“Pinch Yourself, Build Your Look!” Messerschmidt’s Theatre of Facial Expression
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born on February 6, 1736, into a Bavarian artist family. His uncles spent some time educating him until he became a novice sculptor. He later attended the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, where he mastered this art and – upon graduation – found himself working in the imperial arms collection. Designing and completing several remarkable pieces in 1760, including the bust of Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, he had already proved himself as a late Baroque sculptor of courtly projects.
Art historians of the period are especially intrigued by his ‘Character Heads’, a series of busts he later created (from 1770 until his death on August 19, 1783), during a period of time he was almost believed to suffer mental illness. It is, however, a matter of further investigation as to what extent he was afflicted with emotional and cognitive disturbance, for he remained active and quite capable of earning a salary by working on commissions and significant projects. During these years, he also remained sociable, convivially open to communication and social interaction, so far as in 1777 he moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava) to enjoy the company of collectors and artists. It was as if he could not find like-minded folks as candidly as he had wished for in the artistic community of Vienna. During Messerschmidt’s time in Pressburg, Prince Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen (1738-1822), continuously commissioned marble and metal busts/portraits, admiring Messerschmidt’s precision and creativity on display. With that constant and secure income, Messerschmidt was able to break away from courtly standards of artistic desirability, cultivating his private freedom of technical performance and play with imaginative forms and novel compositions under his own roof.
Messerschmidt’s ‘Character Heads’ were made in and for the quiet of his own studio. He never intended to exhibit them publicly or even to trade them. These busts manifest interest in the diversity of emotive figure and structure, breaking away from traditional norms which were seriously followed and implemented by other courtly sculptors. Interestingly, all his 69 character heads are Messerschmidt’s private self-portraits, some of which are believed to be lost. It is evident though, that he looked in the mirror and engaged in stimulating different physical sensations in his body in order to generate certain facial expressions. Then, by focusing on each certain state, he executed not only what he observed in himself, but also what he went through. Perhaps it is more befitting, then, to observe Messerschmidt’s emotional busts to be the manifestation of precise experimentation with expression, cognition, and perception, rather than mere hallucinatory executions of a mentally ill artist.
Although some experts believe Messerschmidt’s narrative of the heads (according to himself) as simple expressions to frighten evil spirits, it is possible to discern that he must have been obliged, to some sure extent, to create a narrative of religious/courtly acceptability. The position of artists working for the monarchies before the French Revolution, especially their financial survival was somewhat at the mercy of conformity to desired intellectual or religious customs. For Messerschmidt, nevertheless, creating a narrative of self-exorcism through art might have encouraged his contemporaries to consider him more of a rational man than a mad craftsman. Maintaining his social desirability, in turn, enabled him to continue producing as many self-portrait busts as his mind and body could engage with until his death.
Messerschmidt’s interest in human physiognomy draws upon a playful acuity, which freely plays with psychological states and facial expressions, rather than submitting to the so-called ideal, e.g. veristic forms, courtly designs, military fortitude, and religious elucidation. In contrast with scholars like Jonathan Keats, who believe that Messerschmidt was by no means in conversation with his Baroque or Neoclassical brethren, I am more interested in the reverse exposition. Instead of simply believing that Messerschmidt was only communicating with demons, I can see a further form of statement, engaging with earthly disturbances, including ideological doctrines that dictated specific courtly and religious arrangements in art.
- Jed Perl on Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (3quarksdaily.com)
- The Vexed Man and The Game of Life (agentleinstigator.wordpress.com)
Maryam Farahani is co-director of Texts and Embodiments in Perspective, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Liverpool. Lecturing in University of Liverpool Centre for Lifelong Learning and a research fellow in the School of Arts, she has expertise in women’s post-Enlightenment literature, focusing on encounters of Oriental and Occidental Romanticism. She tweets from @farahani_maryam
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