Danuta Wojda

Before important religious celebrations such as Easter and Christmas, the houses in the rural areas of eastern and western region of Mazovia in Poland were decorated with paper cut-outs. Applied directly to walls and ceiling beams with flour glue, the motifs, made with great care, brought the decoration and symbolism into everyday living spaces. The filigree papercuts, some of which are multi-coloured, have been made by the women with sheep shears for generations. The use of this rather primitive tool contrasts strikingly with the designs, which are made with the highest level of craftsmanship.

The papercuts were not only used for decorative purposes, their use was sometimes said to have a magical effect. In the motifs of the papercuts we find a number of symbols that are known in all cultures of the world:

– Leluja, symbolising the tree of life;

– The star – an important symbol not only at Christmas time;

– Flowers and animals;

– Scenes of everyday peasant life;

– The woman – a motif for Mother Earth;

– The cock – one of the most popular motifs in folk art – symbolising fertility, creativity and rebirth. A creature that connects the night and the day in twilight and heralds the dawn – a symbol of vigilance and wisdom.

 
Origins

In the middle of the 19th century, white paper curtains with simple decorative patterns appeared in the windows of houses. The fact that at that time paper was sold only by Jewish merchants suggests that the idea of papercuts could have originated in Jewish culture, where this type of decoration had been a tradition for several centuries. The advent of coloured paper helped papercuts to take on more decorative forms and motifs.

Bohemian scene and urban salons discover folk art

At the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, European artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi discovered the exoticism and universal beauty of traditional folk art. Henri Matisse saw the papercut as the highest form of art because of the combination of pure form and pure colour. Henri Matisse also “painted” as he himself said with scissors for many years.

At the turn of the century, folk art was “discovered” by art collectors and art connoisseurs living in the cities of Poland. It is in folk art that artists of divided Poland, which dissapeared from the map of Europe, sought the source of national identity. The esteem in which papercut was held by these artists was not without consequences. Exhibitions and competitions were organised for the first time.

Art in the service of politics

After the Second World War, folk art, and with it the art of papercutting, became a tool of communist propaganda. The government emphasised the importance of folk art for country and founded in 1949 a state owned enterprise “Cepelia” for the purpose of promotion of national culture in Poland and abroad. It employed folk artists and sold their wares. By 1980, ‘Cepelia’ achieved an almost complete monopoly over production and sales. Artists were expected to meet a set standard and adhere to an imposed aesthetic. This included, for example, the production of a certain number of papercuts according to a uniform pattern.

On the one hand, this planned economic intervention in the art market has ensured that certain forms of arts and crafts have survived to the present day. On the other hand, the individuality and authenticity of folk art, and thus also of papercuts, disappeared as a result of planned economic exploitation. The formerly unique works of art degraded to a mass product and were found as decorative objects in almost every home in the 1960s to 1970s. Widespread availability led to weariness. “Cepelia” became a synonym for kitsch over the years.

 

After 1989…

After 1989 and fall of Communism, the former folk artists tried their luck on the free market. In the age of young Polish capitalism, however, people preferred to turn their gaze to the West.

In recent years, young Polish architects and designers have increasingly turned to indigenous Polish art. They are reviving almost forgotten traditional materials and techniques – including papercuts and using them in their own modern ways.

A good example of this development is the Polish pavilion for EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, whose architecture is influenced by papercuts from the Kołbiel region. Another example is the carpets of the Moho company, which were awarded the prestigious ‘Red Dot’ design prize.

Artists who work with traditional crafts are becoming increasingly well-known. The works are often used to furnish modern flats and are regarded as unique works of art.

Papercuts continue to be the domain of women to this day. Each artist develops her own individual style. The way the artists approach this subject is individual, although sometimes difficult to distinguish for the unfamiliar eye.

Danuta Wojda, for example, remains faithful to historical forms and colours.
Apolonia Nowak and Maria Stachnal (this wonderful artist has recently died), on the other hand, transcend the traditional framework.
With new forms and colours, both artists have an innovative influence on the contemporary art of papercutting. Today, papercuts are mainly produced in central and north-eastern Poland.