Wycinanki: The Art of Polish Paper Cuts, by Anna Morell


About seven years ago in the UK, home décor changed for the ubiquitous. It seemed as if no modern dining room was complete without a Keep Calm and Carry On motif, a Cath Kidston print, and a Rob Ryan papercut on the wall.

While the first two were quickly knocked off into all sorts of abominations (Keep Calm and Kidston On!), visually engaging papercuts were harder to successfully knock off and knock out willy nilly. Ryan had put an old art form back on the map.

In Poland, it never went away. The art of Wycinanki (vee-kee-non-key) is a popular folk art, and this exhibition collates a range of traditional figurative styles on one side of the gallery, and a more modern interpretation – using the papercuts to tell personal narratives about Polish emigration to the UK – on the other.

In the nineteenth century, papercuts were a cheap and extremely cheerful way of brightening up rural interiors, and were often made by women using sheep shears. Last century, under the post-war Communist regime, it became fashionable in cities and with tourists. The examples on display here start with pieces collected in 2010 as part of a fieldwork exercise by Justyna Pyz.

Examples from Łowicz have a filigree, doily-like quality, many containing cockerels on a roundel design signifying the dawn – a popular Easter motif. The papers are layered to create a richness and depth of shading and colour. Feathers and flowers are also slowly swirled and cut into intricate, repetitive circles.

There is a sense of comfort and tradition in such designs – a commonality of palette and elements found in a broad swathe of folk art from Scandinavia to Ukraine. There is also a sense of almost spiritual contemplation, not just because many follow a mandala-like template – but of actual reflection, as many designs are folded once, then cut, one side mirroring the other. It’s easy to lose sense of time, taking them in, drinking in the colour, or the curve, of each cut.

The rest of this section of the exhibition contains works from the Kurpie region. These are mainly one colour block, often folded to create a repetition with delicate detail (like a child would cut a paper snowflake, but finer), and centres featuring the figurative. Apolonia Nowak’s work frames dancers, saints and icons.

It takes vision, precision, time, skill and an exceptionally steady hand to create a papercut. It’s an absorbing, slow process. A labour of love. One slip, and you have to start over. One false move, and the story it would have told is stalled, stuck or over. Something Orly Orbach is familiar with, as her narrative work makes up the final section of this exhibition, telling the stories of a family, Maria’s family, which escaped Siberian forced labour camps, fought in World War II, and whose children were left behind, motherless, in orphanages.

These kinds of stories are often hidden, missing from the history books. Snips of life clipped out of official papers. The holes, an integral part of the whole. Maria’s story is told here, experimentally, through memories and notions of faith, captured through the media of wycinanki and postcards.

There is real emotion here. I am reminded, looking at the pieces, of another kind of papercut – a nagging, ever-present pain.

The final part of the exhibition is a display rack of postcard papercuts made by the contemporary Polish community in Tunbridge Wells. It simply, so simply, exhibits what they miss from home.

Family. Waltzing. Weather. Gherkins in brine.

‘Wycinanki: The Art of Polish Paper Cuts’ is at the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery until 16 April 2016.

Photo: Anna Morell