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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 559-563
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The Two Messerschmidts
Michael E. Yonan,
Saint Louis University
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna (11 October 2002—9 February 2003). Catalogue: Michael Krapf, ed. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002). Pp. 312; 62 color and 143 black-and-white illustrations. e 58,00 Paper.
Visitors to the Baroque Museum of the Austrian National Gallery, located in Vienna's elegant Lower Belvedere palace, tend to come away with vivid memories of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's sculptures. His grimacing busts, which sport titles like "The Incapable Bassoonist," "The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy," and "The Constipated One," certainly stand out within the museum's collection of mostly conventional landscapes, court portraits, and genre scenes. The museumgoer's fascination has fostered a scholarly inquisitiveness, and Messerschmidt's "character heads" have long appealed to researchers interested in the relationship between art and psychology. The literature on him includes essays by prominent thinkers such as Albert Ilg, Ernst Kris, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, and Lorenz Eitner, and one finds mention of him in numerous studies addressing themes as different as physiognomy, psycholanalysis, myths of artistic identity, and anatomy.
That Messerschmidt was at least eccentric or at most psychotic has been the point of departure for much of this literature, and even in his lifetime observers characterized him as a Sonderling, someone a little different. Yet the ease with which Messerschmidt evokes lunacy has often resulted in monotonous art criticism. Since Messerschmidt was insane, the argument goes, he made insane art. Intriguing as this might sound, it underemphasizes his career's conventional phases and smoothes over his work's contradictions. The retrospective exhibition recently held at the Belvedere highlighted Messerschmidt's multidimensionality by [End Page 559] presenting both his character heads and his official commissions, which allowed for a fuller picture of the artist's accomplishments to emerge. The exhibition invited a fresh reappraisal of this artist, who if anything seems more interesting and distinctive than before.
Messerschmidt's life fits perfectly the myth of the misunderstood artist-genius striving for self-expression in a hostile world. Born in 1736 into a family of craftsmen, he trained in Munich and Graz before enrolling in the court-sponsored Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1755. There he appears to have advanced quickly and soon garnered the support of the imperial court portraitist Martin van Meytens. In the early 1760s Messerschmidt fulfilled a number of court commissions for Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz I, including several elaborately cast bronze portrait busts and two magnificent full-length statues in the round. Eager to refine his talents, Messerschmidt traveled at his own expense in 1765 to Rome, where he impressed a number of resident sculptors, among them Filippo della Valle, with his intelligence and skill. He returned to Vienna the following year, having mastered a new, classicizing artistic vocabulary that he put to use in commissions for various local patrons. Among the Viennese nobility, his services were in constant demand during the late 1760s, and individuals with Enlightenment leanings particularly favored him. Emperor Joseph II valued Messerschmidt's work highly, as did prominent art patrons such as the court physician Gerard van Swieten and the art critic Franz Christoph von Scheyb. By 1769, Messerschmidt's career was established securely enough to allow him to purchase a house, and in that same year the Academy promoted him to full membership.
From this point Messerschmidt's life took a drastically different path. In 1770, colleagues noticed a change in his behavior that they described as manifestations of a psychological illness. It is at this moment that Messerschmidt began to produce his famed character heads, a projected series of 100 busts representing male figures with strange facial expressions, many of which are loosely identifiable as self-portraits. He worked on these for the rest of his life, completing just short of seventy in a variety of media including alabaster, marble, bronze, wax, lead, and various metal alloys. Partly because of concerns about his mental stability, Messerschmidt was denied a position...