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2016 New Yorker Article

When we call a thing “unbelievable,” we’re expressing a belief that it’s true. Similarly, we employ “incredible” to confer credibility, and “fantastic” to admit facts. We thereby put happy faces on mortifications of our common sense. The umbrella term is “wonder,” which applies as both subject and effect to “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” a historical show of prints, drawings, books, and manuscripts, involving words and letters, by numerous artists and artisans, at the Metropolitan Museum.  

 refer to the show’s central complement of works by and about Buchinger (1674-1739), a German artist and performer who was born without hands and feet and stood just twenty-nine inches tall. Buchinger barnstormed fairs, inns, and courts in Germany, France, England, and Ireland in the early eighteenth century, exhibiting his skills as a calligrapher who specialized in micrography: drawing with lines of infinitesimal text, such that a normal-looking head of hair might turn out, on close inspection, to transcribe in swirling cursive a chapter of the Bible.

Buchinger won popularity, too, by playing musical instruments, building tableaux of objects in bottles, loading and firing guns, doing magic tricks with cups and balls, and bowling—“knocking down pins on which a glass of liquor was balanced without missing a drop,” according to one witness. He had three wives whom he outlived, one who outlived him, and a total of fourteen children. How he did all this—or, really, any of it—not even Ricky Jay knows for sure. Jay, the superlative card magician and a scholar and collector of antique marvels, lent nearly all the Buchinger material in “Wordplay.” Finely curated by Freyda Spira, the show ranges from a medieval Hebrew Bible—micrography was devised by ninth-century Jews in the Middle East—to alphabetic works by Jasper Johns and other contemporaries. It coincides with the publication of a beautiful book, “Matthias Buchinger: ‘The Greatest German Living,’ ” in which Jay recounts his decades-long hunt for legacies of “the Little Man of Nuremberg.” It’s a delicious read, spiced by anecdotal encounters with the author’s fellow-obsessives in a field as deep as it is narrow. I had never heard of Buchinger before the book arrived in the mail. The improbable matter and elegant manner of the writing put me in mind of Borges. I thought the story might be a brilliant fable, if not a hoax, and fell into enjoying it as such. Jay anticipates the suspicion in an afterword:

He does this, and he does that, and he shows these, and he plays that, and those, and he made these, and invented this, and wrote that, and he wrote that ten times smaller, but he didn’t have these, and he didn’t have that, and he had fourteen of those. . . . Sure he did.

Thus ventriloquizing a reader’s skepticism, Jay justifiably gloats at having occasioned, yet again, the “unbelievable”—a solid though wildly implausible verity, like the inexplicable reappearance of an ace of spades.

Buchinger’s existence and feats are attested to by a number of his Decalogues (designs incorporating the Ten Commandments), family trees, coats of arms, and a portrait of Queen Anne—most of them bearing his signature written in forward, backward, and upside-down calligraphy, and the epithet “born without Hands and Feet”—and by contemporaneous portraits of him, as well as articles, poems, diaries, broadsides, and playbills about him. Jay scrupulously critiques the sometimes contradictory or doubtful evidence. (He muses at one point, “Is all history the analysis of discrepancies?”) He decides that a premature epitaph for Buchinger, written in verse and likely published as a broadside “both in Dublin and Edinburgh in 1722” (seventeen years before his actual death, in Ireland), was not, as has been claimed, the work of Jonathan Swift, though it may be a parody of it.

Jay also quotes, “with caveats,” an account of Buchinger “from someone named Smith” in a Dublin journal, in 1833: “Notwithstanding, too, his reluctance to the manner of life from which he was compelled to seek his subsistence, he was rather of a sportive humor, and had great liveliness of spirits.” Smith reported that an eminent doctor had obtained Buchinger’s body “and his skeleton is said to be preserved.” But, by the time of his death, Buchinger’s celebrity had waned. In a petition for funds to care for his family, he lamented that he was “no longer a novelty” after “having shewed through all the kingdom.”

Almost nothing is known of Buchinger’s early life. He was born near Nuremberg to parents who, by one account, kept him hidden from public view. Perhaps he began performing after they died. There’s recorded mention of the appearance, at a fair in Leipzig, in 1694, of a man meeting his description, but the earliest work by Buchinger in the Met show is from 1709, when he was thirty-five. It is a stunning, fool-the-eye drawing of a calendar of saint’s days in December, ostensibly mounted in the frame with pins, and curling at the edges.

Buchinger was surely influenced, if not trained, by Johann Michael Püchler, a Nuremberg master of micrography. Püchler’s portrait, in the show, of Martin Luther, after a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, secretes passages from the Apocryphal Book of Sirach (which Luther translated). Buchinger’s style is similar and nearly as accomplished. A 1724 engraving from a possible lost self-portrait of Buchinger, made by an unknown artist in London, reproduces the micrography that formed the artist’s wig: “seven complete Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer,” Jay assures us. The writing only verges on legibility, even when viewed with the magnifying glasses that the Met provides. The face in Buchinger’s portrait of Queen Anne, made in 1718, is rather coarsely cartoonish, yet the picture ravishes with its details of hair and clothing, and of the scrollwork that comprises three chapters of the Biblical Book of Kings. His largest surviving Decalogue, at twenty-one inches tall, arrays the Commandments in the rendering of an ornate, columned sanctuary interior. It’s magnificent.

There are reports that Buchinger wrote with a quill pen held between his arms, one of which sprouted a small, thumblike node, capable of gripping. But no witnesses supplemented accounts of their amazement with descriptions of his procedures. An engraved portrait that a German artist made of Buchinger, in 1710, includes thirteen surrounding vignettes that picture him at tables, bearing his instruments and props, but just one depicts him in action, playing a hammered clavier. Show-business publicity of the time was given to extravagant and dubious claims. Jay writes that Samuel Johnson, whose life overlapped Buchinger’s by thirty years, “asserted that the Little Man wrote with his feet.” In general, it’s hard to gainsay that solon, but in this instance Jay maintains that Johnson erred.

Artists who work without the use of hands figure with some frequency throughout histories of art and performance. Notable in “Wordplay” is the micrographic gem of a petalled design, encompassing the Lord’s Prayer in a circle the size of a nickel, by Martha Ann Honeywell, a nineteenth-century American who held a pen with her teeth. But common practices exert no appeal for Jay, who writes that Buchinger captured “my interest in unusual entertainments.” Jay lives to dumbfound like any magician, only with a passion that extends backward in time and outward into remote regions of the recherché.

The convergence of Jay’s eccentric pursuits with disciplined art history is a bit of a stretch for the Met, but it is gracefully handled, and defensible on a couple of grounds. One is a revealing focus on historical developments of calligraphy and decorative letter forms—seeing doubled with reading—with special attention to the obscure tradition of micrography, which has not gone extinct. (Three drawings in the show by the contemporary Israeli artist Jacob El Hanani look to be minimalist abstractions but are haunted by traces of writing in Hebrew.) The other is a dramatizing of the drive for self-fulfillment that artists share with prodigious individuals in any field. There’s a touch, beyond the incredible, of sublimity in Buchinger’s compensations for an unpromising physique. Take it with you when viewing any of the museum’s treasures, none a random deal from the deck of human possibilities.