Not so long ago, I gave a brief PaperCutting workshop to the local Tokyo chapter of the SCBWI. It was a ton of fun to do, and I really enjoyed being able to show a little bit of what goes into the process of one of my cut paper images. Just as rewarding for me, though, was researching the history of the art form and some of its most talented practitioners.
I had always assumed that cut paper art in Japan had as long a history as the Chinese tradition (which dates back to...well, pretty much the day after they invented paper!). Shockingly, I was wrong. While paper cutouts had been used for centuries as stencils in the textile industry, mostly for creating exquisite kimono designs, it was not recognized as as art unto itself.
That changed with 滝平二郎 (Takidaira Jiro). Born in 1921, he grew up in the Japanese countryside on a farm. After returning from the war, he threw himself into artwork. His early work reminds me of Russian poster art of the time, with it's strong, serious, proletariat farmers. As time went on, the paintings become sparser and more graphic, borrowing the strong and simple line of manga comics. Eventually, he segued into children's book illustration, and this is where his work truly bloomed. Sometime in the 1960's, Takidaira began to incorporate cut paper into his illustrations, laying it over backgrounds painted in watercolor and India ink. It's fascinating to watch the progression of his work as he became more and more enamored of the paper and the cutting. In the 1970's, we can see the amount of detail increasing until it fills the whole page with patterns of flora and the textures of Japanese life. Then, in the 80's he cut the artwork back down to the basics, with wide swathes of black and simple, powerful compositions.
Despite the evolution in his work, one thing remained constant: the charming and nostalgic humanity that was at the center of nearly every image he created.
I, myself have been saying the same thing forever; "my paintings are always about my love of stories and people". I seem to have committed myself to this "motto" and I realize the more often I am asked to explain it the more mundane my explanation becomes, but I have no idea how to break free from this cycle.
-Takidaira Jiro, "Worrying About My Worries" from Works
I, for one, am grateful that he never overcame his love of traditional Showa-era Japan or its people. With only a splash of color and a layer of paper, he portrayed an astonishing depth of soul and humanity.
Takidaira様 passed away last year (2009). While I regret that I couldn't have discovered him and his amazing work while he was still around, I was lucky to catch a retrospective of his work last month here in Tokyo. Seeing a lifetime's worth of such work gathered together was both humbling and inspiring.
While researching his work, I stumbled over a Japanese website (since lost to the tangled strands of the Web) which claimed that Takidaira coined the word "切り絵" (kirie, literally "cut picture"). In 1971. The same year I was born. Destiny, perhaps? In any case, I'm proud to be following in his papery tradition.