Messerschmidt’s Creative Mania

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) The Yawner, 1771-81 Tin cast H. 43 x W. 22 x D. 24 cm (16 1/2 x 8 5/8 x 9 1/2 in.) Szépmuvészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest. Photo courtesy of Neue Galerie.

Sept. 15 – A distinguished group of individuals queued outside the Neue Galerie‘s 86th Street entrance for a private preview of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s arresting sculptural grimaces which hinted of mental unrest.  Greeting members in the main hall, Neue Galerie Director Renée Price and Deputy Director Scott Gutterman welcomed supporters and posed for photographs.

Converted to a reception room, wine and hors d’oeuvres atop cucumber lined plates were offered in Cafe Sabarsky.  Up the grand, elegant staircase on the third floor, a young man dressed in 18th century garb complete with powdered wig and face stood opposite the wall text as a reminder to the early Barqoue time period.  Messerschmidt lived in an era not typically covered by the Neue Galerie’s focus.

“We normally don’t show anything before 1890, but we said it was worth it,” Price commented, “It traces the path of expressionism, and you can see its origins.”

Born in 1736 in southern Germany, Messerschmidt achieved early success with royal commissions of sculpture.  Having been trained by his uncles, Messerschmidt excelled at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and distinguished himself with his particular style of non idealized renditions.

Gutterman said, “He was very accomplished in that style [Baroque], but really his work became much more interesting when he took a dramatic turn in his life and started creating these character heads.”

This artistic and personal rupture occurred circa 1770.  Having been overlooked for an opening at the Academy then expelled, Messerschmidt had also suffered the loss of his protector and advocate, Martin van Meytens.  Messerschmidt retreated to Wiesensteig where he developed “character heads.”  These peculiar, energetic busts were a private endeavor in which he sculpted pained or contorted facial expressions [see image above].

Scholars have suggested that science writer Johann Kaspar Lavater’s treatise of 1775 about outward appearances providing information about the interior has overlap with Messerschmidt.  Although Franz Anton Mesmer’s influence vis-à-vis theories about an ethereal fluid respond to nature is another source for consideration.  Some academics frame a concept about facial expressions being an index of the mind that communes with the exterior energy fields.

Organizer of the exhibition and Chief Curator of Sculpture at the Musée du Louvre Guilhem Scherf remarked, “He had a very specific style and that could be a danger for other artists…that gap between himself and the others.”

“He was grounded in strong technique, and then he married that to this desire to express greater emotions, and pushed the art forward,” said Gutterman about the genesis of Messerschmidt’s character heads.

Messerschmidt died in 1783 at the age of 47 with hardly any correspondence or writing leaving scholars to ponder the depths of his genius apart from Friedrich Nicola’s account of Messerschmidt’s paranoia in 1781.  Nicola reported that Messerschmidt indicated that evil spirits haunted his sleep because he had disobeyed the Golden Ratio in his constructions.  Speculations about madness aside, the power of this exhibition lies in directly gazing into Messerschmidt’s colossally felt creations.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism marks the first United States solo show for the sculptor and the first collaboration between Neue Galerie and the Louvre.

Once the exhibition closes on January 10, these 25 busts will travel to the Louvre where it be on view from January 26 to April 25, 2011.

Photo Credit: André Maier

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