franz xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783
once The favoured sculptor of The habsburgs, a career snub became Messerschmidt’s undoing
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)