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The impossibly miniature drawings of Matthias Buchinger


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At the blog of the NY Review of Books, Christopher Benfey writes about Matthias Buchinger, a fascinating figure who is the subject of an exhibition currently on view at the Met in New York. Buchinger was born in Nuremberg in 1674 without hands or feet, and grew to be only twenty-nine inches tall. Nonetheless he became, as Benfey writes, “an itinerant magician, musician, writing master, and artist active in Britain and the Continent.” Perhaps his most remarkable work is his miniature drawings, in which he disguised impossibly tiny writing as figurative detail (see above). Here’s an excerpt from Benfey’s piece:

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.

Image: Detail from a self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger, 1724; his hair consists of Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Via NYR Daily.