Facing His Demons

02 06 charakterkopfToday is the birthday of sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who was born is 1736 in Wiesensteig in the south west of Germany. He is best known for a series of head sculptures which all depict extreme and rather disturbing facial expressions. He was raised in Munich by his uncles and it was from them that he first learned sculpture. After that he went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Messerschmidt was extremely good with the current, flamboyant baroque style, he earned lots of commissions and became Court Sculptor the the royal house of Habsburg.

Later, he became very interested in the art of Ancient Rome and the classical proportions that were associated with it. By 1765 he had earned enough money to take himself to Rome to study classical sculpture. Whilst there, it seems he astounded other artists with his ability to carve freestyle into wood. We don’t know much about his time in Rome. Only a single story that he recounted to a visitor towards the end of his life, when he had become very reclusive and strange. According to Messerschmidt, he was carving a tree trunk into the likeness of a statue of Hercules when a Spanish artist suggested that he was using the power of an evil spirit to make his sculptures. Messerschmidt hit him.

When he returned to Vienna, he began to work in a more classical style. He began to eliminate the elaborate drapery and fine jewels that were common to the baroque style and concentrate on the facial features. Although his work had changed significantly it was still very much admired. He was showing the character of the person, rather than the things they owned. He made a bust of his neighbour, Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was an odd character who believed that all living things possessed tides of energy and that he could control these tides to cure hysterics. Messerschmidt must have seen lots of troubled people coming and going at his neighbour’s house.

In 1774, he expected to inherit the position of Professor of Sculpture at the academy in Vienna. This did not happen. He was passed over because people had started to find him unusual. They said that for the three years he had: “shown signs of confusion”. He was still working but they saw evidence of: “a not perfectly healthy imagination”. He had come to believe that all the other professors were his enemies and people were worried that he would be a danger to students. Messerschmidt packed up all his belongings and moved back to his home town for a while and then on to Pressburg, now called Bratislava.

02 06 messerschmidt yawningThe accusations were rather veiled and non-specific but we know that in 1771 he had begun to work on a series of heads. The head sculptures are mostly life-size, are probably all of him and show a range of extreme facial expressions. Many of them look as though they are in severe pain. It was a project that would consume him for the rest of his life. He would make sixty-four of them. He still continued to support himself with commissions that people were perfectly happy with, so he was not entirely unhinged. But his heads are very odd indeed. They’re not like anything else.

In 1781 he was visited by a writer called Friedrich Nicolai, who found him to be intelligent, but eccentric. He seemed to own nothing except a bed,, a flute, a tobacco pipe and an Italian book on proportion. When questioned about the heads, he told Nicolai that he was haunted by spirits. Most particularly by the ‘Spirit of Proportion’. The Spirit of Proportion was envious of him because he was able to easily represent an almost perfect human figure in stone. Because of this it was causing pain in every part of his body as a punishment. The heads he made were to scare the demon away. Their expressions were copied from his own face. He would stand in front of a mirror, pinch himself really hard in the ribs until he grimaced, then reproduced the face he pulled on one of the heads. He had, he said, perfected sixty-nine grimaces for this purpose. Nicholai understood that his faces intentionally displayed some animalistic qualities because animals knew better how to scare away evil spirits than humans.

His heads, which were later called ‘character heads’, fall loosely into four categories; reasonably normal human expressions, a group with more extreme animalistic expressions, but varying hairstyles, a group of bald-headed figures with virtually no neck, and a group with the neck extended, often with the face pinched up in the middle. We’ve no idea what order he made them in. All the titles they have were given to them by others after his death. They are things like ‘Afflicted with Constipation’, ‘Beak Head’ and ‘ The Incapable Bassoonist’. We can only guess at what his influences were. Probably early Roman portraiture Perhaps works on physiognomy by men like Giambattista della Porta who I mentioned the other day. Maybe the work of his Viennese neighbour Mesmer. Or it might also have been the carvings in Vienna Cathedral, which are pretty strange.

After his death in 1783 his heads were treated with, at best, curiosity and at worst derision and disgust. By the end of the nineteenth century, papier-mâché replicas were being displayed in freak shows and game booths. He was thought of as a mere caricaturist and likened to Hogarth. In the twentieth century, there has been much speculation about whether or not he was insane, and if he was, what the nature of his insanity might have been. But we’ll never know because, apart from his odd conversation with Friedrich Nicolai, he left no clues. If you want to see more of his work, there’s a great video here.

02 06 messerschmidt heads engraving


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