Canonical Grimaces: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

The Vexed Man, capsule alabaster

There’s something that I can’t help but love about the strange story of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783). Messerschmidt was a technically brilliant and accomplished court sculptor in Vienna. He spent his early years creating masterful, but rather dull, portrait busts of wealthy and powerful patrons. However (and this is where is gets interesting!) during the 1770’s his work underwent a mysterious transformation. He began to create his infamous character heads, a series of grotesque, humorous (and IMHO absolutely marvelous) portrait busts. At the time, it was whispered that an undiagnosed mental illness had prompted the drastic transformation of his work. Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from teaching at the academy, lost many of his patrons, and went into isolation in Bratislava, where he spent the rest of his life working on his character head series. It has always remained unclear whether he was indeed insane, or merely pissed off the wrong people. I prefer to think that he had merely grown tired of the pompous stuffed shirts of the academy and that his later works were a brilliantly articulated and eloquent thumbing of the nose…

Left: The Beaked. Right: The Vexed Man

The Lecher

A Deliberate Prankster

The Incapable Bassoonist

12 Responses to “Canonical Grimaces: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt”

  1. Jennifer dG Says:

    These are wonderful! I love art that captures expressions like this — it shows the artists keen observation of real people and a commitment to humanity in all its forms far more than serene court portraits. I love sculptures and portraits of Voltaire for this reason — they’re so full of his caustic wit and humor.

    Messerschmidt’s sculptures remind me of the Five Hundred Arhats in the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou. I was in there by myself, and it felt like I was walking under the gaze of five hundred real men. Each one was so different in character and had such vibrant expressions that they were completely individual.

  2. Sam Says:

    I can just imagine “The Incapable Bassoonist” squealing and honking as he tries to get a note out of his instrument.

  3. Tara Says:

    If I hadn’t read the post and just looked at the portraits, I would never have guessed that he was from the 1700s. They are so modern, and its good to see something other than overbearing pomp and austerity from that age. People’s facial expressions were the same then that they are now, which is very interesting to see. He was clearly before his time; I have a feeling the Impressionists and modern art world would have loved and embraced his work.

  4. alistar Says:

    I actually saw “The Vexed Man” this last weekend at the Getty in Los Angeles.

    I was totally tickled, especially since he sits in a room with classic sculpture in bronze and marble.

    It was just a bit of fresh air when walking into the gallery where he sits in the museum to see that expression.

  5. samarov Says:

    I was fairly obsessed with these back in art school days. Also attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a papier-mache replica as a Halloween mask a few years back. Thanks for putting them back in view…

  6. Tequila Says:

    Whatever the reason behind them, these feel much more human and alive then the lifeless stuff normally associated with this kind of portrait sculpture. The fact they are pretty hilarious only adds to their charm.

    @Tara. Indeed, totally agree. I’m curious if there are any sculptors around these days who do something similar.

  7. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    These are absolutely fantastic. The detail is especially impressive, just look at the folds and wrinkles around the eyes. Really, really excellent.

  8. Jessica Says:

    Tara/Tequila: I’d nominate Joseph Seigenthaler as the contemporary artist worthy of the Messerschmidt mantle…amazing stuff!!

    Dmitry: This may the the year for mask attempt #2!

    Ross: :)

  9. Kale Kip Says:

    I can’t stop imagining what Messerschmidt would have looked like working on these. This old master sculptor devotedly working on these caricature busts. That would be somebody to interview. I’d read it.

  10. nadi Says:

    ha! I was just in Vienna Last week looking at those, how crazy!

  11. meardearna Says:

    I have always got a soft spot for his character heads. I can imagine Messerschmidt scrunching, pulling and stretching his face whilst sculpting those priceless expressions.

  12. jake Says:

    Myself and the actor Bill Rice stumbled upon a small show here in NYC a few years back and were astonished.I hadn’t heard of Messerschmidt,Bill of course had.We were utterly blown away.