The Exquisite, Ephemeral Paper Cuttings of Hans Christian Andersen

Quick, name a melan­choly Dane.

For most of us, the choice comes down to Ham­let or Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen, author of such bit­ter­sweet tales as “The Lit­tle Match Girl,” “The Stead­fast Tin Sol­dier,” and “The Lit­tle Mer­maid.”

Ander­sen’s per­son­al life remains a mat­ter of both spec­u­la­tion and fas­ci­na­tion.

Was he gayAsex­u­alA vir­gin with a propen­si­ty for mas­sive crush­es on unat­tain­able women, who engaged pros­ti­tutes sole­ly for con­ver­sa­tion?

No one can say for sure.

What we know defin­i­tive­ly is that he was a jol­ly and tal­ent­ed paper cut­ter.

He enchant­ed par­ty guests of all ages with impro­vised sto­ries as he snipped away, unfold­ing the sheet at tale’s end, a sou­venir for some lucky young lis­ten­er.

“You can imag­ine how many of them must have got torn or creased,” says art his­to­ri­an Detlef Klein, who co-curat­ed the 2018 exhi­bi­tion Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen, Poet with Pen and Scis­sors. “You could often bend the fig­ures a lit­tle, blow at them and then move them across the table­top.”

Amaz­ing­ly, 400 some sur­vive, pri­mar­i­ly in the Odense City Muse­ums’ large col­lec­tion.

Pier­rots, dancers, and swans were fre­quent sub­jects. Sprad­dle-legged crea­ture’s bel­lies served as prosce­ni­um the­aters. Even the sim­plest fea­ture some tricky, spindly bits—tightropes, umbrel­las, del­i­cate shoes.…

The most intri­cate pieces, like Fan­ta­sy Cut­ting for Dorothea Mel­chior below, were thought­ful home­made presents for close friends. (The Mel­chiors host­ed Andersen’s 70th birth­day par­ty and he died dur­ing an extend­ed vis­it to their coun­try home.)

The cut­tings bring fairy tales to mind, but they are not spe­cif­ic to the pub­lished work of Ander­sen. No Thum­be­li­na. No Ugly Duck­ling. Not a mer­maid in sight.

As Moy McCro­ry, senior lec­tur­er in cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Der­by, writes:

Ander­sen knew that his writ­ten work would out­last him: he was famous and suc­cess­ful, as were his tales. Yet he con­tin­ued to work in these tran­sient mate­ri­als, their cheap­ness and avail­abil­i­ty mak­ing them of no val­ue apart from their appeal to sentiment…Why work in a form that ought to have left no traces? I sug­gest that this showed how Ander­sen react­ed to his fame, and to his own sense of being for­ev­er on the mar­gins of the lived life. He moved amongst the edu­cat­ed and the famous, was friend­ly with Dick­ens, was patron­ized by nobles, but was out­side those cir­cles. His edu­ca­tion was gained at some pains to him­self, years after the usu­al dates for these activ­i­ties (he would not even pass nowa­days as a “mature stu­dent”, since his com­ple­tion of ele­men­tary school only took place when he was a young adult). He was always placed out­side the nor­mal bounds of the soci­ety he kept.

Read­ers, we chal­lenge you to play Pyg­malion and release a fairy tale based on the images below.

All images, with the excep­tion of The Roy­al Library Copenhagen’s The Botanist, direct­ly above, are used with the per­mis­sion of Odense City Muse­ums, in accor­dance with a Cre­ative Com­mons License.

Explore the Odense City Muse­ums’ col­lec­tion of Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s paper­cuts here.

Bonus read­ing for those in need of a laugh: “The Sad­dest End­ings of Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen Sto­ries” by the Toast’s Daniel M. Lav­ery.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Ani­ma­tions of Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ries “The Hap­py Prince” and “The Self­ish Giant”

The Japan­ese Fairy Tale Series: The Illus­trat­ed Books That Intro­duced West­ern Read­ers to Japan­ese Tales (1885–1922)

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    “Andersen’s per­son­al life remains a mat­ter of both spec­u­la­tion and fas­ci­na­tion.

    “Was he gay? Asex­u­al? A vir­gin with a propen­si­ty for mas­sive crush­es on unat­tain­able women, who engaged pros­ti­tutes sole­ly for con­ver­sa­tion?

    “No one can say for sure.”

    Why must the world be so obsessed with one’s sex­u­al pref­er­ence, first and fore­most over and above all oth­er pos­si­ble aspects of one’s “per­son­al life?” This fanat­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion says far more about the writer of this arti­cle (and the writ­ers of far too many arti­cles on every oth­er sub­ject today) than about the sub­ject — Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son.

    I can’t read one thing these days on any top­ic with­out the writer focus­ing first on sex, espe­cial­ly homo­sex­u­al­i­ty or any of the oth­er alter­nate sex­u­al iden­ti­ties that pro­lif­er­ate ram­pant­ly out there. If I’m read­ing an arti­cle about an author of chil­dren’s sto­ries, I don’t give a fly­ing fart if he pre­ferred sex with goats over sex with avo­ca­dos. It is imma­te­r­i­al.

    Get over it!

  • jus says:

    Yes, I also won­dered about the rel­e­vance of those remarks, I came here to read about his artis­tic output,I also do not give a ‘fly­ing fart’ about his sex­u­al pro­cliv­i­ties.

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