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Matthias Buchinger: The Little Man with a Big Reputation

by Hannah Brocklehurst, 20 December 2016

Hannah Brocklehurst is Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Scottish National Gallery, responsible for the Gallery’s collection of prints and drawings dating from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.

The Scottish National Gallery’s collection of drawings spans a phenomenal range of artists, subjects and media, from Italian fifteenth-century drawings on vellum, to highly-finished British watercolors, to informal doodles in the margins of private letters between artists. The current exhibition Drawing Attention: Rare Works on Paper, 1400 – 1900, is an opportunity to view some of the more unexpected items from this vast collection - the rare, the beautiful and the downright quirky. Armed with this brief, one particular drawing sprung to mind almost immediately whilst planning the exhibition - a drawing of an altarpiece by a German artist called Matthias Buchinger (1674 – 1740).

Matthias Buchinger, An Altarpiece, pen and brown ink on vellum, 1728

At first appearance the drawing is very unassuming. Made with pen and brown ink on vellum, it shows an elaborate Anglican altarpiecewith sculpted figures and tablets of carved text. On (very) close inspection, the astonishing intricacy of the draughsmanship is revealed. Within an image that measures little more than a sheet of A4 are contained the entire Lord's Prayer, Creed and the Ten Commandments – in total around 700 words. This is even more surprising since this text makes up only a small proportion of the drawing’s busy composition. Buchinger specialised in drawings like this, so tiny and so detailed that they are barely visible to the naked eye. Often he made use of a calligraphic trompe l’oeil, known as micrography, in which the images themselves are ingeniously made up of lines of minute text. In spring of 2016 I visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York to see Wordplay, the first exhibition exploring Buchinger’s art. Here, magnifying glasses were provided to enable visitors to properly view the almost unbelievable artworks on display. 

Detail showing the Ten Commandments

Drawing was one of a repertoire of talents which made Buchinger one the best-known performers of his day. He was also an expert marksman, a conjurer and he played over a dozen musical instruments. His extraordinary dexterity was all the more remarkable given Buchinger, known as ‘The Little Man of Nuremberg’, stood at only 74 cm tall and had severe deformities both to his legs and his arms. One contemporary, the printseller James Caulfield, described his arms as ‘more resembling fins of a fish than arms of a man'. During the eighteenth century it was not unusual for disabled people to tout themselves as performers and curiosities to make a living. However, Buchinger was not exploited but was an entrepreneur, who was proud of his amazing capabilities and who used his talents to challenge expectations surrounding disability. Frequently, as with our drawing, Buchinger signs himself as ‘Matthias Buchinger, born Without, Hands or Feet’.

Matthias Buchinger, An 'Original character – most cordially received by the curious and the lovers of originality'. A fragment from The Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, by R.S. Kirby, 1804, which was given to the Gallery along with the drawing.

Buchinger married four times and had at least fourteen children by eight different women, although he is alleged to have had children by as many as seventy lovers. His celebrity extended across Europe, and he performed in places as far removed as Copenhagen and Paris, Chelmsford and Aberdeen. Our drawing was completed in Edinburgh on 4 April 1728. In 1729, Buchinger’s son Christopher, with his fourth wife, Elizabeth Thyses, was baptised in the city, indicating he may have stayed in Scotland for some time. Despite the rarity of drawings by Buchinger in the public domain, there are two in Edinburgh, ours and one in National Library of Scotland.

Drawing Attention: Rare Works on Paper, 1400–1900 is currently on display at the Royal Scottish Academy (Lower Galleries) until 3 January 2017.

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