This is the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a German-Austrian (Swabian) sculptor (1736-1783). One of the most fascinating sculptors of the Enlightenment, he enjoyed great success working in Vienna for the imperial family under Maria Theresa. At the beginning of his career he was a rather “conventional” artist, having completed his studies at the Vienna Academy, and taking up a position as a bronze chaser at the Imperial Armoury in Vienna’s Renngasse.
He began to suffer both from hallucinations and have paranoid ideas — evil spirits were after him, determined to possess him and destroy his art.
His situation came to a head in 1774 when he applied for the position of leading professor at the Academy (where he had been a teacher since the late 1760s). Far from getting the promotion he expected and desired he was barred from teaching altogether. The Chancellor of State, Count Kaunitz felt compelled to write a letter to the Empress explaining why this had happened. Messerschmidt’s state of mind was referred to as a ‘confusion in the head’ in this letter. Whether it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or another condition will never be firmly established but many art historians believe this to be the case. (Madness of Messerschmidt.)
Apparently, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt had been suffering for years from a digestive illness (perhaps, Crohn’s disease.) The twisted faces were the variation of his own facial expressions: to alleviate the agony of discomfort he felt constantly, he’d pinch his chest, causing terrible pain…
We might call it art therapy today but the busts in marble and bronze were to template himself for future medical study. (Madness of Messerschmidt.)
In 1781, Messerschmidt confided in the noted German author, Friedrich Nicolai, that he felt he had angered the ‘Spirit of Proportion’ who it was said guarded the knowledge of universal balance which he was trying to express in his work. The spirit would come to him in the dead of night and inflict endless and humiliating tortures on him, which inspired one of his head, The Beaked, above.
Messerschmidt worked obsessively on these altogether 69 heads, the majority of whose faces are contorted into extreme grimaces. The spectrum of heads, which he conversationally referred to as his ‘Portreen’ – portraits – extends from natural-appearing busts modeled after those of antiquity to heads with exaggerated, highly expressive facial features whose supreme exertions manifest emotions that defy interpretation.
Excluded effectively from society by the powers of the Academy, Messerschmidt died in isolation, labeled both antisocial and unreasonable. His hyper-real portraits, however, have survived the centuries. He has been a truly sick man, perhaps even mad, but his suffering has become his inspiration. Messerschmidt died in 1783.
16 original heads, the world’s largest collection from this group of works, and numerous plaster casts of the total of 54 extant works, currently housed in Vienna’s Belvedere Palaces.
The Upper and Lower Belvedere were built in the 18th century as the summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736).