Theatrical Means in Dialogue

Dr. pinel unchains patients at the paris asylum

Moralist Doctors and Artists, Putting Theatrical Means in Dialogue

Among historical facts to put forward in the study of Messerschmidt’s so-called mental disorder, I see the prevalence of ‘moral treatment’ in the eighteenth century as a key factor. It was a time for many different religious orders to help take on the task of caring for the mentally ill. The history of early European psychiatric development during this time is pretty much reliant on contributions by French physicians and philosophers. Messerschmidt’s German contemporaries were only adapting what the French regulated in asylums. In fact, Austrian and German contributions came to light – and most importantly to influence psychiatry in practice rather than naming the science – only in the later decades of the nineteenth century. But what is of greater significance here is that early French psychiatry was, to some extent, dominated by religious methods. Specifically through Catholic teachings of ‘consolation’, the mentally ill were cared for by the new generation of doctors more sympathetically.

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826)...

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) releasing lunatics from their chains at the Bicêtre asylum in Paris (picture by Charles-Louis Mullet) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This, of course, was not comfortable for early psychiatrists, as they claimed facts and scientific methods and yet adapted religious practices in public view. However, throughout the long nineteenth century, psychiatry and its development remained a case of subject-interdependence (between religion and science).  Unlike eighteenth-century anatomists, who saw brain lesions and physical injuries as major causes of mental illness, their nineteenth-century counterparts embraced the idea of non-physical relations in mental health, be it religious and supernatural. Philippe Pinel (1745 – 1826) would arguably attend to ‘moral treatment’ especially in cases where lesions were absent. It is also noteworthy that the way mentally ill patients appeared in face and facial expression were contested subjects in the long nineteenth century.

Another relevant fact is that Pinel used theatrical tricks in order to avert the imagination of the so-called insane by means of inducing shock as part of his moral treatment. With this historical background in mind, I return to Messerschmidt’s ‘Character Heads’, viewing them as experimentation with his own theatrical means to avert his own imagination. This practice by the sculptor may be seen as an early form of self-therapy or perhaps self-induced art therapy, and somehow similar to the manner of Pinel’s use of theatrical devices. While Pinel performed theatricality from an outsider’s perspective, influencing the minds and imaginations of his patients, Messerschmidt’s was more of a self-experimentation nature. But how Messerschmidt managed to verbally justify and describe his visual and artistic exploration is wholly intriguing as it shows this courtly sculptor particularly ahead of his time.

Johann Christian August Heinroth (1773 - 1843)...

Johann Christian August Heinroth (1773 – 1843). Lithographie ca. 1811 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Messerschmidt’s practice with ‘Character Heads’ has a religious narrative. He was of the opinion that by creating these heads and presenting different emotions, he could drive away demons and evil spirits that haunted him. In so doing, Meserschmidt – in my view – managed to liken himself to a God-Head. By casting out all those disturbed emotions from his own being and placing them in the created busts, Messerschmidt practiced a type of self-exorcism. This may be interpreted as his effort to make himself more God-like. Casting out different faces of negativity in physical forms, structured outside of his own body, Messerschmidt created a theatre of emotionality outside his mental and physical being; thereby shaping himself pure of negative emotionality. A similar practice was implemented a generation later by Johann Christian August Heinroth (1773-1843) who was, to some extent, influenced by earlier physicians such as Pinel. The difference between the two, however, was that Heinroth’s practices of theatrical tricks and devices were more of a compassionate spirit. He considered physicians and their role in curing mental illness similar to the position of a ‘visible God’. Heinroth insisted on the value of compassionate ‘observation’ rather than interrogation or direct verbal communication with mentally ill patients, who were out of their senses. While Heinroth’s dual practice of theatricality (religious and medical) was similar to Pinel’s – in its outsider perspective – it resembled Messerschmidt’s in its cultivation of one’s personal sense of compassion and purity.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's "La Danse" ...

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s “La Danse” at the Palais Garnier. Fuji F11 Camera at ISO 100. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other sculptors – even though indirectly – were in conversation with Messerschmidt. Especially in the French domain, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) must be mentioned, who created La Négresse (1872) to display the misery of slavery on the bust of a black woman. Even his La Danse (1869) communicates the emotionality of dancers quite clearly in their facial expressions. This work stood out among the normalities of desirability, and a scandal was the result, as the figures posed nude dancers. The original work remains in Musée d’Orsay

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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