A Portrait of the Artist Pinching Himself

A contemporary remarked that this was first and probably only time the underside of the tongue has been rendered in a sculpture

For reference, here is a typical early Messerschmidt commission, Kaiser Joseph from 1765

I'd heard of the German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt (1736–1783) several years ago—I've forgotten how—and was absolutely stunned when I saw a few of his Kopf-Stücke or "character heads." How could these have been done in the 18th century? So I made a point to go up to see the first-ever Messerschmidt exhibit in this country, now on (until January 10, 2011) at that little boutique of a museum, the Neue Galerie.

The stunning installation is by Federico DeVera, owner of my favorite store which I cannot afford anything in. The walls of the exhibition rooms are decorated with light and spidery drawing. An opulent rococo crest encrusted with scrolls and all manner of frippery, hand drawn in silvery gray graphite, opens the show. Each room thereafter has the barest ghostly intimation of sconces and panelling in outline. DeVera has a genius for stark drama.

Messerschmidt, a well-respected young Viennese sculptor, garnered a steady stream of impressive—even royal— commissions, and assumed an assistant professorship at the Academy. He produced attractive, gorgeously modelled busts, some with florid piles of Rococo drapery, others becoming notably more severe and plain. He is credited with the exemplifying earliest shift in taste to the Neo-Classical with his innovative and "reductive" portraits. At some point though he seems to have suffered some sort of serious emotional difficulty and in 1774 he was passed over for a full professorship at the Academy due to "confusion in the head."

Crushed and humiliated he left Vienna and returned to his birthplace, a small town in Bavaria. He withdrew to a small workshop,
'on the bank of the Danube, the entire furniture of which consisted of a bed, a flute, a tobacco-pipe, water pitcher, an old Italian book about human proportion and a drawing of an armless Egyptian statue.'
There he would receive visitors as he worked on a startling series of 64 "heads" that are unlike anything ever seen in art until that time. Tormented by what he called the Spirit of Proportion, Messerschmidt was afflicted with pains in his abdomen and thighs, and was haunted by nightly visitations. In some labyrinthian mental construct which he related to visitors, if he were to pinch himself in the side producing grimaces and odd facial contortions, all the while looking in a mirror, he could carve the result in alabaster or marble—thereby keeping the Spirit, and pain, at bay. In addition to stone also used tin and lead— soft metals that allowed him to etch eerily realistic details such as stubble and hairlines.

Some believe he had what today would be called a "psychotic break" coupled with unacknowledged sexual issues as he was not known to have had any relationship whatsoever. A visitor at the time reported in his diary he thought Herr Messerschmidt merely suffered from indigestion exacerbated by his superstitious nature. (I, myself, would put money on the psychotic break).

It is fascinating to note, however uncanny and singular the heads are, the many ties to the 18th century zeitgeist the works evince: caricatures become popular in art; physiognomy and other pseudo-scientific studies of anatomy, intellect and character are widespread; psycho-supernatural parlor entertainment is on the rise. It is even thought Messerschmidt stayed for a time with Franz Anton Mesmer, whose demonstrations of electro-magnetism induced mild convulsions in his patients.

Had Messerschmidt not experienced his mental torment his art might never have strayed into such radical and 'modern" expression; he probably would have been relegated to a passing mention, if that, in art history surveys. He died of unknown causes at the age of 47.
An influence? The compact intensity of Roman busts or, above, an Egyptian portrait head of about 400-500 BC


sweeneysgrocery said...

These are absolutely outstanding.

Christopher Volpe said...

Astonishing! What a discovery! I was riveted by your write-up- you elucidated wonderfully the context for these remarkable sculptures.

Angela Voulangas said...

Thanks Christopher! really appreciate your enthusiasm. cheers


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