There are many styles of papercutting throughout the world, each with its own unique look. Below are examples of six traditional styles.
It is possible that the Chinese have been creating cut paper since paper was invented there in the 2nd century CE. The art was practiced by wealthy families who could afford the expensive paper; often brides prepared them as part of their dowry. As paper became more affordable, jianzhi grew into a folk art, mastered by the general population. Created for festivals, marriages and birthday banquets, the imagery is rich with symbols. Traditional paper cuts are often created with scissors, using “lucky” red origami paper.
An early form of papercutting originated in ancient Mexico, where the Aztecs collected amatl, a paper-like bark from fig and mulberry trees. They used obsidian knives to cut spirit figures out of the amatl. Papel picado (“perforated paper”) as we know it today began in the Spanish colony of Puebla in the 16th century, where a Chinese silk paper (papel de China) was was used for cut decorations and lanterns. Today, Mexican artists use inexpensive tissue paper to create papel picado for both religious and secular purposes. Paper designs decorate altars and tables and stretch across windows, ceilings, plazas and narrow streets as colorful banners to announce weddings, funerals, baptisms, Mexican Independence Day, Christmas, the Day of the Dead, etc. These banners begin with a single pattern laid on a stack of up to 50 layers of tissue paper on a thick piece of lead. Then, with a mallet and various chisels called fierritas (“little irons”), artisans punch out designs of suns, birds, flowers, skeletons, etc. The cut sheets are then hung on strings or on wooden dowels. Today plastic, mylar, foil and coated papers are also used for increased durability.
There is no better example of a popular art form that took its inspiration from the and Talmud than Jewish papercuts, all of them serving some religious, ritual or mystic purpose. … even the poorest Jew had access to the humble materials and tools — paper, pencil, penknife, watercolors and colored crayons — with which he could express his own form of hiddur mitzvah [beautification of the commandments and rituals] by making a papercut.“My Jewish Learning,” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-papercutting/
The origin of Jewish paper cutting is unclear. Ashkenazi Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries practiced this type of art, and its popularity in Europe peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, Jewish papercuts can be traced to Jewish communities in Syria, Iraq, and North Africa, and the similarity in the cutting techniques (using a knife) between East European Jews and Chinese papercut artists may indicate that the origin goes back even further. Papercutting has been used among the Jewish people to enhance the artwork hung in their homes, to decorate their book covers, to beautify their marriage contracts, and in many other ways. Traditional papercut artwork often shows symmetrical designs with traditional Jewish symbols such as lions, menorahs and crowns. Often the word Mizrach, or East, was written on the papercutting and hung on the east wall, towards Jerusalem. Ketubot, Jewish Marriage contracts, have also been decorated with papercutting. Today there are many Jewish papercut artists who practice older style designs, while others adapt the tradition into contemporary forms.
Scherenschnitt (“Scissor Cutting”) is a traditional folk art dating from the 1500s in Switzerland and Germany. Symmetry, an important design element in the Swiss work, is achieved by cutting the paper while folded. Germanic design tends to be more surreal, while Swiss cuttings are characterized by intricate borders and themes depicting landscapes and local traditions. The Pennsylvania Germans brought the art of scherenschnitte to America in the 1700s and used the cut work to decorate birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates.
Wycinanki (vih-chee-nahn-key) were most popular in the late 19th century in Poland. It is likely that the first papercuttings were cut from white paper and used as curtains and to decorate mirrors and holy pictures in peasant cottages. Later, they were cut from colored paper using sheep shears and glued onto walls and wooden ceiling beams. The cuttings were traditionally created by women prior to Easter, when the cottage was spring-cleaned and the walls whitewashed. There were many regional types, but most began by folding a colored paper at least once to make symmetrical designs. Motifs include circles, stars, squares, trees, flowers, roosters, and other birds. Some were overlaid with colored papers. Today, tourists and collectors continue to value the traditional techniques and motifs used by wycinanki artists in Poland and abroad.
Wayang, also known as wajang or wayang kulit, is a traditional form of puppet theatre play originally found in the cultures of Java, in Indonesia. This art grew up and is found in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. A dramatic story is told through shadows thrown by puppets and sometimes combined with human characters. The puppets themselves are made from cut paper or leather and mounted on sticks or wires; the flat puppets, when pressed up against a lighted screen from behind, produce from the audience’s perspective a kind of silhouette shadow play. The art form celebrates Indonesian culture and artistic talent; its origins are traced to the spread of Hinduism in the medieval era and the arrival of leather-based puppet arts called thalubomalata from southern India. Wayang refers to the entire dramatic show. Sometimes the leather puppet itself is referred to as wayang.
Performances of shadow puppet theatre are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra in Java, and by gender wayang in Bali. The dramatic stories depict mythologies, such as episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as local adaptations of cultural legends. Traditionally, a wayang is played out in a ritualized midnight-to-dawn show by a dalang, an artist and spiritual leader; people watch the show from both sides of the screen. UNESCO designated wayang kulit, a shadow puppet theatre and the best known of the Indonesian wayang, as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on 7 November 2003. In return for the acknowledgment, UNESCO required Indonesians to preserve the tradition.Wikipedia, “Wayang (shadow puppets)” from Java, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia generally. Accessed 28 Jan 2020.