Mystery in Miniature

Stipple engraving of Matthias Buchinger self-portrait (detail), London, 1724
Collection of Ricky Jay/Siglio Press
Detail from a self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger, 1724; his hair consists of Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer

Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.
                                           — Gaston Bachelard

Perhaps one must be a “clairvoyant of the small” (to borrow a phrase from Robert Walser, the Swiss writer who spent his final years obsessively filling scraps of paper with microscopic writing) fully to appreciate the remarkable life and astonishing graphic creations of Matthias Buchinger, who was born without hands or feet in Nuremberg in 1674 and never grew beyond the height of twenty-nine inches. An itinerant magician, musician, writing master, and artist active in Britain and the Continent, Buchinger combined a Grub Street readiness to produce fancy illustrated documents on demand (family trees, coats of arms, wedding announcements, and the like) with a Germanic piety so that, by some wizardry, curls of hair turn into threads of minuscule sentences from the Bible, and sturdy capital letters sprout leaves and tendrils.

Buchinger died at sixty-five, having outlived three of his four wives and fathered fourteen children. His wondrous powers have been a longtime obsession of the magician and writer-savant Ricky Jay, who has collected some fifty examples of Buchinger’s baroque work, from engraved self-portraits framed with his characteristic arabesques and curlicues to spiraling texts that would fit on a thumbnail. Under the rather loose theme of “Wordplay,” a selection of Jay’s collection—along with work by other artists, such as Jasper Johns and Louise Bourgeois, who combine text and image in various visually arresting ways—is now on view in a much noted exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jay has written an appealing short book on Buchinger, with excellent illustrations, to coincide with the show.

Stewart-Denham family tree by Matthias Buchinger, Edinburgh, May 10, 1729
Collection of Ricky Jay/Siglio Press
Stewart-Denham family tree by Matthias Buchinger, 1729; click to enlarge

A closer look at Buchinger’s meticulous fusions of calligraphy and imagery (and “closer” is the operative word) leaves a lingering sense that one is encountering something more than mere crowd-pleasing stunts or trompe l’oeil effects. The “Little Man of Nuremberg,” as Buchinger was billed in performances in his native Germany and, in his increasingly peripatetic trajectory, in the British Isles, excelled in acts of miniaturization. With his abbreviated arms, he somehow managed to construct curious wooden contraptions—miners digging for coal, for example—and placed them in small glass containers, the earliest known examples of such ship-in-a-bottle head-scratchers. While astonished spectators looked on, he threaded a needle, shaved, bowled, played musical instruments (some of which he had invented himself), performed tricks with cards, dice, and other conjuror’s props, and danced the hornpipe on his leather-padded stumps.

Most amazing, however, was the Little Man’s virtuoso writing, which he apparently executed—eyewitness accounts are surprisingly scarce—with the pen held between what was left of his arms and not, as some have thought, between his teeth. “He writes with the quill he cut, so cleverly that no one in the world has seen its equal,” exclaimed a German spectator, “writes many letters upside-down, right-side up, backwards and forwards, as though they had been printed, so that no person can tell whether they had been printed or written.” As Susan Stewart observes in her influential essay on literary miniaturization in her book On Longing, such feats of imitation, several of which are displayed at the Met, were not unknown during a period when the new technology of printing was supplanting the manuscript book. Though generally it was done by writers equipped with hands.

More dazzling still was Buchinger’s micrography, miniature writing that can only be properly taken in, or even deciphered, when viewed with a magnifying glass (helpfully supplied by the Met). He inscribed the Lord’s Prayer in a tiny spiral within an ornamental border, on a piece of paper about 1¼ inch wide. In an elaborate self-portrait, he fashioned a wig in which the curls consist of the tiny letters of seven complete Psalms and, again, the Lord’s Prayer. In a performance that beggars belief, Buchinger drew a portrait of Queen Anne of England “surrounded by curlicue designs,” as Ricky Jay notes, which are “revealed (under magnification) to be three chapters from the Book of Kings.” Anne’s flowing hair, in “perhaps the tiniest example yet of Buchinger’s writing,” extends the Bible verses in disheveled splendor. All three of these marvels are in the exhibition. 

Buchinger was manifestly both showman and show, a living curiosity who constructed and performed curiosities—“his own wunderkammer,” as Jay notes. As a professional performer himself, and a sleight-of-hand man of genius, Jay offers an insider’s guide to Buchinger’s career, an awareness, for example, of how he had to keep upping the ante, excelling a standard that he himself had established. “He achieved genuine notoriety that led to debilitating overexposure—a problem often faced by modern-day performers and artists.”

Sketch of Buchinger by Pieter Tillesmans, taken from life, London, 1730
The British Library
Sketch by Pieter Tillesmans of Matthias Buchinger, drawn from life, London, 1730

A self-described “non-believer” in the supernatural, Jay is fascinated by the mystery of Buchinger’s remarkable effects. Was he a consummate prodigy or merely a con-artist—“a fraud, a hoax, a put-on”? Did he use magnifying lenses on the sly, or stencils or rotational devices of some kind for those looping curls? Jay enlists various artists, including, inevitably, David Hockney, to speculate on Buchinger’s possible use of magnification. “Of course he used a lens,” Art Spiegelman says, though Hockney, for his part, speculates that human eyesight was perhaps stronger in the days before electric lighting.

Lawrence Weschler goes further, suggesting that extraordinary disability like Buchinger’s may call forth, in certain cases, extraordinary compensation. Thus, Buchinger’s eyesight “may have become ever more agile and, yes, dexterous (prehensile!). If you can’t actually pick up and rotate an object to get a better look at it…maybe your eyes learn to do the grasping and rotating themselves.” One has strayed into Oliver Sacks country.

Jay concedes, in barrages of unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions, that we actually know very little about the precise nature of Buchinger’s performances. “Was he modest, or grandiose, or funny in his presentation? What did he say? Did he speak English? Did he say anything—ever?” And again, “Was he a serious musician or a sort of novelty one-man-band?”

An air of the occult, of secrets hidden from human sight, pervades Buchinger’s arcane work. He generally inscribed religious texts in his drawings. This in itself was not unusual, in calendars (Buchinger made some of these, almost Jugendstil in feel, with sparsely lyrical landscapes and floral borders) or books of hours. And as Stewart notes, “the Bible as the book of greatest significance, the book holding the world both past and future, is a volume often chosen for miniaturization.” Striking examples are on show at the Met, including a Bible from 1300.

A calendar drawn by Buchinger, 1709
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A trompe l’oeil calendar by Matthias Buchinger, 1709

But Buchinger takes such practices to extremes. The use of miniature script to form images goes back to the Hebrew Bible’s injunctions against graven images, but Buchinger’s curls and curlicues, his letter-hair, may also play on the Fourth Gospel’s incantatory opening, “In the beginning was the word.” Occult notions of microcosm mirroring macrocosm—which dominated the intellectual world of Renaissance “magic,” so well described by the scholar Frances Yates, and survived into Buchinger’s time, especially in pietistic circles in Germany—may also be in play in his drawings.

An odd poetry surrounds details of Buchinger’s life, evoked with a light touch in Jay’s beguiling “biographical compendium full of surprises and synchronicity.” Young Matthias’s parents thought the tailor’s trade might suit him, but, according to one account, “could find no place for the thimble.” Thimbles and thumbs crop up in many tales of the miniature. The diminutive “artist of the beautiful” in Hawthorne’s story, who manufactures an artificial butterfly, is sent a thimble to repair. Jay draws his epigraph from the same tale, which also exudes an occult aura: “The beautiful idea has no relation to size, and may be as perfectly developed in a space too minute for any but microscopic investigation as within the ample verge that is measured by the arc of a rainbow.”

Buchinger was evidently, as Jay notes, a “master of mystery,” both on stage and off. He got himself talked about—by Dr. Johnson, for example, who dismissed a fashionable new style of literature as “only like Buckinger, who had no hands, and so wrote with his feet.” (Johnson clearly never witnessed a Buchinger performance.) A premature elegy for Buchinger was falsely ascribed to Jonathan Swift, himself a clairvoyant of the Lilliputian. “Is all history the analysis of discrepancies?” Jay wonders, as he skewers the attribution, and continues his obsessive quest for the astonishing Little Man.

“Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawing from the Collection of Ricky Jay” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 11. Ricky Jay’s Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living has just been published by Siglio Press.