Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Neue Galerie, New York

The bald head on a plinth contorts itself in rage, brightened only by a touch of humour around the eyes. Nearby, other faces furrow into fierce, puckered scowls, or bare their teeth in leering grins. Some close their eyes in ferocious concentration; others meet our gaze with a confounding mix of blankness and intensity. They look like people we know, but in acute states we would never be permitted to witness. We invade their privacy; they lodge in our nightmares.

These indelible heads all originated in the studio of a possibly mad, fearlessly original 18th-century sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, and they appear for the first time in the United States at the Neue Galerie. The small show’s wallop vastly exceeds its size. Messerschmidt is not a household name here, but he deserves to be, and the Neue Galerie steps outside its usual purview – German and Austrian Expressionism – to give him a stunning presentation. It’s clear why: the work looks curiously, presciently modern, inspiring those artists dear to the museum’s heart and bellowing to us from the distant past.

Messerschmidt trod a conventional path for most of his life. Born in 1736 into an artistic family, he trained in the Viennese academy and immediately won high-profile patrons. In an early portrait bust, he gave Empress Maria Theresa the full baroque treatment: Gilt-bronze draperies billow and swirl around her body in a flattering tornado. By 1765, Messerschmidt was in Rome, gazing at the antique republican busts that would soon inspire him to cast the grand manner aside in favour of simplified neo-classicism.

The Neue Galerie exhibit opens with a handful of these portraits, which already betray the stirrings of a radical mind. Other neoclassical sculptors worked in a realistic, anatomically correct style, infusing their busts with vitality by subtly shifting the head, carving irises into the eyes, or parting the lips very slightly to betoken a brief pause in speech. Messerschmidt discards these conventions, opting for a severe look that’s more Egyptian than Roman. In a portrait from 1769, the scholar and jurist Franz Von Scheyb confronts us boldly, his features assembling themselves into stoic symmetrical forms. In a nod to the customs of antiquity, the artist leaves his pupils blank.

Scheyb was the first sitter to receive this sort of stringently archaic makeover, but the look caught on, and the commissions poured in. Meanwhile, Messerschmidt lined up a job at the Academy with good prospects for promotion, and his future seemed to sparkle with possibility.

Then something, or a cluster of things, went wrong. Messerschmidt’s mentor and champion at the Academy died. Soon after, colleagues began complaining about odd and erratic behaviour: they whispered that Messerschmidt was succumbing to “confusion in his head”. The Academy, spooked by the rumours, denied him the full professorship he had been promised. Furious and humiliated, he resigned, sold his house, and huffed out of Vienna. After three years on the road, he settled down with his brother in Bratislava, then a fairly remote outpost of the Habsburg Empire.

He had already started making eccentric heads before he left Vienna, but now they began to obsess him. They weren’t for sale – he supported himself carving small alabaster medallions to order – but they consumed most of his time. These busts, neither self-portraits nor depictions of anyone he knew, combine startling naturalness with archaic stylization. They are abstract in their bold forms and rigid symmetries, and at the same time unnervingly personal. They filled his studio, as they permeate the Neue Galerie, with silent waves of anguish, and we can’t help but wonder what propelled him to create them.

Was he insane? In 1781, he explained to a journalist named Friedrich Nicolai how he used the sculptures to block evil spirits from mauling his psyche. Nicolai’s report opened the way for romantic readings of Messerschmidt as a tortured artist in the same alienated vein as Egon Schiele. Psychoanalytically inclined art historians filled in Nicolai’s picture with more murk. Ernst Kris, in 1932, slapped a posthumous diagnosis of “psychosis with predominant paranoid trends” on Messerschmidt, and in a further speculative leap, attributed that schizophrenia to repressed homosexuality.

Nicolai himself, an unswervingly lucid Enlightenment man, didn’t believe the sculptor was insane. He thought that Messerschmidt’s soft spot for superstition – and the influence of freemasons – had led him to blame malign spirits for such innocent ills as indigestion. Yet Messerschmidt’s idiosyncrasies resonated with the intellectual drift of his times. An interest in the occult, in magic proportions and in the questionable discipline of physiognomy suffused the air of 18th century salons, where pseudo-scientists like Mesmer (a friend of Messerschmidt’s) and Lavater enjoyed the status of celebrities.

Even so, Messerschmidt’s hyper-expressive heads were unsettling enough that, after the sculptor’s death in 1783, someone gave them banal titles to mitigate their weirdness. A man with a rutted brow, cheeks folding into a deep-set frown, and lips squeezed into a grim slash becomes, rather picturesquely, a “Surly Old Soldier”. And the bald fellow whose eyes squeeze so tightly shut that his whole face crinkles and whose tongue shivers in his gaping mouth is dubbed simply “Yawner”.

The Neue Galerie presents Messerschmidt’s stunning sculptures with their distracting, inauthentic titles, but leaves his context and his crisis unexplained. It’s a missed opportunity to interpret an artist who could use a more thorough advocate. The show seems stumped by the mystery of his psyche, and yet it hardly matters whether it was sickness or eccentricity that marred his life and galvanized his art, since what is madness in one era is genius in another. Either way, as the art historian Lorenz Eitner has written, “the conflict within him irritated his imagination and concentrated his energies: it was [his] fortunate flaw”

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