Franz Xaver Messerschmidt at The Belvedere, Vienna.

A head of the game - the incredible work of a sculptor

In 1777 aged 40 Franz Xaver Messerschmidt confronting his demons, started a project to record extreme facial expressions of anguish using himself as a model. In total seclusion by the time of his death 6 years later, he had created nearly 70 Character Heads carved in alabaster or cast in lead. Sculptures of huge simplicity; haunting, shocking dis-ease.

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Before the age of 24, sixteen years earlier, Messerschmidt had been working in Vienna’s imperial court creating high baroque statues commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa, all lace and orbs and coiffed hair. He was at the top of his game, shining with brilliance. It was a rich time in Vienna. Haydn, Salieri and Mozart were composing, huge palaces and grand gardens including The Belvedere were under construction, and Canaletto was painting the results.

During this time of rewarding industry, Messerschmidt began experiencing paranoia and hallucinations. His gradually deteriorating mental state lost him commissions and positions. He left Vienna in despair and removed all ornamentation from his sculpture, pinching himself to distract from the torment and working from his visible emotions reflected in a mirror. As if by recording the look of psychosis he could control his muscles and master his madness.

After his death, the notorious heads were named and exhibited in fairgrounds, they then disappeared into storage for a couple of centuries, missing interpretations of physiognomy - or the judgement of a persons’ character from their appearance - reappearing to look thoroughly modernist in early 20th Century. The clean, symmetrical, complex portraits became inspirational to Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Frances Bacon, Bruce Nauman and an increasing wave of artists dealing with their interpretation of themselves within a complex world. Messerschmidt’s illness was interpreted as schizophrenia and his practice to be self-healing.

The portraits are captivating; they portray pain but also joy, peace but also caricature. The skin folds and creases in symmetry - unnerving in its fluidity. The black of the lead and the colouring of the alabaster result in completely different interpretations; the first modern the second classical. This collection of heads is totally unique in both concept and experience.


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