Paper plus skill equals ARTE!
How deceptively common and simple
the papel picado seems! These lacy banners festoon Mexican restaurants,
every fiesta, village streets, and are for sale in any "papelería"
in Mexico for a few pesos. Most commonly associated with Day of
the Dead and used in the construction of altars, an appreciation
for this art form is overdue.
Michoacán home altar is bordered by
intricate papel picados "of the season".
in Mexico is both an ancient art and source of great pride. In pre-Hispanic
cultures the making of bark paper, known as amate, was well-established
(the tree from which the bark is taken is also called amate). With
the ability to make amate came communication, art, and the writing
of the codices
hallmarks of the great early civilizations of
Mexico. In Chiapas where amate-making thrives today, paper is actually
used as a ritualistic element in Lacondon communities; the white
amate used to evoke good spirits, and the natural brown amate used
to evoke evil spirits. But it is probably from the Otomi culture
of central Mexico that cut paper art emerged and evolved into today's
papel picado, assisted by the arrival of The Conquistadors, that
is. With the Spaniards also came the cut paper arts from Europe,
reinforcing and influencing the existing paper arts of Mexico.
As evidenced by a very fine
Mexican cut paper example in the Museo Franz Mayer (in Mexico City)
dated 1833, the humble banners and paper borders had seeped (with
time) into Mexico's cultural fabric, and became important to the
fiestas of all social classes. The cut-out images at the Museo Franz
Mayer are of objects from an aristocratic life, brimming with fruit,
flowers, and fountains. In this era, the art form was referred to
as both papel picado or papel recortado.
tools of the papel picado maestro.
LEFT: Even the hammer and favorite cut-tool are decorated.
RIGHT: The many chisels needed to precisely make the intricate
Notice the decades of cut marks on the wooden surface beneath.
Today in Mexico, it is said
that the finest papel picado work is produced in the states of Puebla
and Mexico. This past summer in Estado de México, Rick and
I sought out Sergio Hernández to learn about his family's
famous papel picados firsthand.
We first learned that special
chisels, punches and a hammer are the primary tools employed. In
this traditional "taller" there are no machines in use.
The papers used are "papel de china", tissue paper, and
a metallic foil paper backed with white paper. Both come in many
Now ready to begin work, Sergio
demonstrated how the layers of paper are carefully and evenly placed
on the cutting surface, enabling up to 50 sheets to be cut at once.
In this taller, the cut surface is a heavy wooden board, but sometimes
lead plates are also placed beneath the cutting area. Next, a stencil
of the desired pattern, made of heavier paper, is placed as a guide
on top. All the layers are then secured by a nail at each of the
four corners. With skill and precision, the blows commence, perfectly
penetrating the 50 sheets. I cannot imagine striking something as
delicate as tissue paper with a hammer and chisel without disastrous
stands before shelves filled with stencils,
sheaves of uncut paper, and bits of inspiration
including drawings and color samples. A solid
wall of awards are proudly displayed behind.
Since pre-Hispanic times, the presence
of papel picados in indigenous altars evoked the wind, or air, as
an essential element. In popular culture, the making of papel picados
later evolved as an economical imitation of embroidery and lace
made by the poorer classes for decoration. But this "low art"
form eventually came into vogue (notably appearing in still life
paintings of prominent painters), and was adopted by every class
in Mexico as desirable decorations for festivals and celebrations
for all occasions, both public and private.
of the papel picado continues today, and its future is certain,
yet NOT certain, depending on one's point of view. From origins
of an indigenous ritual element, to a decoration used by common
people, to the art form's full and unlikely acceptance and use by
everyone including the elite, two paths lay ahead.
One road leads to the artesan's
taller where all is still handmade. Another road leads to the commercial
production of plastic imitations touting everything from beer brands
to restaurant chains. Both renditions are equally and uniquely Mexican,
and definitely ensures the continuation of the traditional image.
Which gives new meaning to
the question, "Paper or plastic?"
September 10, 2004
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Information about pre-Hispanic
paper history and uses, and the reference to the papel recortado
of 1833 in the Museo Franz Mayer were found in the book, De Cartones,
Cardboard and Paper in Mexican Folk Art, Text by Karen Cordero
Reiman, Elisa Ramirez Casteñeda, Edurne Iruretagoyena Olalde,
Alejandra Lopez de Silanes Vales. Editor-in-Chief, Elena Horz de
Sotomayor. Smurfit Cartón Y Papel de México, S.A.
de C.V., 2003