I Can’t Stop Thinking About This Drawing by a Man With No Hands or Feet

Ten Commandments, London, December 3, 1730, by Matthias Buchinger. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Portrait of Matthias Buchinger, 1705. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first thing you’ll think while looking at the infinitely intricate art of Matthias Buchinger — possibly through extra-large magnifying glasses — will be Unbelievable. Consider the interlacing ornamentation, teeny-tiny penmanship, minuscule portraits, and other feats of drawing that dazzle on their own terms; then consider that Buchinger was born in Germany in 1674 without hands or legs and, with the help of brushes and tools attached to his stumps, became, in addition to a world-class illusionist and magician (part of the exhibition is drawn from the collection of Ricky Jay), among the greatest calligraphers of his time and a master of the art of micrography (drawing with words). Also, he could thread a needle, was a marksman, and worked in four languages all over Europe. And he fathered 14 children by four wives and was famous enough for his profligacy, in addition to his work, that in England “Buckinger’s boot” became a euphemism for vagina (since his only “limb” was his penis). At this point, you’re in some Borgesian twilight zone of trust, love, misgiving, and terrible queasiness: “Am I being duped? By the Met?”

“Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay” is at the Met through April 11.

*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.