franz xaver Messer­schmidt 1736-1783

once The favoured sculp­tor of The hab­s­burgs, a ca­reer snub be­came Messer­schmidt’s un­do­ing

All About History - - PAINT AND SUFFERING -

Now largely for­got­ten, Franz Xaver Messer­schmidt was a lead­ing sculp­tor of the 18th cen­tury, win­ning sev­eral com­mis­sions from the Hab­s­burg dy­nasty – most no­tably Em­press Maria Theresa – and teach­ing at the pres­ti­gious Academy of Fine Arts in Vi­enna. How­ever, his men­tal break­down and sub­se­quent fall from grace has shunted him from the pages of his­tory to its foot­notes, de­spite his lead­ing role not only in his con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, but in the evo­lu­tion of artis­tic move­ments.

One of the finest Baroque sculp­tors of the age, Messer­schmidt had won favour among the rul­ing elite of Aus­tria, and held an en­vi­able po­si­tion at the art school. When the po­si­tion of pro­fes­sor for sculp­ture came up at the school, the tal­ented sculp­tor put him­self for­ward for the role, cer­tain that his ex­pe­ri­ence and favour would see him to suc­cess. What he hadn’t counted on, how­ever, was com­pe­ti­tion. When a ru­mour that Messer­schmidt suf­fered from a “con­fu­sion of the head” reached his se­niors, the role was of­fered to Messer­schmidt’s ri­val. En­raged, Messer­schmidt left the school and Vi­enna and even­tu­ally set­tled in Press­burg, where he be­came a recluse and de­voted him­self to his ‘mas­ter­piece’ – the so-called ‘Char­ac­ter Heads’.

Be­gun be­fore he left Vi­enna, this series of busts dif­fered from his pre­vi­ous com­mis­sions. Where be­fore he’d cham­pi­oned the or­nate Baroque, he in­stead em­braced the sim­plic­ity of Neo­clas­si­cism; where be­fore his busts gazed in am­biva­lent, aloof dis­in­ter­est, he carved grotesque, gurn­ing gri­mances, bar­ing teeth, squint­ing eyes. What trig­gered Messer­schmidt’s ob­ses­sion with his ex­pres­sive series is un­known, though the series has been in­ter­preted as the sculp­tor’s de­scent into mad­ness. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions and para­noia in Vi­enna, the soli­tary life served to en­cour­age his delu­sions. In 1781, hav­ing met with the artist in Press­burg, Christoph Friedrich Ni­co­lai wrote that Messer­schmidt be­lieved that he was haunted by a de­mon of pro­por­tion, and “in an ef­fort to gain con­trol over the spirit,” would pinch him­self in front of a mir­ror and re-cre­ate the ex­pres­sion, cre­at­ing the per­fect pro­por­tion.

Over two cen­turies since his death, many psy­chol­o­gists and ex­perts have at­tempted to ret­ro­spec­tively di­ag­nose this ‘trou­bled soul’, from schizophre­nia to Crohn’s dis­ease.

What ailed Messer­schmidt might never truly be known to us, but his oeu­vre of ‘Char­ac­ter Heads’ leaves a pow­er­ful legacy for the leg­end of the ‘mad ge­nius’.

Two of Messer­schmidt’s heads pho­tographed to­gether, No. 24 (Weepy Old Man) and No 28 (The In­ca­pable Bas­soon­ist)

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