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Chinese figures on a wooden vase
Chinese figures on a wooden vase

Découpage is a craft/art form that is very old. I became aware of decoupage as an art form by reading about it in an encyclopedia. The article aroused my curiosity and on reading that the method is to paste cut-out pictures or dried flowers and leaves on a wooden surface embedded in varnish I decided to experiment. I am talking of the early 1970s when Google and the internet were nonexistent. Art and craft material were also difficult to lay our hands-on. This was the era when if you wanted to paint on canvas you either made it yourself or sanded a hardboard and prepared the surface. But luckily we got a lot of magazines every month and the local ‘kabadiwala’ (junk dealer) was a big help. In Allahabad, I also bought some discarded glossy magazines left by visiting overseas relatives from the Anglo Indian Colony in Civil Lines. Another major source was greeting cards.

So with a pair of scissors, glue, and varnish, I had a field day decorating any material for a base, I could lay my hands on. This was fun. I used tiles, wooden tea boxes, cigar boxes, glass, plastic, and ceramic. I experimented by raising the pictures painting backgrounds and layering the pictures and spent the rest of the years imparting this information to various groups.

When I decided to write on Decoupage and googled I got a lot more information. The encyclopedia only informed that this is the French art of the renaissance period. The word Decoupage is derived from the French word découpeur which means to cut out. The first cutouts can be traced back to the 5th Century BC in East Siberia where the Nomadic tribes decorated their coffins with felt or leather cutouts.  We then find this art in China, where during the 12th Century Chinese lanterns, windows, boxes were being decorated and lacquered.

Italy, Spain, France, and England were involved in large-scale trading activity in the 16th and 17th Centuries. These art objects became a much sought-after possession in Europe. Venice was an important trading point and by the 18th century, Florence became a center of production with other decorative techniques being used also. Decoupage got a new lease of life as gilding with gold leaf, leather, and carved designs on wood were added to it. Decoupaged objects were soon a collector’s delight.

Towards the end of the 18th century, because of the industrial revolution, etching and engraving made duplication of prints much easier. So Biblical images, reproductions of famous artworks were now widely used. By the 20th century, more secular themes became popular. In fact, it became quite a fashion for titled ladies to pursue it as an accomplishment.

The history and progression of this beautiful art are indeed fascinating. As any art moves through time and changes geographical location the material used and the method also changes dramatically. This can be seen as it starts with felt cutouts in the 5th century BC and transforms to Chinese lanterns in the 12th century and Biblical themes in the 18th century to myriad themes of the current times. In Delhi, in the 1980s the market was flooded with furniture and interiors beautifully decorated with decoupage.

Paintings by our students

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