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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY SIX Matthias Buchinger

I was telling the Race Marshal this morning over coffee and slice of bee sting cake (almonds, vanilla custard, cream and honey) about a circus that set up for a week each year in a field near where I lived in Somerset. One treat was to slide down the slope of the big top and another was The Spotted Lady. My pocket money was ten pence and entrance to the damp little tent where a wooden cage confined a rather miserable-looking girl covered in black dots was sixpence. I could go twice because my brother who was twelve was too embarrassed but would lend me extra from his stipend of one shilling and thrupence.

It was a freak show of a mediocre kind that depended for its success – apart from nudity, rare in my village – on creating a sense of otherness. Decades later, when I started working with people with disabilities, I had to confront my own entrenched sense of detachment – that 'the disabled' were other than me. My job was to use photography, film and websites to help 'them' communicate because either they could not use speech or writing or because no one was listening, and so I learned their stories first hand.

Over fifteen years, the client base extended beyond mental handicap to mental health conditions, permanent and temporary, to paraplegia and other physical disabilities, to cancer and chronic ill-health. By then I had realised the obvious: there isn't an 'other', except as we make it – like the Lady marking herself with spots that others don't have. Or like Matthias Buchinger, an artist of genius who was born in 1674 in the pleasant town of Ansbach that I pedalled through on the way here.

Buchinger's parents must have been remarkable for the age. Very little is known of them but certainly they invested time in their son because he reached adulthood with an extraordinary range of skills. Not many artists are noticed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Buchinger had sixteen of his surviving drawings shown in an exhibition there a couple of years ago.

Buchinger could achieve miracles of micrography – the art of writing Biblical texts in very small, almost microscopic letters. What you might think is a drawing of a head, turns out under a magnifying class to be a chapter from the Bible. The art form is Jewish, from the ninth century, though it quickly spread to Islamic and Christian practice because it offered both art and obedience to the Second Commandment's prohibition of graven imagery (this artifice is rather like the pragmatic 'God's Pockets' – the extra large ravioli in which the monks in Nuremberg used to hide meat from the sight of God during Lent).

Buchinger appears to have learned his skills from the virtuosic micrographer Johann Michael Püchler who lived in nearby Nuremberg. Püchler made a famous facsimile of Cranach the Elder's portrait of Martin Luther out of passages from the Wisdom of Sirach (which Luther had translated) and from Luther's own Ninety Five Theses.

Püchler's micrographical portrait of Martin Luther (c)metropolitan museum of art

Buchinger could also paint: for his aristocratic patrons he turned out portraits, historical allegories, landscapes and drew their genealogical trees. He was a skilled craftsman and made ships in bottles – even, for one patron, a coal mine in a bottle.

The range of instruments that he could play was legendary – violin, trumpet, drums. A great shot with a pistol, he could also throw blades with accuracy. He was a master at cards and at magic and women found him irresistible: three wives, seventy mistresses, fourteen children.

This latter characteristic brought him a nickname that cannot be set down here – otherwise he was known as the The Greatest Living German. And his talents made him very comfortable for most of his life: George I, for whom he made a flute of his own design, gave him 20 guineas. But as he entered his sixties (he died aged 66) poverty loomed: Buchinger, by his own admission, was 'no longer a novelty … having shewed through all the kingdom.'

And what had he 'shewed through all the kingdom'?

Himself. Matthais Buchinger had phocomelia. Born without hands and with stumps for legs, he grew only to a height of 29 inches. His micrography was achieved by gripping the pen under his chin.

Ed Ruscha in a Tate film The Tension of Words and Images -

This is the wonderful organ in St. Gumbertus in Ansbach, much admired by Albert Schweitzer. Originally built in 1739 by Johann Christoph Wiegleb, it went through various reincarnations but has now been restored to the original design at a cost of 1.5 million euros raised by private subscription -

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Jun 10, 2020

How can someone without hands play the violin, or any musical instrument for that matter?

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