Vytynanky: The Cutting Edge Craft
Vytynanky: The Cutting Edge Craft
Vytynanky – the art of cutting paper designs – is just one of the many features of traditional Ukrainian culture. While not as prominent as its artistic cousins embroidery or pysanka-writing (Ukrainian Easter Eggs), it is nonetheless an important part of the genetic memory of the nation and deserves to be promoted as an integral part of traditional Ukrainian culture.
Vytynanky can also be found in horizontal frieze-like bands and can be found to have one, two, or several axis of symmetry. Arrangements are often found in rhythmical sequences. Vytynanky varies from region to region, with some remaining monochrome while others are multi-coloured. Some are even adorned with beads or other colourful and shiny items. Even skilled vytynanky makers, after folding sheets of paper several times, can be unsure of what shapes will emerge as they cut out their fancy shapes. It is this unpredictability that creates a sense of playful lightness and ambiguity, like a mysterious fairy-tale. Certainly, this wonderful Ukrainian craft can be as limitless as its creator’s imagination .
A New Art Form Emerges
The history of paper-cutting in Ukraine dates back to the late 15th-Century, but it took some time before the art was considered an integral part of Ukrainian decorative arts. Originally, the paper cutouts were primarily used by the upper classes for sealing private letters or official communiqués with sealing wax. Incidentally, these were the same reasons paper cutouts were being used in many other European countries at the time. Paper at that time was very expensive, and it was only when the costs dropped that vytynanky became popular for decorative use in people’s homes.
Throughout the 19th-Century decorative paper cutouts spread all across the Ukrainian countryside. In addition to the purely decorative function, they began to acquire symbolic meaning and developed into a branch of the decorative arts in its own right. One of the great 19th-Century Ukrainian authors, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, even mentioned these decorative vytynanky when describing the interior of peasants’ houses.
The Golden Age of Vytynanky
The word itself – vytynanky – gained currency only in the early 20th Century. Before that many other regional words were used to describe the art, like stryhuntsi, khrestyky, or kvity, to mention but a few. Vytynanky could be found in any size or shape and often represented stylized figures of people, animals, or plants. Ethnographers began to take an interest in the craft and artists started seeking inspiration for their own paper-cutouts. Articles and essays were published, and collectors began to form collections. Soon vytynanky could be found at exhibitions of Ukrainian decorative and applied arts, alongside traditional pottery, embroidery, rugs, and pysanka. Prominent collections of early 20th-Century vytynanky can now be found at the Museum of Ethnography & Applied Arts at the Institute of Folk Culture Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Lviv. Other collections can be found in Kyiv, Krakow, St. Petersburg and Moscow.
As the craft is made of paper and is easily damaged or destroyed, preservation is difficult and only maintained if special conditions are undertaken. Most people that made vytynanky for home decoration would simply throw them away and create new ones each time they repainted their home interiors. Like other crafts of the time, it was mostly women that were responsible for their creation and special occasions, such as Christmas or Easter, called for particularly intricate crafting. Popular themes for weddings included doves, flowers, and trees, representing peace, prosperity, and new life.
For a time in the 1970s it looked as though the art of vytynanky might die out, but the craft has experienced something of a revival and today children are taught the basics of the art at school, ensuring that it lives on and remains a truly Ukrainian cultural art form.