Papercutting’s past, present and future
As is probably clear, I love papercutting. I first began making papercuts in 2009 when I cut a design out of newsprint to use as a stencil for screen printing and then found I liked it too much to use it! I love the ephemeral quality of papercuts, how fragile they are and how they combine simplicity and complexity at the same time. I also love that the materials are relatively cheap, so there is lots of potential for experimenting! My love of papercutting has now spread to include making shadow puppets, paper sculpture and pop-ups, but today I thought I’d share some facts I’ve learnt along the way about the art of papercutting’s past, present and future.
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 and shadow puppets. 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).
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. 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 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 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.
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. However in recent years papercutting has become identified as a skilled artform by the art world. In 2013 the Manchester Art Gallery held its ‘The First Cut’ exhibition which featured 31 international artists who cut, sculpt and manipulate paper. This fantastic exhibition allowed people to see images, sculptures and installations that demonstrated the possibilities of, as they described it, ‘this humble material’.