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American Imago 58.1 (2001) 445-461

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Ernst Kris on F. X. Messerschmidt--A Valuable Stimulus for New Research?

Ulrich Pfarr


Many of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's (1736-1783) sculptures confront us with bizarre features whose strange effects are not wholly explained by iconographical or stylistic analysis nor when seen in the context of eighteenth century art theory. This is as true for the famous series of so-called character-heads as for the portraits made at Vienna and at Bratislava between 1770 and 1782. We may mention two significant examples in Vienna, the marble bust of Gerard van Swieten in the Art Historical Museum and the alabaster bust head number 37 in the Baroque Museum. 1 Messerschmidt produced without commission at least 54 Egyptian heads, as contemporaries called them, and apparently never intended to sell them. 2 Most likely he began this project shortly after a serious professional and social set-back in 1774: six metal busts were finished in 1776 and 12 one year later. 3 Although Messerschmidt had been Deputy Professor of Sculpture since 1769 and promised promotion to the chairmanship, he was in fact retired when in 1774 the chair became vacant. The curator of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts proposed a rival for the post, claiming that Messerschmidt had had "some confusion in his head" three years ago, that he still showed a "not perfectly healthy imagination" and that he regarded all his colleagues as enemies. 4 Since Messerschmidt wished to be paid only for work he had actually done, he rejected the pension offered by Maria Theresia and in 1775 returned to his birthplace Wiesensteig. After an application for the position of court sculptor at Munich had failed, he retreated in 1777 to Preßburg (Bratislava). There the sale of commissioned portrait busts and small scale works allowed him to spend his time and money on producing a whole series of Egyptian heads. Early rumors about the eccentric artist and his heads attracted among other exponents of Enlightenment the publicist Friedrich Nicolai, [End Page 445] whose "report" from his encounter with Messerschmidt became the crucial source for later biographers including Kris. 5

After the sculptor's death in 1783 a series of 49 busts were numbered, repeatedly exhibited, depicted in a lithograph and cast several times in plaster, before the originals were dispersed and partly destroyed. An anonymous author fabricated a fictional biography to accompany the first exposition of the heads in 1793 and designated the heads with those mocking titles unfortunately still in use. Probably alluding to a popular set of engravings after Martin Johann Schmidt, the busts soon were called character-heads. But they were not acknowledged as full works of art before the late nineteenth century, for the sad condition of most of the extant pieces--imitations of the heads were actually used as targets (Behr et al 1989, 144-145)--demonstrate that they were either damaged by neglect or by positive mistreatment. A mixture of fascination and repulsion seems typical of the attitude towards the character-heads in the late eighteenth and during the nineteenth century, different from the common disregard for baroque art in the period of Neoclassicism. Messerschmidt's courtly portraits escaped the fate of being turned into a popular freak show.

In his analysis of the work of Messerschmidt, Ernst Kris was forced to replace the expressionistic method of empathy 6 with the evenly-suspended attention of psychoanalysis, equally turned to artistic and biographical material. In the first version of the essay published in 1932 Kris discussed the complete work of Messerschmidt in historical, stylistic and theoretical terms. According to Kris, character-heads and late portrait busts were partly based on physiognomical interests and comparisons between humans and animals in the manner of Della Porta and of Charles Le Brun's illustrations for his Traité sur les passions. The artist was less concerned with Lavater's theories published after 1771. On the other hand the character-heads emerge as empirical studies of facial expression: In direct opposition to the "physiognomaniacal" fashion then current...


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