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Grootenhuis, Jannes - VM - Jan Peter Verhave

Jannes Grootenhuis: Fear Not

Cut-Out Christmas

by Jan Peter Verhave

If you are somewhat clever with your hands, you can cut all sorts of shapes for Christmas – a star, a bell, or a Christmas tree – that can be sent out as a personal Christmas greeting. But there are also cutters that deserve to be called papercut artists. In past centuries artists of this medium from the Netherlands and other European countries have pictured the complete Christmas story. There were also simpler folk who had a talent for cutting, usually unschooled in the art. Their manner of rendering was simpler and often more or less naïve. They made use of white paper, in which a representation was cut with a knife or with scissors. The outline would then be contrasted against a dark background. Black (painted) paper was used for silhouettes and only later also for the decorative cuttings themselves.

Biblical themes were popular with paper-cutters. Around 1860 Jannes Grootenhuis, a tailor from Overijssel, a Dutch province, made large pieces, for example, depicting the Entry into Jerusalem, Pentecost, the Conversion of Paul, the Wedding at Cana, the Last Supper and the Dinner at the home of Lazarus and his sisters (John 12). He also pictured Abraham’s Offering of Sacrifice as well as Solomon’s Judgement.

The large curls on either side are very characteristic of the work by Grootenhuis. It is also remarkable that, apart from the texts and the pictures, everything is symmetrical. He would fold his large piece of paper lengthwise double and to prevent the two parts from shifting, he sewed them together. Then he began to make the decoration, filling the whole piece. He avoided open parts. That fear of emptiness is a general phenomenon in art and graphics and is called ‘horror vacui.’ Only after that were the pictures and texts cut out.

The cut-out work by Jannes, pictured above, depicts the announcement of the birth of the Christ child to the shepherds and the adoration of the shepherds. The angels are presented in a simplified form and it even seems that a few angels did not return to heaven, because they are hovering above the stable.

The text of the Angel, “Fear not” (the first words vreest niet appear in the curved band just above the angels and shepherds) is cut out in various letter types and sizes. This had become customary in the 19th century, also in printed posters and newspaper advertisements. The all-seeing Eye (God the Father) sends his radiant beams on the exuberantly elaborated word Saviour (Zaligmaker). 

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Jannes Grootenhuis: Vreest niet/Fear not, c. 1860, white paper, approximately 56 x 44 cm (going by other large pieces). The location of this Christmas cut-out is not known. The scissor artist Wiecher Lever saw and copied it. This copy is presently in the collection Scherenschnitt Museum in Vreden, Germany, across the border near Winterswijk in the Netherlands.

Jannes Roelofsz Grootenhuis (1842-1925) was born in Ommen, NL and was married there in 1868 to Jacobi Oort, a domestic servant, born in Avereest in 1843. They resided in Zwolle for twelve years and then moved to Almelo. But he can be traced in later years in Zwolle, Hoogeveen, De Wijk, Meppel, Germany, and back again to Zutphen and Winterswijk in the Netherlands. He wandered around by himself in his quest to earn a living; Jacobi stayed in Almelo, where she died in 1907. She experienced at least fourteen pregnancies; only three children reached adulthood. The widower died in Wijhe, NL, where some of his family lived. Jannes started to make cut-outs at a young age and produced a large oeuvre. A score of cuttings are known. Some are as big as a newspaper. In his wedding cut-outs he often portrayed the trade of the bridegroom: ‘Carpenter’s Welfare’ and ‘Prosperous agriculture.’ The dated pieces are from the period 1850-1875, so before and shortly after his marriage; Most of them were for couples in North-East Overijssel (Lutten, Avereest, Gramsbergen, Hardenberg, Wierden, Almelo), where he had built up a name in this area. But after that period there was no time for making cut-outs. He had to provide for his family as a tailor; he was often away from home, going from door to door asking if there was anything to be mended. One time he got into a fight with another tailor who had made cruel remarks about Jannes’ financial position. Jannes was severely wounded and reported the attack. His attacker was fined 15 guilders. It was a difficult existence.

Jan Peter Verhave (born 1942) studied biology at the Free University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His dissertation dealt with vaccinations against malaria. He worked as a teacher, research consultant (Africa) and quality controller of hospital labs. He published several books, among them The Moses of Malaria (2011) Erasmus Publ. Rotterdam; A Constant State of Emergency (2019) Van Raalte Press Holland Michigan, USA. Together with his wife he researched the art of papercutting, resulting in four books (in Dutch). 

ArtWay Visual Meditation 20 December 2020