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February 28, 2022

Character Heads: Bizarre Sculptures by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt From the 18th Century

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, an eighteenth-century German sculptor active in Austria, is best known for his series of dramatic "character heads." The metal and stone busts are often disturbing in their extreme expressions. They have long prompted critics and scholars to speculate that the artist made them in reaction to an undiagnosed mental illness.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) was born in the village of Wiesensteig, in what is now southern Germany. He learned his trade from two uncles, a court sculptor in Munich, and an artist based in Graz, Austria. Later, Messerschmidt attended the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts and assisted at a foundry. His spectacular ability to work in stone and metal soon brought him portrait commissions from imperial and aristocratic clients. Made over the course of a decade, those early works reflect the prevailing late Baroque-Rococo sensibility, which emphasized the decorative.

Between 1760 and 1765, Messerschmidt traveled to Rome, Paris, and London. Seeing the work of other sculptors inspired him to shift toward Neoclassicism––a more spare and refined style. At this time, he began to emphasize his sitters’ features and character. In 1769, Messerschmidt taught at the Viennese Academy and established his own workshop. Those outward signs of success were short-lived, as colleagues and friends observed changes in his behavior. After failing to gain a professorship of sculpture position at the academy, Messerschmidt left Vienna and returned to Wiesensteig.

Messerschmidt likely began his “character heads” around 1770, as his mental health apparently deteriorated. He produced the life-sized busts rapidly, 69 within a 13-year period. He may have intended them as physiognomic studies, perhaps inspired by experiments enacted by his friend, the controversial physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Messerschmidt probably also knew of Johann Caspar Lavater, who popularized “physiognomy”––the notion that human character is discernible by a person’s physical appearance.

Collectively, Messerschmidt’s “character heads” display a range of emotions. Although they are not self-portraits, many resemble the artist. In any case, he never intended to exhibit or sell them. After a short stay with family members in Pressburg (present-day Bratislava, Slovakia), he died alone and in relative poverty.


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