What are the origins of Paper Cuttings?

Paper cutouts are a form of art that had its origins in China many centuries ago. In the 1600’s, it spread to Europe where it became particularly popular throughout its Jewish communities. During the 19th century, developments in the dye industry resulted in brightly colored shiny paper becoming readily available. Polish peasants, who had a tradition of decorating their cottages with hand-painted or stenciled motifs, began using them to create colorful cutouts, or wycinanki. Pronounced: VEE-CHEE-NON-KEY.

Long horizontal designs would be frequently affixed to the exposed ceiling beams. Another favorite location was near the top of a wall, just below the ceiling. Large complex cut-outs representing scenes from daily life, weddings or holidays were placed on doors.

Like much folk art, the wycinanki were ephemeral in nature. They were made to be used, and when the walls were whitewashed anew each Spring, the old wycinanki were thrown out and new ones were made. At best, a favorite might get placed in the barn.

The complexity of designs is created by repeating symmetrical patterns and folk motifs inspired by nature. Major holidays such as Christmas or Easter is used as an excuse to take down old designs and replace them with new ones.

The most well known modern styles of Wycinanki comes from two districts. One is the Kurpie cut out. This is usually a symmetrical design, cut from a single piece of colored paper, folded once, with trees and birds as the most popular motifs. The second style comes from the area of Lowicz. It is distinguished by the many layers of brightly colored paper used in its composition, as in the background on several of the pages on this web site.

Types of wycinanki are:

My “Wycinanki” are a modified type of the Gwiazdy style with the paper being folded several times. When I add in the motif of the cutting, I often use designs that are not strictly Polish in nature, but can be anything the customer desires. I usually start with a piece of paper folded into eighths. After the outside dimension is decided on, I start cutting. The instructor, Jan Sedja, that taught me, demonstrated the two edgings that are traditional which can be mixed and matched however you want. I usually draw a fine line on the back side of the cutting paper. This way, the edging cuts will all be the same depth. After the edgings are cut, either one or two lacy edges, then I open the cutting out one fold into fourths and draw on the motif and cut it out, one in each corner when it is opened up. Sometimes, the customer desires a design that is not four-merous, but a single design in the middle of the cutting. This is accomplished after all the rest is cut. I open the paper and then cut the design on the paper that is in the middle of the cutting that I left uncut.

​Strictly speaking, the paper cuttings that I do are not strictly Polish in design, but are adapted to use with more current motifs, i.e. Native American, musical instruments, fairies, butterflies, vines and flowers, even motorcycles. There are few motifs that I have been commissioned to do that I have not achieved to the customer’s satisfaction.

Some customers desires have been accommodated by combining the cutting with other forms of art such as water colored backgrounds, and construction of designs out many pieces of paper to achieve the desired effect.

I also do silhouette type cuttings that are matted and framed. These do not have the folded and cut edging designs, but are equivalent to just doing the central motif alone.

Gwiazdy, or stars

This type displays radial symmetry as the paper is folded and cut like a “snowflake” so the design is repeated 8, 16, 32 times.

Kodry, or composite designs - These are on a long horizontal axis and are quite rare, featuring fantastic birds and flowers or everyday home and village scenes.

Nalepianki, or multiple glue ons, as in the Lowicz regional style.

This style has many layers of paper which are glued one on top of the other, each succeeding piece being smaller than the one below so that each layer shows in the end product.

(Information from the Book of Paper Cutting by Chris Rich)

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