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Wycinanki: Folk art from Poland

Wycinanki was traditionally used by Polish peasants to decorate their cottages and they often depicted scenes from daily life, such as weddings or holidays. This beautiful art form is still popular and widely practised in two regions of Poland, Kurpie and Lowicz.

This exhibition, curated by Justyna Pyz, brings together 50 examples of the Polish folk art, Wycinanki, from the Horniman Museum collection, part of which was acquired in1963 from the Ethnographic Museum, Warsaw. The collection was originally assembled by the Polish Minister of Culture and dates from the late 1950s. Several new works were commissioned by the Museum in 2008 as part of its fieldwork programme; these include works by renowned artists such as Apolonia Nowak and Czesława Kaczyńska from Kurpie region and Helena Miazek from Łowicz, whose heart design was commissioned to mark the exhibition’s opening on Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps modelled on traditional Jewish papercuts, Wycinanki originated as an inexpensive means of decorating the homes of Polish peasants and were popular from the mid 19th century. They were generally made by women using sheep-shearing scissors and any readily available paper and replaced each spring when homes were whitewashed. With the advent of communism, Wycinanki were promoted by the new administration as an example of non-bourgeois art and enjoyed enormous popularity along with other forms of folk art. With the collapse of communism Wycinanki were assimilated into the Polish tourist industry as a traditional craft, they are now however enjoying a resurgence of interest from more radical quarters.

Some of the designs on display depict everyday rural scenes; these are valuable documents of social history showing a disappearing way of life. One of the paper cuts shows peasant women using traditional flax brakes to make linen, a practice which has now died out. The collection also includes geometric designs which were popular decorations in many homes. Wycinanki were also made for religious festivals and family celebrations; these designs have a set iconography, for example, cockerels for Easter. The paper cuts on display are from two different regions: those from Łowicz are multi-coloured and made from multiple sheets whereas those from Kurpie are made from a single sheet of coloured paper. Justyna Pyz said: “This collection of Wycinanki is remarkably diverse and represents a fantastic opportunity to discover a folk art which has flourished and continues to develop in Poland and which influences artists worldwide.”