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The unbelievable story of Matthias Buchinger, 18th century polymath, magician and artist

Ricky Jay, himself a great magician, has produced a remarkable portrait of an extraordinary man – Buchinger was just 29 inches tall, and was born without hands or feet.

Ricky Jay is one of the greatest sleight-of-hand artists in the world, which is to say that he deals in deception, misdirection and the seemingly impossible. His shuffles can leave aces congregating at the top or the bottom of the deck depending on his requirements, and he will even deal from the middle if needed. Once asked, in a New Yorker profile, if there are people who still play cards with him, he replied, “Sure. Silly people”, and plenty of his most honest skills are so astonishing that they still have a touch of artifice to them. For many years, the climax of a performance has seen Jay throwing playing cards with such force that they will penetrate the “thick, pachydermatous outer layer” of a watermelon – a fruit that he often prefixes with the term “his majesty”. It should not be too surprising, then, that having finished Jay’s latest book, a biography of the 18th century magician, musician and calligrapher Matthias Buchinger, I raced online to see if there was any truth in the tale I had just read.

Buchinger delighted his audiences with an act that sounds like an improbable muddle. Alongside close-up magic, the German-born performer would play musical instruments, often of his own invention, and pull off impossible stunts using bowling balls, one of which involved knocking over a pin while leaving the cup of liquid that stood on top of it unspilled. He was also an expert in micrography – the rendering of amazingly small writing. A famous self portrait from 1724 shows Buchinger in a coat and wig, each hair of which is actually a separate line of text. In total, the wig contains seven Psalms and the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer.

This is incredible work, and that’s before you take into account that Buchinger was just 29 inches tall, and was born without hands or feet. More incredible still, as Jay mentioned when speaking on a recent episode of the Bullseye podcast, is the fact that in all of the Buchinger memorabilia he has collected over the years, “there’s only one piece where he’s billed as a little person. Everything else is talking about his skills.” The German’s abilities were so extraordinary to an 18th century audience that they trumped his disabilities.

Fans of Ricky Jay, who tend to be obsessive and evangelical, have seen him circling Buchinger for years, a magician restlessly fanning the deck prior to a trick. In 1986, he devoted a good chunk of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, his keen-eyed examination of history’s most eccentric entertainers, to the performer, and he has spent decades collecting his drawings and prints. As a result, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living, which was published this February, is inevitably a blend of biography and autobiography. It’s a study of both a fascinating 18th century polymath and the fascinating 21st century polymath who loves him.

The life that Jay reconstructs is astonishing. Despite being written in the elegant and slightly arch tone he often uses for his magic patter, there is nothing mocking in Jay’s treatment of Buchinger, whom he defines in his opening sentence as “a twenty-nine-inch tall phocomelic over-achiever”.

Buchinger was born in Ansbach, Germany in 1874, the youngest of nine children. He seems not to have been exhibited in his youth as might have been expected, and he was possibly hidden away by his parents who were, in the words of a contemporary, “distressed at his unusual form”. They planned on having him apprenticed to a tailor, according to a story that feels apocryphal, since the gig fell through when they “could find no place for a thimble”. Jay suggests this may actually have been Buchinger’s own line, adding with great tenderness, that “he was the subject of so many awful punning tributes that he may have, in some sort of self-defence, engaged in similar jokes.”

By 1694, Buchinger was performing at the Easter Fair in Leipzig. By 1698, he might be the “dwarf” without hands or feet who would “perform artistic acts with his stumps”, and there’s a further potentially glimpse of him around this time in notes regarding a troupe of tightrope walkers in Basel who were accompanied by “a conjurer without hands, who can shuffle cards, thread a needle, and load and shoot a pistol”. These are all elements that would later form part of Buchinger’s exhaustive repertoire.

By his 31st birthday in 1705, the conjurer without hands had become an artist without hands. His first surviving work is a confidently-rendered self portrait that depicts Buchinger wearing a tricorn hat and standing on a cushion. By 1710 Buchinger was sufficiently famous that souvenir prints started to emerge showing him surrounded by panels depicting his various skills. Some of them, granted, are only noteworthy because they are performed by a man without hands or feet – it is hard to imagine many entertainers getting by with a show that involved threading a needle, powdering a wig, or, in the words of a British publicity piece, shaving “very dextrously” on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 10am. And yet, he also demonstrated calligraphy with a pen he would construct himself in front of the audience, performed trick shots with firearms, engaged in displays of swordsmanship, and handled those astonishing bowling manoeuvres – a genre of entertainment that has, sadly, not proved as durable as coin and card manipulation. By the time Buchinger arrived in England in 1717, he was also listed as an accomplished musician, a master of flute, bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet, often performing with the aid of apparatus of his own invention. (He played the dulcimer, according to one witness, by placing it in a special box with holes and keys and “striking them with his stumps”.) Other notices add the flageolet, kettledrums and guitars to the CV.

Little is known of the specifics of Buchinger’s magical act, but alongside dice, card and coin tricks, he worked with cups and balls, turning the latter, in one illusion, into birds. Regardless of the details, a measure of his skill, as Jay has it, can be inferred in the fact that many dwarf performers of the time had to travel between venues in secret, since a glimpse of them was, in effect, a spoiler for their entire act. Buchinger, who was not a dwarf but was often described as one, appears not to have concealed himself at all, and a broadside printed shortly after he arrived in England speaks of “a German born witho[u]t Hands, Feet or Thighs (that never was in this Kingdom before) who does such miraculous Actions as none else can do with Hands and Feet.”

Even so, Buchinger inevitably encountered some primitive thinking about disability. At least once he was denied a permit to perform at a fair due to worries regarding “maternal imprinting” – the fear that the traumatic events witnessed by a pregnant woman could have an impact on their unborn child. (He was allowed to perform in a nearby inn “or other eatery” instead.) Despite this kind of prejudice, and despite the public shaving that was briefly offered to punters, Buchinger was clearly a success in Britain on his own terms, as he stayed for the next 22 years, sometimes working with a man named DeHightrehight, a Swiss fire-eater who ate burning coal and cooked beef as it sat in his mouth, and becoming famous enough by 1722 to witness that supreme 21st century accolade: an erroneous announcement of his own death.

Even though there is only one instance in which his height was singled out in promotional materials, the portrait that Jay ultimately paints is of a man who is resigned to the fact that, to some eyes, his entire life would be a performance. Perhaps this is why, throughout his career, Buchinger seemed determined to take ownership of his disabilities and put them to work for him. He almost always signed souvenir prints and drawings with a mention that he was “born without hands or feet in form,” and, a few periods of over-exposure aside, his canny approach worked beautifully. He was in demand as a performer and an artist for much of his life, before retiring in comfort in Ireland, where he died in 1739.

It is hard, at times, not to suspect that Buchinger’s riotously expansive repertoire mirrors Jay’s own, which, over the years, has included everything from decapitating rubber chickens with playing cards to making faces appear in tortillas. Both men seem to have benefited from the curiosity and stubbornness required of the best magicians. Jay’s understanding of the role of deception in magic certainly allows him insights that other biographers might have missed. Call it empathy: again and again Jay grounds Buchinger as a real man who is not above playing the angles. His most beautiful artwork may have been created purely to serve as promotional material, Jay suggests. His letters to patrons might overstress the difficulties he faced with his commissions in order to raise the price of them. His drawings themselves often return to the same themes and techniques, which Jay sees as an indication of the way Buchinger used the sale of art produced in relative bulk to support his large family (he was married four times and had fourteen children). “Expedience rather than deception is the main element in this formula,” Jay argues.

Even the gaps in the narrative are interesting when seen through the correct lens. Jay’s frustration at the lack of information regarding Buchinger’s performance sheds light on his own concerns. More than anything, Jay wonders: how did Buchinger portray himself to his audience? “Was he modest or grandiose, or funny...? Did he speak English? Did he say anything – ever?” It’s a reminder of the little details that make Jay’s own illusions so truly magical: the tic-like smoothing of one palm with the other after a shuffle, the way he greets each impossible reveal with a wry chuckle at the inevitability of it all.

One of Jay’s greatest insights into Buchinger evidently came about because of an event in his own life. In the winter of 2014, Jay slipped and fell, breaking a rib and his right wrist. As he recovered, he found his injury meant that he now needed to adapt card techniques that had worked reliably for years.

“It was pretty frightening,” Jay admitted on the Bullseye podcast. “But it did allow me to get a little closer to Buchinger in the sense of realising that there were some things I had to rethink, it wasn’t simply a matter of being able to do everything I’d done before... I have to approach things in a slightly different way...and I think that that’s what Buchinger did when he approached the cups and balls. His method for lifting a cup and revealing a live bird would be quite different to the method of someone who wasn’t conformed as he was.”

There is a hint, then, that Buchinger was not a great magician and artist despite his personal circumstances, but that he may have grown to true greatness out of a need to overcome them. Maybe this is true for all of the best magicians. There is certainly more to both Matthias Buchinger and Ricky Jay than their ingenious trickery. Buchinger’s famous self portrait might contain lines of text apparently “written without magnification that often cannot be read without magnification”, but it is also a probing depiction of the artist himself, who fixes the viewer with a frowning, determined stare, just a little sadness, a little melancholic humour visible, perhaps, within the eyes. It is a striking example of micrography, and it is also an exceptionally skilful and teasing portrait of a man whose apparent directness may be a form of defence.

Equally Jay, for all his background in deception, has been exacting in his pursuit of the truth, and he has written about Buchinger with great empathy and insight, and absolutely no sentimentality. He recognises that the fleeting brilliances performers toil to create are so often immediately lost. He understands that some novelties are worth preserving. Many magicians can make people vanish, in other words, but here is one who can bring a man back from the dead.

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Ricky Jay is published by Siglio Press 

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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