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The Fantastic Heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Ein kraftvoller Mann und Das schwere Geheimnis.

FRANKFURT, GERMANY.- Städel Museum presents The Fantastic Heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, on view through March 11, 2007. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–83) numbers among the most original sculptors in the history of art. The Liebieghaus is dedicating the first solo exhibition in Germany to this unusual Austrian artist. Even as a young artist Messerschmidt received numerous commissions through the goodwill of Empress Maria Theresa. His fame today, however, is based above all on his so-called character heads, with their grimacing, clownish, screaming, laughing, staring faces, whose powerful charisma still casts its spell on viewers today. The exhibition at the Liebieghaus will feature twenty character heads as well as portrait busts. The works have been lent by important museums and private collections in Austria, Hungary, France, Slovakia, the United States, and Germany. The exhibition analyzes the background of Messerschmidt’s approach to design: his intention to depict facial expressions in order to reveal the emotions of the soul as the profoundest truth about human beings as well as his position in the interplay among the academic disciplines of medicine, theology, and art in eighteenth-century Europe. Numerous artists have been inspired by F. X. Messerschmidt’s works, including Francis Bacon and Arnulf Rainer.

The exhibition is sponsored by Škoda Auto Deutschland GmbH and the City of Frankfurt am Main. Additional support was provided by the Kulturtage der Europäischen Zentralbank—Österreich 2006 and the FAZIT-Stiftung.

F. X. Messerschmidt was born in 1736 in Wiesensteig, Swabia. Following the death of his father he was apprenticed at the age of ten to his uncle, Johannes Baptist Straub, who was established as sculptor to the court in Munich. By way of Graz he found his way to the academy of art in Vienna, where he added the techniques of metal sculpting and stone carving to his knowledge of wood carving. Admired by the Austrian empress Maria Theresa and engaged by her for several commissions, he began to work for the imperial court and created portraits and statues of the imperial couple and other members of the aristocracy. While his early work was indebted to the pathos of the Baroque prestige portrait, around 1765 the artist began to produce larger-than-life statues of the imperial couple in which he distanced himself from traditional depictions of rulers intended to convey authority and status. By depicting the empress as in equal measure youthful and majestic, vividly animated and self-confidently persistent, he found a new form for the courtly portrait. Shortly after completing his statue of the empress and enjoying his first successes, in 1765 Messerschmidt traveled to Rome for several months to devote himself to the study of antiquity. His artistic development in the late 1760s and early 1770s after returning to Vienna is evident above all in his sculptures of learned contemporaries. Among the important Enlightenment thinkers and scholars whom Messerschmidt portrayed were the physicians Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) and Gerard van Swieten (1700–1772) as well as the art critic Franz von Scheyb (1704–77). In his bust of Scheyb, Messerschmidt broke for the first time with the traditional formulas of the portrait and showed the wigless scholar, stripped of the accessories otherwise used to represent his contemporaneity and status, as a self-confident individual presented frontally and looking forward. The exhibition attempts to these portraits produced around 1770 with the later character heads. A bust of Prince Joseph Wenzel I of Liechtenstein, discovered in 2004 and attributed to Messerschmidt, provides the missing link and represents a kind of prototype of the character heads. By bringing the sitter’s bare chest down to the lower edge of pedestal and exposing only a small part of the pedestal on the left and right, Messerschmidt achieved the same immediacy that is peculiar to the character heads.

Messerschmidt’s reformulation of the portrait bust met with strong approval in Enlightenment circles in Vienna, and in 1769 he was appointed substitute professor of sculpture by the court painter Martin van Meytens. At the same time he was promised that the next professorship to become available would be his. In the years that followed, however, he was not named professor. The reason his academic career failed would appear, to judge from documents by the State Chancellor Kaunitz from 1774, to have been related to the artist’s illness—“his ambiguous state of health,” a “confusion in the head.” It remains unproven that Messerschmidt indeed suffered a serious psychological illness that at times made him unable to work. It is also conceivable that periods of ill health were used as a pretext to pathologize and exclude this nonconformist artist. During this same period he experienced a lack of commissions, in part because his most important supporters and patrons died between 1770 and 1772. Messerschmidt left Vienna and, after failing to be appointed court sculptor in Munich, ultimately moved to Bratislava in 1777, where he worked exclusively on the “heads” or “head pieces,” as he himself called them, until his death in 1783. They were produced without commissions, in some cases based on his image in a mirror, and he used them to explore the expressive possibilities of the face. The name “character heads” and their largely abstruse labels can be traced back to the “Merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des F. X. Messerschmidt” (The strange tale of the life of F. X. Messerschmidt), an anonymous biography, with anecdotal embellishments, published after the artist’s death. After a time during which the heads were exhibited only for amusement—in the Prater in Vienna, among other places—they were first recognized as great art in the Expressionist period and found their way into museums.

In this series of heads, with sometimes bizarrely grimacing facial features that express human emotions like fear, disgust, irritation, joy, pain, or sadness, Messerschmidt radicalized the genre of the portrait bust and at the end of his artistic career broke once and for all with traditional forms of depiction. The physiognomic search for emotions and a transparent inner being was, however, reduced to the absurd by seemingly arbitrary combinations of various forms of _expression. Although the details of the movements of facial muscles are rendered realistically, many of them cannot in reality be reproduced simultaneously, and their effects are often exaggerated. The heads are, contrary to all experience of reality, symmetrically constructed; the forms of expression and movements of the heads are stylized by defining wrinkles and muscles. Likewise, the hair and eyebrows are not realistically depicted but instead follow the principles of ornament or drawing. Thus Messerschmidt abandoned a connection to reality, but in the process the expressive power of his art increased considerably.

Messerschmidt’s art points far beyond his time, and yet his interest in the human figure and especially in human emotions were very much part of the Enlightenment and were inspired by contemporary discussions. The questions of the nature of the soul, facial gestures as expressions of feelings, and medical and psychological explanations occupied scientists and theologians as well as artists. In keeping with contemporary views the art theorists Franz von Scheyb argued that the passions of the soul should also be the main subjects of art. But research into the emotions produced more than scientific theories. Increasingly physicians focused on practical issues considered the question of how the passions were structured and how they could be reproduced with anatomical accuracy. The doctor James Parsons was one of the first to concern himse

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