Listen to this article
Some artists seem wholly out of key with their times. The 18th-century Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83) had been out of the public eye for 200 years, and then, in the past decade or so, began to emerge from obscurity. Two years ago he was in a group show at the Grand Palais in Paris, which was an extended examination of the artist as clown; this year, some of the works in the exhibition of his work in Frankfurt were displayed beside paintings by Francis Bacon at Compton Verney in the UK to demonstrate how much the two artists had in common. Works by Messerschmidt that come up for sale command millions of dollars.
The Frankfurt show is the first monographic exhibition of his extraordinary “character heads”, a series of grotesque portrait busts, made in lead or pewter, and based in part on representations of himself. There are nearly 60 of these in existence, of which almost half are on display here. Most were created during the last decade of Messerschmidt’s life, and they were made not for official patrons, but to please himself. By this time he was living in Bratislava, miles from the circles of aristocratic influence in which he had moved as a young man.
His youth had seemed gilded. He was the nephew of Johannes Baptist Straub, a sculptor to the court in Munich, and Messerschmidt’s early works include a representation of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, dated 1765, a photograph of which we can see in this show. It is in full-blown Baroque style – majestic, confident, idealised. Messerschmidt was clearly a master at the art of doing what people in power wanted him to do.
With advancing age came problems. Messerschmidt was passed over for academic posts. There were whisperings that he might be a little mad. His patrons either died or took an apologetic step or two back. He retired to Bratislava, where legend suggests that he lived a life of heroic indigence, although in fact he seems to have kept a servant or two, and to have welcomed a good many influential visitors.
The busts are displayed in four intimate rooms of Frankfurt’s sculpture museum. But thanks to a series of alcoves and arches, these rooms open into others – which underlines just how far apart Messerschmidt and his Baroque contemporaries were. One room of heads is peered into, for example, by a smoothly idealised portrait bust of Mademoiselle Servat by Jean-Antoine Houdon, dated 1777, serene and beautiful on her marble plinth. When we stare at what she is gazing at, we understand why her eyes are slightly averted.
It is a spectacle of near-buffoonish horror. Everything Messerschmidt is doing in his character heads seems to fly in the face of the conventions of the time. The faces are twisted and screwed into the most alarming grimaces. There are almost no clues to place them within a definable social context. They are wildly adrift in the world.
What is so exciting about this show is the way this shocking and delightful work seems to reach far into the future, and to be hardly of its own time at all. It is about the troubled relationship between soul and body. Charles Baudelaire would have loved it. It seems in touch with the mood of Sartre’s existentialism, in which man creates who or what he chooses to be. It is vertiginous and, at the same time, familiar.
‘The Fantastic Heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt, until March 11. Tel +49 69 212 38615
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published