Cutting Edge

  • Intricate Akkoyunlu Türkmen cut-paper art in the Topkapi’s palace albums, made in Tabriz in the later 15th century

In the 15th century, at the Islamic courts of Central Asia and the Middle East, the arts and crafts involved in making manuscripts reached a peak of virtuosity that set the standard for centuries to come. Gracious calligraphy was written in dark-hued ink on paper of fine quality; elegant illumination was added in bright colours and gold; and, once the quires had been assembled, the book was bound in exquisite leather covers.

One impressive feature of luxury bindings of the 15th century is the delicate and beautifully composed patterns in leather filigree, or cut-outs. These were placed against paper of a contrasting colour to form the linings of the covers. Great skill and care were needed to cut the design into the leather in a way that allowed the voids to be removed without damaging the thin connecting elements in the pattern, which was ideally formed in a single piece. During this period the same skills were applied to paper, creating works of art that, if anything, are even more impressive. At first sight, a page of calligraphy appears to have been written in opaque coloured pigments against a dark ground, which is itself a difficult effect to achieve with a pen. On much closer inspection it becomes clear that the script has been cut out of paper and stuck onto the page so that the letters are positioned exactly as they would have been if written in ink. The exhausting nature of this work can be guessed at from the fact that most texts copied in this way are relatively short.

The shortest pieces, single pages of calligraphy executed as paper cut-outs, are now mostly found in albums, where they are sometimes accompanied by paper cut-outs of another sort: these are full-page designs, such as intricate arabesque patterns or trees populated with small birds, cut out in paper of one colour and set against a page of another, dark on light, or light on dark. They can be of stunning complexity and fineness.

The greatest store of these paper cuts is the Topkapı Palace library in Istanbul, and the principal librarian there for many years – until she retired a decade ago – was Filiz Çağman. With this book, Çağman has taken a little-studied technique that has always hovered on the margins of specialists’ awareness, making a wide range of examples, all beautifully reproduced, available to everyone.

In Kat‘i, which itself has a handsome cut-out of trees on the flyleaf, Çağman has illustrated the way the technique, developed in other centres in the 15th century, found a home at the Ottoman court in Istanbul in the 16th. Remarkable examples were produced, especially calligraphic ones. By the early 17th century, the court had begun to lose interest; cut-outs of variable quality were produced on a commercial basis, and albums in the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France show that they were made for foreign visitors as curiosities to take home.

Towards the end of the 17th century this art form, like many others, came back to life through the work of such artists as Nakşî of Edirne and Hala-zade Mehmed Efendi. Nakşî’s work includes pieces of double virtuosity – calligraphy cut-outs in which each line of text appears against a background of dense floral scrollwork in a contrasting colour, both displayed against a much darker background. Their work formed the basis for a further development of paper cut-outs in the 18th century.

Complex paper cuts were produced that showed part of a flower garden or a landscape, and these then gave way to three-dimensional landscapes, mostly views of identifiable Istanbul beauty spots from the sea, or views out to sea from such places. In particular, these were fitted into glazed recesses on the sides of writing boxes that seem to have been presented to the reigning sultan. Although the colours have usually faded, especially on the exterior of the boxes, they can be admired for their charm and for the skill shown by their makers. They can also be compared with other visual sources to reconstruct the appearance of lost buildings.

The story continues to the present century. The artist Nermin Er has already used the cut-out technique to striking effect in a series of works that are completely contemporary in content. Paper cut-outs were famously made by Henri Matisse towards the end of his life, but, striking and popular as they are, the Turkish work in this medium, produced over more than five centuries, can still hold its own, astonishing us with its complexity and delicacy.

Tim Stanley is Senior Curator for the Middle Eastern collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 53
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  • History on a plate

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Buy the issue
Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
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