April 04, 2003

Character Heads

I first read about the work of 18th century Austrian sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt (1736-1783) in Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s book Court, Cloister and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe 1450-1800. Frustratingly, while the text praised this artist’s singularly eccentric works, there were only a couple of small black-and-white photographs of them.

Ein wollüstiger abgehärmter Geck; 42 cm; Gipsabguss. Der Gähner; 41 cm; aus Zinn.

I was delighted then, when I found a web-page yesterday displaying dozens of Messerschmidt’s ‘Character Heads’ (Charakterköpfe), a type of work he produced almost exclusively in the wake of a psychiatric crisis of some kind (possibly paranoid schizophrenia) which overtook him in the 1770s.

Ein kraftvoller Mann; 44cm; Blei. Der Melancholikus; 44,5cm; Blei.

It has been argued that these works are a ‘divergent contribution to the progressive study of physiognomy’, intended as illustrations of the passions in the manner of Le Brun.

Der erboste und rachgierige Zigeuner; 45cm; Gipsabguss. Der starke Geruch; 48cm; Blei-Zinn Legierung.

Just as plausible, to my mind, would be that Messerschmidt became genuinely fascinated with representing extreme states-of-mind, such as those to which his illness, if that’s what it was, may have subjected him. It’s interesting that another famously mentally-ill artist, Richard Dadd, also composed an eccentric series of Sketches to Illustrate the Passions

Der Hipochondrist; 42cm; Gipsabguss. Ein mürrischer alter Soldat; 42cm; Gipsabguss.
Posted by misteraitch at April 4, 2003 11:28 AM | TrackBack

Trs cool, mister! Wonderful busts. I had never heard of Messerschmidt before. As in the case of El Greco, one marvels that something that modern could be produced so long ago. That thinking is of course a fallacy, but one can't help it.

Posted by: Johan A on April 5, 2003 11:45 AM

Splendid stuff. I recognise some of these faces from the Llew Coch in Cardigan.

Posted by: Nic Dafis on April 11, 2003 07:14 PM

I too have been fascinated by this scupltor, after seeing his work in b&w photos in the 60s. The whole concept is strange and 'modern', particularly the 'bird-lip' heads ! It would be interesting to find out the process by which these sculptures were made.
The British artist, Richard Dadd, is a good comparison with Messerschmidt though their mental states probably were quite different.
Are you interested in Music ? Without calling into question their mental health I would deem such composers as Rued Langgaard and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji as living in a similar realm to the above named artists ! It would have taken a determined 'otherworldliness' to persist , as they did, in their chosen path.

Posted by: Peter Warden on June 20, 2003 11:30 PM

Do any of you have the exact web page with the images from this artist? I do not speak German and am having a problem finding any work from Franz Xavier Messerschmidt. There is a complete book out there, but is out of print.

Please forward he address if possible.


Posted by: Michael on December 1, 2003 05:38 PM
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