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Loathe as I am to perpetuate the myth that creativity and madness are inherently linked, madness does play a vital part in fueling the unnerving intensity of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads”, subject of an exhibition at The Neue Galerie.
A contemporary of Goya and Fragonard, Messerschmidt (1736-1783) was among Vienna’s most sought after sculptors. That is, until his erratic behavior–prompted, Messerschmidt claimed, by various spirits–alienated friends, family, colleagues and patrons. The “Spirit of Proportion” was especially vexing given that Messerschmidt had encroached on its dominion, having divined aspects of proportion previously unknown to humankind.
To fend off the phantoms, Messerschmidt inflicted pain on himself and rendered the ensuing facial expressions in three-dimensions. But madness wasn’t Messerschmidt’s all: He was a sculptor of taut, streamlined fluidity. Whether his demons were mastered is open to question, but the mastery evinced in Messerschmidt’s terse and tensile visages is undeniable.
My full review of The Neue Galerie exhibition appeared in the December 2010 edition of The New Criterion.