Posted by: kishi22s | December 7, 2015

Paper Portraits

As I was looking through images for an art presentation a few weeks ago, I came across some amazing papercut artists.  With such an intense focus on portraiture in the Victorian Era, it is not surprising that the idea of owning a physical image or likeness of oneself, a loved one, or even a “celebrity” figure, extended to the more affordable material of paper.  Way back in our second class (I think), we saw a silhouette of a man placed in a printed lithograph scene.  The man’s position looked like a painted portrait, yet the construction pushes away from reality and the idea of “trust” in the accuracy of the image.  Simultaneously, the possession and creation of this image in such a formal manner refutes the call for reality; it must have some truth and value for it to survive more than a century.


Fig. 1. Samuel Metford (United States, 1810-1890), Thomas Goddard (1765-1858). Cut-out full-figure silhouette from matte black coated white wove paper with graphite, opaque watercolor and white paper insert (collar) mounted to a lithograph. Bequest of Maxim Karolik, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1964.1139. (from <;.)

Though most silhouettes are not as atmospheric, the art’s simplicity to express a form with shape astounds me.  Its graphic quality somehow expresses the same information as a painting, yet allows for imagination to fill in the alluded twists and turns of the detailed paper.  In our modern society, we can easily use photography as a mode of portraiture, instantly attaining a person and the memory of that time.  Strangely, Disneyland and Disney World, in the attempt to recreate an idealized “Main Street,” have silhouette artists and apprentices to make visitors’ profiles into a memorialized moment and memory of their visit to the “magical” amusement park.  Here’s a video of their silhouette artists in action:

My first experience with the art of silhouettes likewise occurred at Disneyland, my eleven-year-old self astounded at the quick snips of the scissors as my image magically appeared out of a smooth, small rectangle of black paper.  One year, when my sisters and I went with our church, I had each of us sit for our silhouettes, combining them into a single, layered portrait for my mother.  It still hangs in our home!  I think that is why I’m drawn to papermaking artists: the time, effort, planning, practice, and detail sets them apart from our normal “instant gratification,” turning their work into art.

Of the small group of people experimenting with papercutting, Peter Callesen, a Danish contemporary artist, uses regular printer paper to create amazing papercut pieces.  Most deal with absence and negative space, as the entire piece is created from the single sheet of paper.  He somehow creates three dimensional figures, grounding them with shadows and imagery of absence.

Fig. 2. Callensen, Peter. Closet. 2005. Acid-free A4 80 gms paper and glue.

The supernatural creatures in silhouette seem to emerge from the small wardrobe, ironically forming a cross-like shape in the creation of the piece.  It doesn’t seem real, but the three-dimensional quality of the work negates the simple, pictorial shadow of the scary, demonic creatures.

Fig. 3. Callesen, Peter. Alive, but Dead. 2006. Acid Free paper, glue, acrylic paint, and oak frame.
Another piece I love, Alive, but Dead, again uses color to create life out of the papercut, even allowing some of the poppies’ petals and heads to drop at the bottom of the frame.  They are grounded in the plain white paper, while peeling into the physical world, forming real shadows from their constructed forms.

In comparison, Yulia Brodskaya uses a quilling technique, “the placement of carefully cut and bent strips of paper–to make lush, vibrant, three-dimensional paper artworks” (Brodskaya).  She layers paper vertically, instead of horizontally, somehow creating a new form of the silhouette that has texture, color, and depth.  The following piece, Coins, utilizes the classic Russian imagery present in most of her work.  A grandmother (or babushka) simultaneously comes forth and recedes in the crazy, dreamy, swirling colors surrounding her form.  What she is actually doing (picking up coins) becomes arbitrary in the piece, the color and doubleness from Brodskaya’s application; it involves the viewer in the space without touch.




Fig. 4-6. Brodskaya, Yulia. Coins. n.d. Paper and glue. <;.

I might be still recovering from re-reading Alice in Wonderland, but the longer I look at Callesen’s and Brodskaya’s work, it grows “Curiouser and curiouser!”  Please feel free to explore the other amazing works by these two artists, and share what you think of papercutting in relation to art and portraiture!  Here are their websites:

Yulia Brodskaya:

Peter Callesen:

Works Cited

Brodskaya, Yulia. “About me.” Yulia Brodskaya. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

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