The Lost Art Of Papercraft
Think back to a time before your laptop screen, perhaps at a point during your childhood, when you discovered the joy of cutting and folding paper. The most primitive of hobbies is also the most sophisticated of arts.
When I was small you could buy paper cut-out activity books, now not allowed because they involve scissors (yet somehow I managed to traverse a whole childhood armed with glue, knives and razor blades without ever doing much damage to myself). Some of the activity books involved pinwheel discs with many slots – draw a line in each slot, turn and align it to the next number, and you end up with a finished picture. I have never seen a single one of these ubiquitous half-crown books since.
But it turns out there was a long history of paper sculpture in the UK, which partly regained popularity because of the Festival of Britain in 1951, when designs were created in paper based on designs by artists like Emmett and Searle. If you cut a curve on a sheet of thick paper but don’t cut all the way through, you can make an elegant dune-like fold. Soon the possibilities of making organic forms becomes clear.
I distinctly recall a number of caricature paper cut-out posters for British comedy films – in fact, I saw their artwork being junked as Rank Films closed down and ditched its entire archive, courtesy of the philistines at Carlton TV, who bought the company and destroyed it. These elaborate dioramas contained 3D models of actors and sets.
Later, when I had my film company, we hired an in-house paper engineer who designed and created those huge 3D cinema foyer models made in cardboard. They had to be complex yet easy to assemble. Indeed, some assembled themselves because they were held flat under a tension of elaborate skeins of rubber bands and cables.
For a while, paper sculpting had been everywhere. On the backs of Corn Flake packets there were collectable 3D cut-out animal heads (this was in 1963) and the fashion spread across other brands. But it goes back much further than that.
The ancient art of kiri-e is intricate and demanding. Designs are cut from a single sheet of paper, but in all the videos I’ve seen on the subject nobody seems to answer the obvious question; what if you slip? You only have to make one mistake for the whole thing to be ruined. Above is an octopus made from a single sheet, cut with special tools. You can see a short documentary on the art here.
Recently I saw the 3D art revived in a series of animal sculptures. I have a 3D cut-out cat, bought in a Japanese sculpture museum, and a 3D cardboard stag purchased from an art gallery in Norway. In these newly austere times you would think such a pastime would be ripe for revival, especially as working with the hands feels so therapeutic.