Sculptural selfies and ghosts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (20 photos)

22 April 2024
Category: sculptures, 0+

Today you are respected and famous, but tomorrow you can lose all this because of your beliefs.

This sculptor was not broken by the rejection of society, but a series of the strangest works later made him famous.


The distorted sculptures were supposed to scare away spirits, but as a result they ruined Messerschmidt's career.

When the famous sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt died in Slovakia in 1783, he left behind very few things. He had a bed and a tobacco pipe. He had a flute and several art books. And dozens of sculptural copies of his own head with different grimaces were scattered around the room.

These are the so-called characteristic heads - busts with very bizarre, distorted, convulsive facial expressions. Of the 43 that have survived to this day, some frown or grin, others seem almost joyful. But Messerschmidt wasn't trying to pioneer the sculptural selfie. As strange as it may sound, he wanted to protect himself from ghosts.

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Bust of Messerschmidt

Before he shaped his most famous heads, Messerschmidt was a young artist with an impressive resume. He was born in a small German town in 1736 and spent his early life studying sculpture under two of his uncles, famous sculptors, in Munich. At the age of 19 he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna; there he impressed the director and received royal commissions, carving life-size portraits of courtiers for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.

He also began to hone his distinctive style, more realistic than romantic: in his busts, everyday facial imperfections such as hollows in the cheeks, creases in the neck and wrinkles around the eyes replace the smoothed idealism and trappings of royal, perennially coiffed images. He was soon hired by his alma mater. If everything had gone right, he would have spent his entire life teaching and mentoring while doing what he loved.

Lithograph of 49 character heads by Matthias Rudolf Thoma

However, as his career progressed, Messerschmidt acquired an increasing reputation as an eccentric person. The sculptor was hot-tempered and domineering, and did not tolerate the sometimes dirty politics of academic circles. He refused to kowtow to the higher ranks of his faculty and was sometimes cruel. During a visit to Rome, the young sculptor brought an entire tree trunk to the Farnese Palace, placed it in front of the statue of Hercules and began carving a copy. When a man nearby expressed surprise, Messerschmidt slapped him in the face. People began to whisper about possible “confusion in the head.”

A few years into his teaching career, Messerschmidt's oddities outstripped his accomplishments. When the promised professorship was given to someone else, he left Vienna in anger. He sold all his belongings, wandered around Germany for three years and eventually settled in a riverside apartment on the outskirts of Bratislava, then called Pressburg, in Slovakia. There he made a living from occasional commissions, but mainly devoted himself to a project closer to his heart - his “Characteristic Heads”.

Christoph Friedrich Nicolai

Much of the information about Messerschmidt's seclusion comes from Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, a German writer, journalist, critic and publisher, who visited him in Pressburg in 1781. According to Nicolai, Messerschmidt spent his free time delving into an area of his life that the university environment did not allow him to explore - his active relationship with the spirit world. Ghosts "haunted, frightened and tormented" Messerschmidt at night for many years. In the hope of coping with this unbearable torment, he made himself a series of talismans. What he called "64 different types of grimaces."

Just two years after his visit, Nicolai Messerschmidt died, leaving behind 69 completed goals. A few years later, just over 40 of them were exhibited for the first time. Visitors came to look at the heads, which the exhibition's anonymous cataloguer had given ridiculous new names like "The Tormented Man" and "The Strong Smell." The bald head with bulging cheeks was renamed "The Failed Bassoonist". The audience turned away from the “Enraged and vengeful Gypsy” grinding her teeth to meet the gaze of the “Hypocrite and Slanderer”, looking at what was happening with horror.

These names, which might have been intended to make the sculptures more interesting, only succeeded in making them even stranger. After the end of the first exhibition, the busts were dispersed into private collections, and some were completely destroyed.

Characteristic heads

The man who created them continued to fascinate, although not in the way he may have hoped. For centuries after Messerschmidt's death, he was treated not just as a departed artist, but as a kind of posthumous patient. The sculptor probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He may have had Crohn's disease, which would explain the pinched ribs. Even his good friend Nikolai “diagnosed” his poor circulation.

It is impossible to know what was in Messerschmidt's head. But the heads he left behind in tin, bronze, lead and marble are well preserved. Later generations of critics, starting in the century after his death, were less concerned about the artist's potential madness and more impressed by his vision and command of the form, calling the busts heroic and ahead of their time. In 2010, Messerschmidt fans staged a reunion tour of sorts, bringing 19 heads together at a gallery in New York and then at the Louvre.

Modern viewers saw a collection of faces that in our era no longer look so frightening. Messerschmidt's sculptures, which once seemed alien and abnormal to the public, in our century acquire simply human meaning. With the help of sculptures, Messerschmidt hoped to get rid of the ghosts that haunted him. It's great that he left his ghosts to haunt us.


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