Something so small shouldn’t be easy to find. And it wasn’t.
As befitting a new Metropolitan Museum of Art gallery exhibit called “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” you climb the main Met staircase and turn sharply left. But don’t walk too far down the hallway or you’ll miss it all. Fact is, artistically speaking, missing the highlights of this collection of micrographic art is easy. And unless you want to squint your way through each piece, the graciously provided Met Museum powerful magnifying glass will do just fine.
But first, a little introduction starting with the exhibition’s long title:
Matthias Buchinger was an 18th century magician who lived from 1674 to 1739. He was also known for his elaborate artistic drawings, many of which featured tiny lines of biblical passages in line letters written too small to see without magnification. This style of art is called micrography, and is defined as a Jewish art form that uses minute lines of text to shape words, pattens and/or forms. It dates back to the 9th century. The way this magician created his artwork was magical in itself considering that Buchinger was born without hands or legs and stood barely 2 1/2 feet tall!
Ricky Jay, an American stage magician, was born Richard Jay Potash in 1948 in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family. As a teenage magician he became fascinated by the overall history of magic and while studying his abracadabras, learned about Buchinger, eventually starting his own collection of Buchinger’s artwork. His first purchased piece was a tiny drawing that incorporated the Ten Commandments. It’s on display at the Met.
The Wordplay exhibit at the Met, continues through April 11th. In addition to focusing on about 18 of Matthias Buchinger’s remarkable drawings, the presentation also showcases a number of other micrographic artworks involving words and letters including a micrographic German Bible from around 1300 as well as some prints by artists including Jasper Johns and Louise Bourgeois. But it’s the astounding story and artwork behind Ricky Jay’s personal Buchinger collection that will fascinate you considering how Matthias microscopically drew his masterpieces of continuous thin lines utilizing a physical dexterity that was nothing less than minutely mystically magical.
As you’ll also realize during your gallery exploration, Hebrew micrography lends itself to a variety of Jewish-themed work including wedding ketubas as well as the delicately tiny lettering that scribes write to create the very small words that are placed on a scroll inside a mezuzah.
Without a doubt, it’s the magnifying style of Matthias Buchinger’s hidden words and micrography design that stands out. His continuous fine line art style reminded me of the contemporary caricature style of the legendary Al Hirschfeld. He was nicknamed “The Line King” for his thin black lined pen drawings that became weekly staples in The New York Times. To most Hirschfeld fans, part of the fun meant squinting or taking a magnifying glass to search out the hidden name of his daughter, Nina, which he magically and microscopically incorporated into his drawings. Hirschfeld gave readers a special clue, placing the number of “Ninas” in the drawing next to his artwork signature. Finding the hidden tiny “Ninas” was a microscopic challenge that one could compare to the discovery of Matthias Buchinger’s hidden words.
On a personal note, for a number of years before Al Hirschfeld’s passing at age 99, I had the honor of working with him on a continuous advertising campaign with Texaco and with New York’s other Met—The Metropolitan Opera. As Hirschfeld proved and as the Met Museum’s current Wordplay Buchinger exhibit shows, even when microscopic drawing styles are separated by hundreds of years, you still can’t beat a great line. Especially when that fine line seems to run forever.