Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Childish Weeping (1771-83), tin-lead cast, 17-3/8″ x 8-5/8″ x 9-7/8″; courtesy The Neue Galerie
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In a short film included in Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736–1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism, an exhibition at The Neue Galerie, Ronald S. Lauder, the museum’s co-founder and president, talks about his first encounter with Messerschmidt’s “character heads”—busts of men whose faces are in extreme states of contortion. Lauder recalls his surprise upon discovering that a sculptor hailing from the eighteenth century created them; he mistook Messerschmidt for a contemporary. It’s not an uncommon response. When shown photos of the work, colleagues, friends, and family invariably do a double-take upon learning that Messerschmidt lived and worked in the era of Goya and Fragonard. There’s something to Messerschmidt’s unsettling vision that is commensurate with our (as Lauder has it) “modern sensibility.” It’s worth pondering why that is.
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born on February 6, 1736 in the Bavarian city of Wiestensteig. His father, a tanner by trade, died when Messerschmidt was ten years old. His mother, Johanna, moved the family to Munich to live with her brother Johan Baptist Straub, a sculptor at the Bavarian court. After apprenticing with Johan, Messerschmidt traveled, ending up in Graz where he continued his studies in sculpture with another uncle, Philipp Jakob Straub. (Clearly, a knack for the medium was in the family’s dna.) Two years later, Messerschmidt enrolled in Vienna’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, where he caught the eye of the school’s director, Martin van Meytens. Taken with the young sculptor’s talent and drive, van Meytens acted as Messerschmidt’s most ardent and influential advocate. It wasn’t long before Messerschmidt established himself as a sought-after portraitist, not least by the royal family.
But something went wrong around 1771. Messerschmidt’s behavior became erratic; colleagues complained that he “seemed subject to madness.” Van Meytens’s death in the previous year had deprived Messerschmidt of the Academy’s support and he was subsequently denied a position as professor of sculpture. Messerschmidt’s “rampant foolishness”—a phrase lifted from the German writer Friedrich Nicolai’s account of a face-to-face meeting with the artist—eventually resulted in Messerschmidt having to sell most of his possessions and leave Vienna. After an abortive return to Wiesenstag, Messerschmidt moved to Munich, but he eventually settled in Pressburg, now Bratislava. It was there that Nicolai visited Messerschmidt, in a “lonely little house,” in which the most notable furnishings were “an old Italian book on the proportions of the human body” and a “drawing of an Egyptian statue without arms, which [Messerschmidt] never glanced at without admiration and awe.”
Then there were the “character heads,” a series of forty-nine . . . well, portraits isn’t quite the word for them. That each sculpture embodies specific facial and anatomical characteristics, many of them based on the artist’s own visage, shouldn’t obscure their radically atypical character. Crafted in soft metal or stone, the sculptures don’t meet eternity with dignity or benevolence, as did the antique statuary that had a clear influence on Messerschmidt’s art. Instead, the pieces taunt the viewer with demonic theatricality. Severe artifice fuels the pieces: pinched expressions and streamlined surfaces, with laugh lines as sharp as razor blades and hair stubble hammered with blunt concision, are realized with forbidding extravagance. Though they are not without a certain humor, Messerschmidt’s heads don’t square with the cozy gratifications of caricature—they’re just too tense and too weird, too wrapped up in their own manic prerogatives. The work’s unremitting elasticity evinces Messerschmidt’s significant gifts as a sculptor—and his mania, too.
Nicolai recounts how the heads were Messerschmidt’s means of dispelling the “spirits which so frightened and plagued him at night.” The “Spirit of Proportion” was especially vexing. Messerschmidt felt he had offended this particular phantom, having come to certain realizations about proportion previously unknown to humankind—save, that is, for the Egyptians. He “pinched himself in various parts of his body . . . and linked this with a grimace on his face which would have [an] Egyptian proportion.” Only through these methods—that is to say, through self-inflicted physical pain—could “the height of perfection be attained.” Nicolai rued the decline of Messerschmidt’s intellectual and social capabilities—the artist had been consorting with shady figures given to otherworldly pursuits—and blames them for Messerschmidt’s early death at the age of forty-seven.
Messerschmidt’s fortunes improved shortly before his death. He began, once more, to receive commissions—but the heads consumed most of his energy and focus. None of the heads were exhibited until ten years after Messerschmidt’s death. Even then, they were not displayed at a museum, but at Vienna’s community hospital. It was there that an anonymous individual—“an author of the candid letters about breeding sheep”—bestowed upon the sculptures their collective name, “character heads.” This person titled them individually as well, with both hilarious invention and woeful inaccuracy. The Incapable Bassoonist is a prime example of both; the less said the better about Afflicted with Constipation, but, to his credit, A Hypocrite and Slanderer does much to connote that work’s ferociously downcast gaze. Messerschmidt left no clue as to titles, so “character heads” has stuck.
From Neoclassicism to Expressionism is the first museum exhibition in the United States devoted to Messerschmidt’s sculptures and, some overly dramatic flourishes in the installation notwithstanding, The Neue Galerie has mounted it with consummate grace. But it leaves Messerschmidt stranded all the same; he’s without peer or precedent. Given his compulsions, that’s to be expected, but it is here where a good portion of Messerschmidt’s contemporaneity resides: his art, after all, takes a backseat to personality. The sculptures don’t offer insight into common human experience; they’re markers of one man’s troubled psyche. Messerschmidt’s work places a resolute emphasis on the artist. When The Neue Galerie likens Messerschmidt to Bruce Nauman or Cindy Sherman, you realize that a case is being made for narcissism—or, at least, hermeticism—as a viable form of artistic expression. Messerschmidt deserves better than to be commended for the failings of our own culture. Maybe the mirror he’s holding up to us is more damning than we want to admit.
© 2010 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 2010 edition of The New Criterion.