Joanna Koerten’s scissor-cut works have been compared to Michelangelo
This scene was carved from a single sheet of paper, piece by piece. Look at the delicacy of the tree branches and hanging vines, cut into thin cobwebs. Even tree trunks are not strong: the illusion of shading is produced by hundreds of tiny horizontal cuts. Likewise, the clothes of the peasants, the wings of the birds and the turf on the ground are chosen with incisions so melting that they seem to blend into subtle hues of gray beyond the capacity of ordinary paper.
This work of art was a product of the Renaissance Netherlands, close to the work of Rembrandt and Vermeer. And in his day, the artist who huddled on that sheet, meticulously carving out negative space, was just as famous as these icons. Her name was Joanna Koerten, but her skill with scissors earned her the epithet “Scissors-Minerva”, after the Roman goddess of art.
“The Blok”, the museum she ran away from home, was described by art historian Martha Moffitt Peacock, writing in the Netherlands Directory for Art History, as the “eighth wonder of the world”. Tsar Peter the Great, Cosimi de Medici and countless poets and fellow artists visited there to watch her make her careful incisions. At one point, one of his little pieces of paper sold more than Rembrandt’s monumental Night watch. After her death, her husband published a book of poems to praise his work; over time, the collection has swelled to fill up six volumes.
And yet, in the centuries that followed, his name was more or less inscribed in the history of art. In a way, it was the medium she so skillfully ordered – cut paper – that condemned her. Considered amateurish, dilettantish, more “artsy” than “high art”, the art of paper cutting has been relegated to the realm of mere curiosities, a footnote in the history of art, and Joanna Koerten with .
Oil painting, along with sculpture, was considered the true medium of “high art”. Everything else smacked of kitsch or craftsmanship. Yet the professional world of oil painting, with its strict and exclusive guild regulations, was prohibitive for women. There were a few notable exceptions. Judith Leyster made his living oil painting, was enlisted in the guild, and even hired apprentices. But even Leyster’s fame did not survive her: after her death, most of her paintings were falsely attributed to her husband.
But when you look beyond the prestige medium of oil painting, the picture changes. Like the readjustment of a lens, suddenly a huge wave of work by female artists is developing. To name a few: Anna Roemers Visscher, who etched the glass with a diamond pen; Anna Maria van Schurman, who sculpted in wax; Juffrouw Rozee, who invented a method of painting which astonished his contemporaries so much that some took into consideration it is “witchcraft”.
As Elizabeth Alice Honig explains in ‘The Art of Being’ Artistic: ‘The Creative Practices of Dutch Women in the 17th Century’, most women artists operated in a gray area between the professional world of the studio and the amateur world of crafts at home, playing on the values of the two spheres. Like Honig written:
The economy of the artistic trade is masked by the rituals of courteous visits, the exchange of compliments and expensive gifts, the writing of effusive and elegant poems of praise. We are therefore… in an indeterminate zone between amateurism and professionalism: profit occurs, but is built as a simple by-product of innate talent and love of art.
It is in the skillful negotiation between social constraints that female artists have carved out an unusual niche for themselves.
Koerten was perhaps the most cunning of all. As Peacock argues, as Koerten’s style matured, she developed a distinctive artistic language that allowed her work to be classified as the “high art” of sculpture.
Consider this portrait of “Roman Liberty”. He exchanges the airy delicacy and snowflake silhouettes of his steelwork in favor of a daring sculptural exploration of depth, light and shadow. White paper replaces white marble; the pair of scissors for the sculptor’s scissors. As one poet wrote:
When Michelangelo and Apelles wanted to paint a picture. They used paint, but J. Koerten made a stroke with the chisel. In cut paper, she paints everything according to nature.
Here it is, in the same breath as Michelangelo. Yet the monumentality was deceptive. From a historiographical point of view, the compromise achieved by Koerten turned out to be as fragile and ephemeral as finely cut paper.