Franz Xaver Messerschmidt [1736-1783]

From Neoclassicism to Expressionism


Neue Galerie, New York
September 16, 2010- January 10, 2011

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Yawner, 1771-83
Tin cast, 16 1/2 x 8 5/8 x 9 1/2 inches, Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s last body of work, known as Kopfstücke (“headpieces” or “character heads”), is awe-inspiring. Created in the latter half of the 18th Century, these contemporary-seeming sculptures manifest as a strikingly complex and uncompromising exploration of the human soul. Nevertheless, the Austrian sculptor (1736–83) remains little known. Defying categorization, particularly in the context of his time, his name hardly appears in any of the major art encyclopedias. Because Messerschmidt’s work can only be seen in a few, mainly European, museums, this exhibition, which was organized by the Neue Galerie in collaboration with the Louvre, marked his first true introduction to an American audience.

Though Messerschmidt’s work falls into chronological place between the late Baroque period and Neoclassicism, his Kopfstücke embrace a form of emotional realism that in its psychological ambition already hints at the late 19th Century avant-garde and 20th Century Expressionism. Born in southwestern Germany, Messerschmidt grew up in a family of artists. He received his artistic training under the guidance of his uncles, the established sculptors Johann Baptist Straub and Philipp Jakob Straub, as well as at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. After graduation, he worked briefly at the imperial arms collection, and in 1760, he made his first known works - bronze busts of the Austrian emperor and his wife. Elaborate in detail, these early works still reflect a sense of Baroque opulence and it was not until 1765, when working with the art historian Johann Winckelmann in Rome, that Messerschmidt discovered reductive simplicity. Inspired by Roman and Greek sculpture, his style became increasingly unadorned, smooth and contained.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Just Rescued from Drowning, 1771-83
Alabaster, 15 3/4 x 7 3/8 x 10 in., Private Collection, Belgium

In the early 1770s, after a mental breakdown cost him a desired professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, he left Vienna and settled in Pressburg (now Bratislava). For the remainder of his life, he devoted himself to the Kopfstücke. By the time of his death (when he was only in his late 40s), he had completed 69 of these sculptures, of which about 52 survive. Though Messerschmidt used himself as a model, his facial features serve only as vehicles for an intimate study of human emotions. This entailed an examination of extreme expressions, and Messerschmidt would sometimes pinch himself to capture the variations of a distorted face, be it in the form of squinting eyes, teeth-baring grins, or hyper-extended tongues. Concentrating on the face, Messerschmidt left almost all of the heads bald, eliminating distractions such as hairdos, drapery, and even shoulders. The Kopfstücke are rendered in either alabaster or tin alloy, a soft metal, which allowed him to occasionally add punch marks to indicate the scalp or hairline. Meanwhile, his surfaces appear incredibly smooth and even the most dramatic grimaces are rounded, a quality offset by the gravitas of the metal’s grayish silver tint.

Messerschmidt never recorded his intentions in regard to this body of work. It is known that he refused to sell the sculptures, separately or as a group. His utter devotion to his study finds echoes in the pursuits of the German photographers August Sander or later, Bernd and Hilla Becher. They all searched for a certain typology - Sander in regards to the German people and the Bechers in regard to architectural structures. But in Messerschmidt’s case, the focus is solely on the human face, which he uses as a screen for a large variety of emotional expressions. His quest was almost scientific as he kept searching for a consistent structure beneath such sensations as rage, envy, happiness or fear. The Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who lived close to Messerschmidt for several years, might have been a possible influence. Mesmer argued that man’s outer organs, such as sight, were connected to his inner emotions. The Kopfstücke can easily function as a testament to this thesis.

One cannot help but wish to see all of Messerschmidt’s Kopfstücke together. But even the distilled group at the Neue Galerie revealed the power of a true masterpiece, giving unique material form to something as immaterial as human emotions.