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11 April 2016

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.

By Christian Donlan

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”.

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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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