorial image. Scherenschnitte traveled to America with German immigrants in the 18th century, and is particularly strong as an art form in Pennsylvania.

A Scherenschnitte inspired papercut scene

Papercutting has traditionally been seen as a ‘feminine craft’ but this is changing. For many centuries papercutting was considered a hobby craft for women to enjoy, and because of this the work of many brilliant female artists went without recognition, or their story was lost in history.

Joanna Koerton was born in 1650 in Amsterdam, where she lived until 1715. Creating papercut portraits of the rich and powerful, she experienced great success as an artist, and at the time one of her works sold for three times the amount of a Rembrant painting. Her technique of cutting extremely intricate detail into the paper created work that resembled engravings or an ink drawing, demonstrating the potential that papercutting had to hold it own against the more established ‘high’ art forms like painting.

Intricate papercut of a hunting scene by Dutch artist Joanna Koesten. c 1700. Original in Willet-Holthuysen Museum, Amsterdam.

This tension between the ‘crafts’ that women were encouraged to participate in and the ‘high’ arts of painting, sculpture and artchitecture is demonstrated by the stort of the opening of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. Of the 34 founding members, only two were women. Originally the first Royal Academy exhibition of contemporary art in 1769 was an open call for all art froms, but within a year this was changed. On the 9th of April 1770 it was decreed that ‘No needlework, artifical flowers, cut paper, shell work or any such baubles shall be admitted into the exhibition.’ This was an instituational rejection of applied art and the art forms that were predominately practiced by women at the time, thereby excluding many women form being recognised as artists in their own right. You can learn more about this on the BBC Documentary The Story Of Women and Art.

Today of course papercutting is hugely popular and practised by people of all genders around the world. It’s really exciting to see it getting recognition as an art, and to see more people taking it up! I love teaching papercutting because it is so accessible, affordable and can offer people a form of mindfulness.

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