Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) was a German-Austrian sculptor most famous for his "character heads", a collection of busts with faces contorted in extreme facial expressions.

Messerschmidt was a skillful Bavarian craftsman who was headed for a career at the Habsburg court in Vienna until he exhibited symptoms that denied him advancement and sent him deep inside himself to explore his own (and often extreme) emotional states, which he sculpted in marble, carved in alabaster or cast in lead alloy (1771-83). Around 1771, as his health apparently deteriorated, he started working on his "character heads", using himself as a model. He created a series of heads with grimacing faces. He produced the life-sized busts rapidly, 69 within a 13-year period. Collectively, Messerschmidt's "heads" display a range of emotions and, although they are not self-portraits, many resemble the artist.

He never intended to exhibit or sell them. Yet, he may have made them as physiognomic studies, perhaps inspired by experiments enacted by his friend, the controversial physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Messerschmidt probably also knew of Johann Caspar Lavater, who popularized "physiognomy"--the notion that human character is discernable by a person's physical appearance.

The Gentle Quiet Sleep

Apart from The Gentle Quiet Sleep, there is no classical ethos in Messerschmidt's sculptures, but an expressionist quality that introduces him as a lost soul of the European Enlightenment. The bust form can be reminiscent of the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome, the Messerschmidt's heads are idiosyncratic, capricious and self-centered. Moreover, the artist's facial expression is often ambivalent. Seemingly, Messerschmidt is a sculptor that falls somewhere between the Baroque and the Classicism, as his statues combine baroque expressive movement with classical clear forms and aggressive characterization with prosaic reproduction (M. Donner).

The Vexed Man is one of the series of 69 portrait busts or "character heads." The bust portrays a middle-aged man with a sour expression, which seems to fall somewhere between a grimace and a scowl. The most telling aspect may be the furrowed brow above squinting eyes and a scrunched nose. But natural cracks in the bust's alabaster surface seem to echo the topography of his skin, both softened by age yet hardened by the extreme expression. The man's receding hairline, wrinkles, and sagging jawline contrast with tensed cheek and neck muscles. Although the character seems to express irritation and annoyance, it is not certain whether Messerschmidt intended that interpretation, because he did not give the bust a title. A contemporary wrote that Messerschmidt told him that by making the character heads, he hoped to ward away spirits that invaded his mind (Getty Museum).

According to Jonathan Jones, Messerschmidt's work is "not so much the depiction of physiognomy as of the unfathomable self, alone and confounded, puzzled, grimly amused and fantastically assured of his own fascinating monstrosity." It repels curiosity even if commanding it. Messerschmidt, Jones states, exhibits himself as a freak, and laughs at medical or philosophical attempts to understand him.

Possibly, the character heads may be manifestations of madness. Yet, considering the artist's declared digestive problems, the may also have to do with constipation.

Indeed, it appears that for many years Messerschmidt had been suffering from an undiagnosed digestive complaint (now believed to be Crohn's disease), which caused him considerable discomfort. In order to focus his thoughts away from his condition, Messerschmidt devised a series of pinches he administered to his right lower rib. Observing the resulting facial expressions in a mirror, Messerschmidt then set about recording them in marble and bronze. His intention, he told Friedrich Nicolai in 1781, was to represent the "canonical grimaces" of the human face using himself as a template.

Animation by Edward Rose and Nick Reynolds

It is likely that Messerschmidt inteded to depict his physiological state and its facial response as he used bodily stimulation (Herb Ranharter).

With the Heads, with sometimes bizarrely grimacing facial features that express human emotions like fear, disgust, irritation, joy, pain, or sadness, Messerschmidt radicalized the genre of the portrait bust and at the end of his artistic career broke once and for all with traditional forms of depiction. The physiognomic search for emotions and a transparent inner being was, however, reduced to the absurd by seemingly arbitrary combinations of various forms of expression. Although the details of the movements of facial muscles are rendered realistically, many of them cannot in reality be reproduced simultaneously, and their effects are often exaggerated. The heads are, contrary to all experience of reality, symmetrically constructed; the forms of expression and movements of the heads are stylized by defining wrinkles and muscles. Likewise, the hair and eyebrows are not realistically depicted but instead follow the principles of ornament or drawing. Thus Messerschmidt abandoned a connection to reality, but in the process the expressive power of his art increased considerably (Städel Museum, Frankfurt).

Artists such as Francis Bacon have been inspired by Messerschmidt’s work.

Online resources
Digital Belvedere | Slovak National Gallery | Kuriositas
Nicolai, Friedrich. Description of a Journey through Germany and Switzerland in the Year 1781, trans. Herbert Ranharter, The Paris Review, 30.9.2010
Schmid, Theodor. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's Heads, 2009
Eitner, Lorenz. The Grand Eccentrics, ed. Thomas Hess & John Ashbery, Collier Books, 1971 (cited by John Coulthart, "The Art of Messerschmidt," Feuilleton, 23.6.2006).
_____. The Grand Eccentrics (cited by Dennis Cooper, CD, 6.4.2011).
Jones, Jonathan. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Guardian, 28.1.2011

• La joie de vivre: images of Messerschmidt's heads


1 said...

La verdad es que este señor es muy interesante. Las esculturas son muy expresivas y parecen vivas. Gina

2 said...

He was a real great artist: these heads are amazing. Marie