Paper Cuts in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Denmark

blue and white paper cut art

Students

2020
College

Faculty

Project Summary

My summer research experience as the assistant of Dr. Catriona MacLeod has offered me great insight into nineteenth-century Romantic art, culture and literature. The primary objective of our research is to study the relationship between the paper cutouts, the psychological worlds, and the processes of literary creation of several famous German and Danish authors. In particular, we analyzed hundreds of paper cuts made by Hans Christian Andersen, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense and Rosa Maria Assing, as well as inkblot poems composed by Justinus Kerner. By examining primary sources and secondary literature in German, Chinese and English, I compiled image databases and bibliographies on these literature tycoons of Romanticism.

Having considered paper cutting only as artistic product, I was surprised to discover that cutouts are in fact closely related to both the authors’ writing and their private life. Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, used paper cutting to find a psychological belonging when family life was inaccessible for the Danish bachelor. Always carrying a pair of big scissors wherever he traveled, Andersen amused children by cutting paper while telling fairy tales. As his large hands weaved through the delicate materials, the tales reached their climax. When opened, the patterns of the cutouts are both surprising and lively. The dancing pierrots, ballerinas, oriental palaces, swans, trees, and fairies on Andersen’s paper cutting are the inspirations for some of the author’s best fairytales, including “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Nightingale,” etc. By using papers of various colors and expanding the subjects beyond human portraits, Andersen greatly influenced nineteenth-century European paper cutting, where silhouettes of humans with black paper were the mainstream at that time.

Other papercut artists transcended beyond their own inner psyche when creating cutouts. As a patriot who was sympathetic to the Jewish population, Varnhagen chose great historical figures and events during the Napoleonic War as the subjects of his cutouts. Hence, his “little art” creations were a portrait of Europe in the nineteenth-century, with abundant historical and cultural references that are of paramount importance in historical research.

Working on this topic has broadened my horizon and taught me invaluable skills in art history research. As a student of German with interests in contemporary German culture, I was able to engage my language skills and learn about subjects that are outside of my primary interest. Fascinated by the colorful, intricate cutouts, I also acquired knowledge about how art historians analyze images by looking at the artists’ private life and at the social background of the art creation. Now with genuine interest in Romanticism and nineteenth-century European material culture, I would continue to engage with art and literature for years to come.