The Art and History of Papercutting

The Art and History of Papercutting

One of the most lovely art forms is the intricate paper cuts created by Jewish folk artists. But how did this amazing craft begin? Let’s explore the history of papercutting and the modern revival of Jewish papercutting.

As far back as the second century when paper was invented in China, scribes would cut paper and other materials to make lovely decorations and fancy puppets in a folk art style called jianzhi.

chinese papercut fish

Wayang Kulit Puppetry

The Java cultures of Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand created beautiful papercut puppets and held lively shadow plays known as wayang kulit by attaching the puppets to sticks and holding them up to a screen lit from behind.

wayang papercut puppets

Early mentions of papercutting from the middle ages tell how the art form traveled from the Orient through the Ottoman Empire along the Silk Road and other trade routes.

The Fight of the Pen and the Scissors

Rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac ben Ardutiel wrote a book called The Fight of the Pen and the Scissors, or The War of the Pen Against the Scissors.

Frustrated that his ink well froze during the cold winter days, the rabbi was determined to continue creating his manuscripts. So, he cut letters out of paper with a knife.

Scherenschnitt or Scissor Cutting

Other styles of papercutting appeared throughout the 1500s including scherenschnitt or “scissor cutting’ from Switzerland and Germany.

These beautiful designs and the art form traveled across the Atlantic along with the immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania.

Jewish Papercutting

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, papercutting continued as a beautiful art form, and also an elaborate way to create a decorative marriage contract, called a ketubot.

Other pieces were used as calendars, protective amulets, or listed prayers for the walls of synagogues.

As gorgeous as these early papercuts were, few survive to the present day since the paper was fragile and not the acid-free material we have today.

Only about 250 pieces of the artwork survive from the classical period of Jewish papercutting.

Traditional Jewish papercuts are made by folding the paper in half, drawing the design, and cutting through both halves.

When the paper is opened, the delicate image unfolds into a symmetrical design.

More modern papercutting follows the same process, although some artists like to freestyle their designs to create unique artwork unlike any other.

woman cutting a floral design on tracing paper

What kinds of designs do papercutting artists make?

Papercutting designs are inspired by many themes including animals, flowers, fruit, menorahs, and meaningful buildings or landmarks.

mizrah decorative papercut
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

The rest of the design often has swirls, columns, diamonds, and decorative borders.

You can also create three dimensional ornaments using papercutting techniques.

One modern papercut artist, Archie Granot, uses several layers of paper and a surgical scalpel to create gorgeous, unique works of art.

 

Papercutting Craft

 

woman holding scissors unfolding a papercut tree

Try your hand at creating your own papercut art! You can find plenty of patterns online or check out our free Explore Israel in a Week lesson plan for links to Archie Granot’s work and a fun DIY papercutting video.

Design and create your own papercuts to decorate your dinner table while you eat2explore the delicious dishes in our Israel box.

Share your art in the eat2explore Dinner Club on Facebook!

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