Since the middle of the twentieth century there has been a revival of the papercutting art all over the world, including Israel. This exhibit, with a selection of papercuts by contemporary Israeli artists, is evidence of this resurgence.
Dozens of artists engage in papercutting today, professionally or as a hobby, bringing new life to a centuries’ old tradition. Many time-honored genres are still widespread in the Jewish world, including the Mizrach, which indicates the direction of Jerusalem for prayer, and the Shiviti, which hangs in front of the cantor’s lectern.
More common today, however, are papercuts that highlight the artist’s own ideas and talents: aesthetic creations that combine traditional motifs with modern elements and make relatively little use of canonical texts (or any text, for that matter).
Artistic papercutting is not a Jewish invention. It can probably be traced back to the Far East and China, where papercuts were used for decoration and as charms against the evil eye as early as the sixth century CE. In the Middle Ages papercutting spread to the Near East, notably Persia and Turkey, and from there to North Africa and Europe.
Traditional papercuts tend to be based on Jewish motifs and symbols, canonical texts, and figures of plants and animals. Other shapes are derived from various branches of traditional Jewish arts and crafts. From the ornamentation of the Holy Ark, parochet (ark curtain), and other ritual objects, papercutters borrowed the Tablets of the Law, the Torah crown, the two pillars of the Temple (Yachin and Boaz), the menorah, and objects employed in festival rituals (the shofar, lulav and etrog, and so on).
The diffusion of papercutting is directly linked to the developed of paper manufacture: as paper became less expensive, papercuts became a more popular art form. But we also know of elegant designs cut in parchment, especially to ornament the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) and ketubot (marriage contracts). The type of material provides evidence of the intended use of papercuts and of the artist’s financial situation: in addition to those made of parchment, expensive paper, and multiple layers of colored paper, we also encounter some cut out of simple paper.
The tools of the papercutter’s art are various types of knives and scissors. Today the traditional knife has been supplanted by smaller ones, such as exacto knives and surgical scalpels. In recent years artists have turned to computer-controlled lasers, which significantly reduce the price of the finished product.
Curators: Prof. Olga Goldberg, Gabriella Rabbi, Rina Biran, the Giza Frenkel Papercut Archive, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The study of “Tradition and Continuity in Jewish Papercuts” was conducted by Prof. Olga Goldberg, with funding from the National Science Foundation.
The Grunstein-Shamir Hall. On display until January 31, 2010.