Museums

The Mysteriously Tiny Drawings of an 18th-Century Artist, Born Without Hands or Feet

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Matthias Buchinger, Elias Baeck, German, Laybach, “Augsburg Portrait of Matthias Buchinger with Vignettes Print” (1717), engraving sheet, 7 1/2 × 10 1/4 in. (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art unless otherwise noted)

In Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay, opening today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s a 1724 engraved self-portrait that the “Little Man of Nuremberg” would have used to promote his act. As the portrait shows, the German-born artist, who stood 29 inches tall, was born without hands or feet.

Using an implement he wielded with his stumps, Buchinger excelled in calligraphy, ornamentation, and micrography, the practice of making patterns with tiny letters. In this self-portrait, in the curls of his wig, he has written seven full psalms and the Lord’s Prayer.

Art was just one of Buchinger’s talents. He was a master magician, superb marksman, and a virtuoso musical-instrument player, to name a few of the skills he was paid to perform in fairgrounds and noble houses across Europe. He could also throw dice, and could put wooden objects in tiny bottles.

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Stipple engraving of Buchinger self-portrait (London, 1724), (detail), 7 ½ x 11 5/8 in. (collection of Ricky Jay, from ‘Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Ricky Jay,’ published by Siglio, 2016) (click to enlarge)

To contemporary sensibilities, the idea of an 18th-century dwarf magician getting a Met show of his text art might come off as an arch conceptual hoax. But Buchinger was real, and very much a part of his time. In his new book, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living, Ricky Jay, the illusionist and actor who lent his collections to the Met show, situates Buchinger in the tradition of conjurers, disabled prodigies, and remarkable writers who provided popular entertainment. The Met, meanwhile, presents Buchinger’s work in an artistic context, featuring his drawings alongside works from the collection that play with letters and type.

With the book, coming out next month from Siglio, and show, which features more than 15 original Buchinger drawings, audiences will have an unprecedented chance to consider the scope of this elusive artist’s achievement. And maybe, they can help Jay crack one of the mysteries that has fixated him for decades: how did Buchinger, working with his stumps, make drawings so tiny they are barely visible to the naked eye?

Jay’s passion for Buchinger dates back half a century, to when he was an up-and-coming teenage sleight-of-hand artist who was already obsessed with the history of conjuring. As Jay built his career on stage, film, and television, Buchinger remained a fixation. Between gigs, Jay traveled to far-flung archives and libraries, scouring records for references to a multitalented dwarf who performed spectacular feats. He tracked Buchinger’s travels, trying to learn how the tiny man moved from his hometown near Nuremburg to Copenhagen, Paris, London, and other cities where he practiced his arts, marrying four times along the way and siring 14 children before his death in 1739. Jay became a scholar of bizarre performers, writing a chapter on Buchinger for his 1998 book Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers. But with all his research, Jay’s searches for references to Buchinger’s exact techniques came up empty.

Untitled, 2/10/07, 8:06 PM, 16C, 6473x5498 (610+2142), 100%, LED Curve 1/6 , 1/15 s, R13.0, G34.5, B43.8
Matthias Buchinger, “Calligraphic Trompe-l’œil Calendar Drawing” (1709), pen and red, brown, and black ink, brush and grey wash sheet, 5 5/8 x 4 1/16 in. (purchase, Jean A. Bonna Gift, 2007) (click to enlarge)

That’s one reason that Jay started buying, as he could afford to, Buchinger’s art. “Buchinger’s calligraphy is tangible in a way that his musicianship and dexterity are not,” Jay writes in the new book. “You cannot imagine the tone from his combining the oboe with the transverse flute, or sense how masterfully he multiplied or vanished cork balls under a cup, but you can see, without any layering, without anyone’s opinion or interpretation, his writing, applied in ink, to a piece of paper or vellum, and hold it in your hand.”

Visitors won’t be able to touch the Buchinger drawings at the Met, of course, but they will be able to gaze at them through magnifying glasses provided by the museum.

Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay was inspired by the Met’s own Buchinger, a spectacular calligraphic trompe l’oeil calendar, dated 1717, that entered the collection as part of a friendship album in 2007. The show (organized by associate curator Freyda Spira with her prints department colleagues Femke Speelberg and Jennifer Farrell), unites the calendar with a sampling of Jay’s treasures: coats of arms, dense with ornament, made on commission for wealthy patrons; various elaborate family trees, including Buchinger’s own; a micrographic portrait of Queen Anne; renderings of the Ten Commandments; and other artists’ portraits of Buchinger, along with ephemera celebrating his prowess and talents.

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Matthias Buchinger, “Buchinger Family Tree Drawing” (May 28, 1729), pen and ink on paper with cutouts, 10 1/4 × 7 3/4 in.

As part of the prints department’s centennial, Wordplay also pairs Buchinger’s work with examples of calligraphy, micrography, and typographic experiments. A few Hebrew texts, on loan from the Jewish Theological Seminary, signal the early Jewish origins of micrography (and hint at a multicultural perspective that never materializes). Wordplay continues with a spectrum of alphabet-themed works from the museum’s holdings, from penmanship examples and ornamental letters to a flash of Dada and Futurism, and more recent works by Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, Tony Fitzpatrick, Jacob El Hanani, Jasper Johns, and Christopher Wool.

Jay, meanwhile, has been connecting Buchinger to a different set of contemporary artists. In the book, Jay reports his conversations with experts in deception like David Hockney and Tom Sachs as they considered whether Buchinger used an optical device to help make his tiny forms. The results were divided.

Can you help him solve the mystery?

Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 11. An event with Ricky Jay and Michael Kimmelman will be held in conjunction with the exhibition on Thursday, January 21. More information here

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