Shear Delight: Scherenschnitte

Scherenschnitte. Just attempting to pronounce this idiom is guaranteed to challenge the most talented tongue-twister enthusiast.

The word, pronounced shair-en-shnit-teh, means scissor cuts or paper snippings in German, and it’s the art of paper cutting designs.

I was quite surprised to discover that this art form is not exclusively of German derivation, but that practically every culture since the invention of paper has some form of ornamental paper cutting in its history. As early as the fourth century A.D., the Chinese were incorporating elaborate patterns on porcelain or textiles – material typically associated with royalty. Commoners decorated their home by utilizing a more affordable method and paper cutting soon became a folk art.
scherenschnitte 023 AT 5-7.jpgThe subject matter in a number of scherenschnitte is taken from German folklore. I would love to know the story behind this picture.

Fast-forward to the 17th century, where this art form’s popularity and variations of design had spread worldwide. The Japanese art of paper cutting or, mon-kiri, utilized their talent in creating family crests. Their most customary theme revolved around the symmetry of nature.

Artists in Germany, Holland and Italy cultivated their own distinct provincial style and, while the scissors were the preferred instrument of choice, some relied on knives to do the intricate work. In early times, the work from these countries incorporated a religious theme. European Jews illustrated their rich history through illustrative imagery inspired by the Torah as well as the Bible’s Old Testament.

In the 1600s, the German form of paper cutting had become quite recognizable: a folded paper cutout form, although some creations were cut directly from a flat sheet. The Polish were contributors to this art form, too, with their decorative paper decorations called wycinanki.

When the Russians invaded Poland, the soldiers confiscated the villagers’ scissors and knives. The ever-resilient Polish turned to their sheep shears to cut their elaborate artwork – known as sycinanki.

Fleeing religious persecution, migrants from southern Germany, as well as Switzerland, brought their scherenschnitte skills to America – most notably the Lancaster Country area of Pennsylvania.

That’s where my collection begins …

I was introduced to this art form when I was a young girl. My uncle presented my mother with a lovely scene of little children dancing around a tree. I was taken by its simplicity and yet the piece was quite detailed. I don’t recall my uncle mentioning the word scherenschnitte – that funny-sounding name is one I’d surely remember, but I did know that one day, somehow, I would own one of these little treasures for myself.

It wasn’t until I caught the auction bug and started to frequent local auction houses on a weekly basis that I stumbled across my first framed scherenschnitte in, of all places, the back room where they relegated the box lots.

Buried under an eclectic grouping which consisted of a dried flower arrangement along with some old dishes and drinking glasses, rested my German paper-cutting of a nativity scene. The silhouettes of German townspeople dressed in peasant garb serenading the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus under a star-studded sky simply charmed me. There was no denying it – I was smitten on this folk art craft.

scherenschnitte 013 AT 5-7.jpgA fairy tale classic: Red Riding Hood.

My one piece soon multiplied and I’ve added many fine examples to my collection. A common scherenschnitte theme amongst the German artisans is fairy tales. I have two signed works, by Lotte Gutzlaff, that show a young German lad in lederhosen wooing a charming lass attired in a dirndl. The detailing is fantastic – from the curling tendrils of the maid’s hair to the fur and whiskers on the cat.

I’m not well versed in German folklore so there are some pieces in my collected works that I don’t recognize but, again, I was mesmerized by the story the picture seemed to tell. The maiden in the star specked gown is deep in thought as she gazes into the pool – you follow her gaze to discover a jeweled crown that lies at the bottom of this body of water.

You can’t help but notice the flow of her gown, the curve of her hands and face along with her tumbling locks of hair all contribute to making this a beautiful scene.

In my travels I discovered another piece with a maiden kneeling near (yet again) another body of water picking flowers. I loved the way that her image is reflected in the pool – the tree with its gnarly roots and the branches holding two birdhouses complete the picture.

Red Riding Hood is another example of attention to detail. Notice the squirrel perched on the pine tree bough, as well as the little bird singing his song on the bramble bush. He appears completely oblivious to the wolf with his hackles raised approaching Red Riding Hood. Just cutting out the feathery fir branches must have been a lesson in patience and self-control. Rarely, if ever, do you find any provenance to these pieces, but when I purchased this particular one, the seller included a copy of the March 1920 invoice from the Kunstverlag Karl Schwalbe Company located in Eisenbach, Germany. This scherenschnitte cost 40 cents at the time.

Up to this point I considered myself a purist – I collected only those works that were at least 60 years old and were strictly the traditional method of black paper cutting on a white background.

scherenschnitte 039 AT 5-7.jpgA traditional-looking scherenschnitte with an amusing twist.

I soon discovered that there were many contemporary artists who emulated the work of the earlier pieces: Marilyn Diener, Tilly H. Schouten and Sandra Gilpin to name just a few. Yet it wasn’t until 2002 when I discovered Pam Dalton’s work. It’s no secret that my collecting interests are varied but my absolute passion is collecting vintage Halloween collectibles.

This ardor has translated into my authoring two books on the above subject and, in turn, my fall season is booked solid with lectures on all things black and orange. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover Ms. Dalton combined my love of scherenschnitte and that for Halloween and created a cross-collectible for me.

The jack-o-lantern is my favorite fall icon and Pamela captures the pure essence of this gallant gourd. In another piece she starts with a traditional portrait of a little girl in silhouette and adds a jack-o-lantern for a more modern spin. Even her Halloween Parade of a Princess, Ghost, Witch and Pirate conjures up many nostalgic memories of my favorite holiday.

As far as prices go, these little treasures can still be had for double figures. That’s not to say that I haven’t been in a bidding war or two for a piece that I consider a have-to-have!

I have even made a few attempts at creating my own scherenschnitte. When family and friends call me a cut-up, they don’t know the half of it!