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Vytynanka  an art of decorative paper cutting


By Vasyl Korch, a Ukrainian artist who specializes in graphic art and in the art of paper cutting.


In Ukrainian, the decorative shapes that are created by cutting paper into shapes are called vytynanky, from the verb vytynaty, to cut off or out. But before I tell you more about the art of vytynanky in Ukraine, let me indulge in reminiscences a bit.


Waxing lyrical

We go back quite a few years in time. Im a little boy lying in bed and looking dreamily at the wonderful roosters, flowers, Cossacks and other shapes which are cut from sheets of color paper and put at various places in the room for decoration.

Paper birds, paper people, paper beasts are on the walls, around the windows, on the beams of the ceiling, below the mysnyk (shelf for pottery and tableware) and below the shelf for bread, around the bozhnytsya (the corner with icons), and on the pich (a prominent structure in the peasants houses which combines in itself a coking stove, an oven and a place on which one can rest and sleep  tr.), which has recently been whitewashed. On the pich these colorful cutouts form a tree of life with widely spread branches. The blue lines painted along corners of the pich, on its top and bottom, seem to form a nice frame for this tree of life. All of these decorative cutouts were pasted all over the room shortly before my older brother Anatoliys marriage. When he asked our mother what the meaning of that tree of life was she gave an answer which I did not quite understand but felt it was something very important (tree of life is a symbolic representation of life in all of its full integrated complexity which can be found in mythologies of many peoples  tr.).

Colorful paper cutouts enhance the decorativeness of embroideries on the rushnyky (decorative towels), of cushions, of flowers and representations of Cossacks riding their horses woven on rugs.

The benches at the walls near the windows are covered with checkered rugs too  the squares are red, green, and brown, and each square is separated from the next by the yellow thread.

It is summertime, but it is cool and nice in the house; the buzzing of a big fly fills the room; the fly keeps hitting the glass of the window pane over and over again, in futile attempts to get out

These days, so many years later, when I hear the buzzing of a fly in the room, I cant help remembering myself as a boy in that house of my parents of long ago, and my heart grows heavy when I think of the time that has passed since then, when I realize that the house of my childhood is no more, that my parents are no more, and my native village has gone through many changes, not all of which I would welcome

Now, after this lyrical and nostalgic interlude, lets get to some historical facts of the art of paper cutting in Ukraine and the present-day state of things in this art.


Vytynanky as a feature of traditional culture

Vytynanky is only one of the many features of the Ukrainian traditional culture, and even though it is not the most prominent feature, it is nevertheless one of the many roots of culture, a part of the genetic memory of the nation, and to be a fully-fledged nation with mature culture we should preserve all of our cultural roots. The entire cultural legacy should be preserved so that each of us could tap into it and be spiritually enriched.

Historical evidence suggests that vytynanky began to be made in Ukraine at the end of the fifteenth- early sixteenth century, but it took quite some time before they became an integral part of the decorative arts practiced at the grass roots level. Originally, such paper cutouts were mostly used by the upper classes and authorities as the bases for sealing private letters and official missives with the sealing wax. Incidentally, these paper cutouts were used for the same purpose in many other European countries. The paper was still very expensive, and only when it became cheap to be affordable for lower classes that color paper began to be used for decorative purposes in peoples homes.

During the nineteenth century decorative paper cutouts spread all across the Ukrainian countryside. In addition to the purely decorative function, they acquired some symbolic meaning and developed into a separate branch of the decorative arts. Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, one of the Ukrainian authors of the nineteenth century, mentioned these decorative paper cutouts in describing the interior of peasants houses.

The word itself, vytynanky, gained currency in the early twentieth century, but there were many other, regional words that were used too  stryhuntsi, khrestyky or kvity to mention but a few. The vytynanky shapes were of many kinds and represented stylized figures of people, animals and plants. Ethnographers and art historians began to study the art of vytynanky, and artists began to seek inspiration for their art in vytynanky. Articles and essays were published, vytynanky began to be collected. Vytynanky were displayed at exhibitions of the Ukrainian decorative and applied arts alongside traditional pottery, embroidery, rugs and other items.

The collections of B. Zelinsky and S. Levytsky, who collected many samples of vytynanky, made in the early decades of the twentieth century, are now in possession of the Museum of Ethnography and Applied Arts of the Institute of Folk Culture Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Lviv. Some vytynanky can also be found in the museums of Kyiv and some other cities of Ukraine, Krakow (Poland), St Petersburg and Moscow (Russia).

Oleksiy Petrychenko, a prominent Ukrainian scientist, had a large private collection which he started to collect in the early 1950s, but now his collection is in a museum of the town of Domodedovo, Russia.

Vytynanky are easily damaged or destroyed, and can be preserved only if special conditions for their preservation are created. People who made them for decorating their homes would throw them away and create new ones every time they whitewashed or repainted the interiors. It was mostly women who were responsible for making them. Vytynanky, which were made for the occasions of religious feasts and holidays, were more decorative than the ones used for everyday decoration. Christmas and Easter called for vytynanky in the shapes of angels, churches or even whole evangelical scenes to be pasted prominently on the walls. Marriages saw vytynanky in the shapes of doves, flowers, or the ones that formed trees of life.

Vytynanky, made in various parts of Ukraine differed in shapes, in colors, and in symbolism. In the village of Petrykivka (Dnipropetrovsk Oblast), for example, which is famous for decorative murals that are painted by the locals on the interior and exterior walls of their houses, vytynanky are very colorful, their shapes are elaborate, and they are arranged in fancy compositions on the walls. They differ a lot from vytynanky, created, say, in the Land of Podillya, where the making of vytynanky is a very popular art. Podillya vytynanky are mostly monochrome and their shapes are highly stylized. Vytynanky of Bukovyna are of smaller, more geometrically precise shapes; also, vytynanky themselves are often ornamented with beads.

Vytynanky can also be of horizontal frieze-like bands, and have one or two or many axes of symmetry. Arrangements of vytynanky often have rhythmical sequences. Vytynanky makers, when they fold sheets of paper several times, often are not quite sure themselves which shapes will emerge as they cut out fancy shapes, and this unpredictability creates a sense of playful lightness, ambiguity, of something that is only hinted at, something mysterious and fairy-tale like.


Globalization pressures

In the 1960s and 1970s, home-made decorative items such as embroidered rushnyky (towels), rugs, vytynanky and other things of decorative art gave way to the factory made carpets and standardized decorative articles which were brighter in color but lacked in originality and were of inferior quality. Vytynanky disappeared altogether and only for Christmas and New Year holidays some people continued to decorate the windows and Christmas trees with white paper snowflakes.

Vytynanky, as well as so many other creations of the folk decorative and applied arts seemed to be destined for disappearance and oblivion, but luckily there were folk art enthusiasts who spared no effort in keeping vytynanky alive. Vytynanky began to be shown at exhibitions. Oleksandr Salyuk, Mariya Rudenko and P. Kushnir kept the art of vytynanky alive in the Land of Vinnychyna; I. Hrechanov was active in the Land of Dnipropetrovshchyna. Their work inspired professional artists. In 1981, M. Stankevych, an art historian (now he is professor at the Lviv Art Academy) organized an exhibition at which over a thousand vytynanky from all the corners of Ukraine were shown. Vytynanky for the exhibitions were lent by their makers, state-run museums and private collectors. In the wake of the exhibition he had organized, M. Stankevych went ahead and published a book, Ukrayinsky vytynanky (Ukrainian Vytynanky) that played its positive role in promoting the art of vytynanky.

In spite of the increasing globalization pressures and gradual disappearance of many features of traditional folk art, disappearance of traditional crafts, of national cultural traditions and rituals, recent years have seen a certain revival in the interest in traditional national culture. As far as vytynanky are concerned, they live on but on a much more limited scale. Every three years, a vytynanky makers symposium is held in the town of Mohylev-Podilsky; it is there, in that town, that the first and so far only museum of vytynanky was established. Pupils at many elementary schools are taught the basics of the art of vytynanky, so there is a hope that vytynanky will live on.


Flowers and Leaves. Ternopil Oblast, late 19th-early

20th century. Paper vytynanka. Museum of

Ethnography and Applied Arts, Lviv.



Crosses. Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, late 19th-early

20th century. Paper vytynanka. Museum of

Ethnography and Applied Arts, Lviv.


Proud Roosters by Valentyna Shovkun from

the town of Trostyanets, Sumy Oblast.

Paper vytynanka, 30 x 45 cm, 2006.


In Christmas Mood by Olha Shynkarenko from Kyiv.

Paper vytynanka, 50 x 70 cm, 2003.


Swings in Town by Iryna Mazurok-Pokydanets

from the town of Mykolayiv.

Paper vytynanka, 40 x 60 cm, 1995.


Christamas Day by Taras Kramarenko

from the town of Cherkasy.

Paper vytynanka, 23 x 31 cm, 1997.


Vernal Joy by Andriy Pushkaryov

from the city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Paper vytynanka, 40 x 50 cm, 1997.


Folk Song by Mariya Rudenko.

Paper vytynanka, 27 x 18 cm, 1981.


At the Well by Vasyl Korchynsky from Kyiv.

Paper vytynanka, 46 x 54 cm, 2008.


Decorative Candelabrum by Lyubov Protsyk

from Lviv. Paper vytynanka, 20 x 9 cm, 1982.


Fire Bird by Valentyna Kozdrovska

from the town of Sumy.

Paper vytynanka, 40 x 50 cm, 2007.


Angel by Yuliya Dunayeva

from the city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Paper vytynanka, 61 x 86.5 cm, 2007.

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