The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a giant. Two million items are spread over 45 acres of gallery space, including an ancient Egyptian sandstone temple, an entire 16th-century Spanish patio, and chariots and sarcophagi by the dozen. Yet currently on display amid the mountains of marble and valleys of bronze is an exhibition of tiny wonders showcasing the work of Matthias Buchinger, the so-called “Little Man of Nuremberg”, which neatly shows that when it comes to aesthetic thrills size doesn’t matter.
Buchinger stood only 29 inches high and was born without hands or feet, instead having small, finlike appendages. And yet he had tremendous dexterity and was such a master of calligraphy and micrography – literally “small writing” – that he toured Europe displaying his skills.
His pictures have an almost superhuman level of detail. Look closely at the engraving of his 1724 self-portrait (above) and you’ll see that his voluminous wig has been created out of lines of Biblical text, spelling out seven psalms and the Lord’s prayer. Take a magnifying glass, helpfully provided by the museum, to the curlicues that surround his “Portrait of Queen Anne” (1718) and you’ll see that they too consist of flowing lines of text that make up the first three chapters of the Book of Kings. Everywhere rococo designs and physical particulars are woven from a kind of scriptural DNA.
Buchinger was born in 1674 near Nuremberg. Little is known of his childhood or how he acquired his remarkable skill, although he joked that his parents had tried to apprentice him to a tailor but “they could find no place for the thimble”. By the time he reached his thirties, however, Buchinger was a favourite at the royal courts of Germany, France and England. His most popular artworks seem to have been coats of arms and family trees – with descendants’ names being written inside the trees’ apples – which provided his viewers with a personalised keepsake of his skill.
Yet, according to contemporary accounts, his artistry was only one part of a multifaceted entertainment package. Buchinger was also an acclaimed magician, adept at making balls disappear and conjuring birds out of thin air. He loved to create dioramas inside glass bottles – which he called “whimsy bottles” – and was also able to play half a dozen musical instruments. He travelled to England in the retinue of the Hanoverian king, George I, to whom he had given a flute-like instrument that he invented himself. He had four wives and 14 children. Such was his fecundity that his name became incorporated into a vulgar piece of slang for female genitalia – “Buchinger’s boot”. He eventually settled in Cork, Ireland, where according to the Dublin Penny Journal, he died in 1739 “at an advanced age, in easy circumstances, and much respected”.
This exhibition, drawn from the collection of the American magician and actor Ricky Jay, has a whiff of the magical about it. How could an individual who was “sent into the world scarce half made up” create such microscopic, mind-bending beauties? Indeed, considering the exhibition’s provenance, one wonders if the whole thing was a hoax. But while it would be understandable to see Buchinger as a savant, or a one-off, the exhibition explains how he was part of a continuum of artists working with words. The curators have plucked pictures from the Met’s cavernous vaults and juxtaposed them with Buchinger’s minuscule marvels, showing that micrography is in fact an ancient practice. Traditionally a Jewish art form – and later adopted by Islamic artisans – it allowed the devout to create artworks without exactly creating pictures. This niftily circumvented the second commandment, forbidding the veneration of images. The dutiful, if canny, artist could claim they were not creating a likeness of anything; they were simply writing a sentence and arranging it in an artful manner.
The convergence of typography with pictures has since become widespread in modern art. In paintings by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha, words or word-like shapes are used not to give out information but to play with the discrepancy between seeing and reading. In their paintings, words inhabit a strange hinterland between signifier and signified, between art and poetry. The same could be said about Buchinger’s works. Although religious texts predominate in his pieces, he used them not for evangelical aims but in order to create a giddy, almost vertiginous, effect. In Buchinger’s tiny miniatures the word really is made flesh.
Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s drawings from the collection of Ricky Jay Metropolitan Museum of Art, until April 11th