A packed audience at the Yale School of Art was treated to a glimpse into the life and artwork of an armless 17th-century artist on Tuesday night.
Renowned magician and art collector Ricky Jay came to the Yale School of Art’s 36 Edgewood Ave. building to speak as part of its weekly lecture series. His hour-long talk, which coincided with the opening of a new School of Art exhibition titled “Side Show,” focused on the accomplishments of sideshow performer Matthew Buchinger, an armless conjurer and calligrapher.
Jay noted that Buchinger is his favorite figure in the history of magic.
“This is a man with no arms who was writing words so small we literally cannot see with our naked eye,” Jay said. “If you believe this, you’ll believe anything.”
Although he is best known for his one-man magic shows and expertise in performing card tricks — which include the ability to throw a card at 90 miles per hour — Jay shared his knowledge of art collecting and magic history during the lecture. He said he first became interested in Buchinger roughly 30 years ago when he bought a piece by the artist from a friend. Since then, Jay added, he has continued to collect pieces by Buchinger and has conducted extensive research on the artist and his artistic journey as both a calligrapher and a carnival performer.
Buchinger was born in 1674 in Ansbach, Germany without hands or fully developed legs. Despite his handicap, he became a skilled magician as well as an engraver. Although he had small, finlike appendages for hands, his engravings were also known for being highly detailed.
Buchinger also played over half-a-dozen instruments.
During his talk, Jay presented a slideshow of Buchinger’s art, which included self-caricatures depicting his unusual physical condition. Referencing and citing Buchinger’s work, Jay pointed out the nuances of the artist’s micrography. To highlight his point, he showed one of Buchinger’s engraved self-portraits in which the curls of the portrait’s hair consisted of the text to seven biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, all inscribed in miniature letters.
School of Art Associate Dean Samuel Messer, who delivered the introduction to Jay’s lecture, highlighted the breadth of Jay’s work. Messer noted that beyond magic shows and art collections, he has also been a consultant on feature films, including “Forrest Gump.”
Attendees interviewed said they felt that the talk was interesting and unusual. Danielle Friedman ART ’15 said that Jay was a genuine example of someone with a deep passion who has the capability, charm and intelligence to dedicate his life to the pursuit of his dreams.
“He has a love and he has followed it,” Friedman said. “He is also generous enough to share it with all of us.”
Jay will be featured on the PBS network’s “American Masters” series on Jan. 23.