Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads” looked like the sculptural ravings of a madman in the 18th century, but today they are influencing artists in ways their irascible creator would have appreciated.
In the last 13 years of his life, the German Baroque sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–83) created a series of astonishingly expressive portrait busts. Working obsessively and in isolation, he sculpted more than 60 so-called character heads, carving them in alabaster or casting them in a lead or tin alloy. For many, if not most, of them, Messerschmidt served as his own model, periodically turning to a mirror and making faces.
People today who encounter the artist’s wildly contorted heads often assume they were made recently, not when Napoleon was a child and the United States didn’t exist. Seeing them up close, we imagine the artist (if that’s who we’re looking at) smirking, whimpering, or shrieking at us directly from the 18th century.
Messerschmidt’s modern-looking works have made him an art-world favorite in recent years, both with the museum-going public and with a number of painters, sculptors and photographers. This is a dramatic turnaround from 200 years ago, when his grimacing heads were dismissed as the freakish output of a madman. In a rare public auction of the artist’s work at Sotheby’s in 2005, the Louvre paid $4.8 million for The Ill-Humored Man, a record for any 18th century sculpture.
Many of the bidders at Sotheby’s that day were collectors of modern and contemporary art, not more traditional works, says Antonia Boström of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “Sometimes the Old Master collectors don’t know quite what to make of Messerschmidt.”
Boström, the Getty’s senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts, is the curator of a fascinating new exhibition on view there through October 14. “Messerschmidt and Modernity” is the first exploration of the artist and his influence on the modern and contemporary art world. Whether the sculptor was, in fact, a madman is a matter the show leaves up in the air.
In a sign of the character heads’ low esteem shortly after Messerschmidt’s death, they were assigned bizarre and sometimes comical names. Thus the Getty show includes A Hypocrite and a Slanderer, Just Rescued From Drowning and A Cheeky Nitpicky Mocker. Left out of the show are The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy, The Incapable Bassoonist and Afflicted with Constipation. For his part, the sculptor had called the heads simply kopfstücke or “head pieces.”
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born nearly 300 years ago in the village of Wiesensteig in what is now southern Germany. At 18, he moved to Vienna, where he studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts. By the 1760s, he was a widely admired artist in the court of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Emperor Francis I.
Deft and self-confident, Messerschmidt portrayed his chubby-chinned patrons in the florid academic style of the day, with undulating fabric and fluttering ribbons. After a sojourn in Rome to study classical sculpture, his style became more severe and less decorative. The faces in his commissioned work now typically evinced a Neoclassical blankness, calling to mind the rulers of Republican Rome.
By the 1770s, however, signs of mental strain were evident. Messerschmidt had always been irascible. He’d once punched a fellow artist in the face after hearing his facility at carving dismissed as a gift from the devil. Now, in his late 30s, he was increasingly prickly and unpredictable. The man suffered from a “confusion of mind” and “peculiar quirks of the imagination,” the chancellor advised the empress. In line for a government post as a professor of sculpture in 1772 and again in 1774, Messerschmidt was passed over both times.
Humiliated, he sold his home and belongings and left Vienna for good. From 1775 until his death eight years later at age 47, he lived as a hermit in a cottage outside Pressburg (now Bratislava in the Slovak Republic). Here, alone and embittered, he carried on the project that had consumed him since 1770: carving one strange head after another.
An obsession with weird facial expressions sounds nuttier today than it would have in the 18th century. Physiognomy—judging a person’s character from the shape of the face—was a respectable science during the European Enlightenment. An offshoot, pathiognomy, purported to analyze facial expressions scientifically.
The Getty exhibition includes works by several of Messerschmidt’s physiognomy-minded contemporaries. Notable is a circa 1783 self-portrait of French painter Joseph Ducreux yawning exuberantly, arms stretched and belly out. Also on display is a treatise by Charles Le Brun, an artist in the court of Louis XIV, with crude line drawings depicting sadness, fear, joy, anger, and so on—it could be an instruction manual for silent-movie actors.
In none of these works do the faces approach the convulsive abandon of Messerschmidt’s. Typically, his character heads are mostly head and neck, without hair or clothes. This focuses our attention on their bunched muscles, stretched skin and jutting sinews. Even the misnamed Quiet Peaceful Sleep features pursed lips and a knitted brow.
Despite the sculptor’s claim that he was cataloging the full range of human expression, his carved faces tend to share certain poses. In all but one of the nine character heads at the Getty, the lips are tightly sealed. In four of the nine—including the Louvre’s Ill-Humored Man and the Getty’s own Vexed Man—the eyes are squeezed shut, as well. Often the nose is wrinkled. If there were fingers in the ears, the effect would be complete. The subjects appear to be shutting out the world.
There is good reason to believe that this is how Messerschmidt felt. In 1781, he told writer Friedrich Nicolai that he was menaced at night by an evil spirit. “His vanity induced him to imagine that he had made startling new discoveries about proportions,” Nicolai wrote. A jealous Spirit of Proportion was now tormenting him with ailments. He showed his visitor a pair of grotesque “beak heads” with protruding lips and exaggerated features that represented his persecutor. Messerschmidt asserted his mastery over the demon, the artist confided, by repeatedly pinching himself painfully in the ribs and recreating the grimaces that resulted. In doing so, he added, it was essential that he pull in his lips. The scheme, Nicolai concluded, was “full of madness with method.”
It was certainly an off-kilter approach to physiognomy. Says Boström: “If we were to meet Messerschmidt today, I suspect he would be seen as a paranoid schizophrenic.” Boström herself isn’t so sure. In the artist’s own mind, she says, “he believed there were 64 facial expressions, and he was engaged in a perfectly rational exercise of trying to depict them all.” And to the end of his life, his mastery of naturalistic sculpture never faltered.
In 1793, ten years after his death, 49 of the character heads were exhibited for the first time by a cook at a local hospital. “He’d bought them at a cut rate from the artist’s niece, who wanted to clear them out of her house,” Boström says. Later, they were displayed in Vienna’s amusement park, the Prater, as a kind of side-show attraction. “The character heads were no longer seen as examples of expression,” she says, “but rather as a freak show.” Small plaster copies were sold as curiosities, sometimes painted in garish colors. “The heads were already slightly creepy. Now they were even more creepy.”
Messerschmidt was rediscovered nearly a century later. Fin-de-siècle Vienna was a place where theories of mind and theories of art overlapped. Those intrigued by Messerschmidt’s heads included psychiatrists as well as connoisseurs. Two of the first collectors to acquire busts were Emil Zuckerkandl, a professor of anatomy, and his wife, Berta Szeps-Zuckerkandl, who hosted an avant-garde salon attended by the likes of painter Gustav Klimt and architect Josef Hoffmann. Boström can’t be sure that Egon Schiele was familiar with Messerschmidt, but she detects in his disturbing self-portraits the older artist’s influence.
The character heads may not have suited late 18th-century art patrons, but their proto-modern appearance meshed well with the Wiener Werkstätte aesthetic a century later. Viennese author-playwright Richard Beer-Hofmann proudly displayed two of the heads in his tastefully appointed Hoffmann-designed home when he opened it for public view in 1908.
Messerschmidt has lately been riding a new wave of attention. His beak heads inspired British artist Tony Bevan (b. 1951) to create two “Self-Portraits After Messerschmidt” in which his straining facial muscles and neck sinews are heavily outlined in charcoal, like Maori tattoos. Bevan was drawn to the German sculptor from his college days in London, when he wrote his thesis about the artist. “I think there are aspects of Messerschmidt that I’ve always held in my subconscious somewhere,” he told a newspaper last year. Bevan has produced dozens of his obsessively worked and reworked self-portraits, which are often just disembodied heads but which seem coiled with angry energy nonetheless. The drawn and painted images are disturbing in part because the faces are seen at close range and from odd angles, typically just below the nostrils.
Even more disconcerting are five large photographic silkscreens by Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), each a closeup of the American artist’s fingers twisting or yanking his lips. Nauman leaves no doubt that his own rubbery flesh is a sculptural medium well-suited to manipulation. Part of what’s unsettling, as with a handful of Messerschmidt’s heads, is seeing the inside of the artist’s mouth. In 1766, philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing observed, “A gaping mouth in a painting is a stain, in a sculpture it is a gaping hole.” Boström says that peering into an open mouth, or being forced to do so, still makes people uncomfortable. “They’re very disturbing,” she says of Nauman’s faces. “They’re a breach of decorum.”
German artist Arnulf Rainer (b. 1929) was “in search of great mimes,” he recalled some 30 years ago, when he discovered Messerschmidt. Rainer, empathizing completely with the latter’s “lunatic mélanges,” sought to engage in a “dialogue” with the Baroque artist by scribbling energetically on top of photographs of various character heads. Both their efforts, in his view, were part of the age-old artistic activity of mask-making.
In the late 1960s, Rainer, like Nauman, screwed his own face up for a series of Messerschmidt-style self-portraits. To create the images, which he called “Face Farces,” Rainer ducked into a train station’s photo booth late at night. To prepare, he’d spend much of the day getting himself worked up, sometimes gulping wine before posing. “A certain feeling of excitement was necessary,” he explained.
Visitors to the Getty are discovering this for themselves. The museum has set up an Expression Lab where people can channel their inner Messerschmidt in digital photo booths. Many choose to mimic The Yawner, one of the artist’s relatively few open-mouthed busts. But is the face yawning, shouting, or screaming in terror? One of the fascinations of Messerschmidt’s character heads is how ambiguous their expressions really are.
Boström says that she, like many people, found she can’t do The Yawner justice by simply yawning for the camera. A higher level of commitment is required. “You end up just opening your mouth,” she says, “and screaming as loud as you can.”
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “A Head of His Time.”