The Madness of Messerschmidt

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Discover Kuriositas
Take a look at this startling tin alloy bust.  It is called A Hypocrite and a Slanderer.  When do you think it was created?  Five years ago? Ten?  It certainly has the air of something very modern – almost Damian Hirst without the diamonds (as it were).  Would it surprise you to learn that this magnificent head was made almost two hundred and fifty years ago?


It is the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt a German-Austrian sculptor who was born in 1736 and who is most famous for his fixation with and reproduction of heads.  Not just any heads of course – these are busts that are twisted, the features writhing almost in an attempt to escape the face.  There is more than a little irony in the fact that the mental illness which produced these contorted images of the human face look so modern.  They say as much of our time as they do of Messerschmidt’s state of mind.


Messerschmidt grew up in the household of his Munich based Uncle, Johann Straub, who was also a sculptor and who became the young Messerschmidt’s first master and artistic mentor.  In 1755 he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and like any young artist of the time sought out patronage from the high and mighty of his times.  He worked at the imperial arms collection and created representations of the then imperial couple as well as religious works.

By 1769 he had begun to produce the severe heads for which he would be mostly remembered, influenced by Roman republican busts but with an oddity which removed them from the norm.  From the early 1770s he started work on the heads that you can see here – startling and discomfiting portrayals of wildly twisted and contorted features.  The Vexed Man appears above and he truly does look troubled. What caused this explosion of bewildering creativity?

It seems that at the same time Messerschmidt began to suffer both from hallucinations and from paranoid ideas that he was a victim of evil spirits determined to destroy him and his art.  These busts of facial distortions (mostly self portraits) would become an all-consuming project.  To ward of these spirits he would eventually create sixty four self portraits which were ordered in to a specific (and to him, scientific) system which he hoped would help him and others with similar afflictions.

His situation came to a head in 1774 when he applied for the position of leading professor at the Academy (where he had been a teacher since the late 1760s).  Far from getting the promotion he expected and desired he was barred from teaching altogether.   The Chancellor of State, Count Kaunitz felt compelled to write a letter to the Empress explaining why this had happened.  Messerschmidt’s state of mind was referred to as a ‘confusion in the head’ in this letter.  Whether it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or another condition will never be firmly established but many art historians believe this to be the case.

Messerschmidt moved back to his home village of Wiesensteig and stayed their till his death (with a sojourn in Munich where he waited in vain for a commission).  This was effectively a retirement but he continued work on his character heads. He was visited in 1781 by the noted German author Friedrich Nicolai whose diary account of this encounter is the only document written at the time that discusses the sculptor’s mental and physical state.

Nicolai discovered that Messerschmidt had been suffering for years from a digestive illness that some think may have been Crohn’s disease.  The twisted faces were the result of awful pinches he would inflict on his rib area in an attempt to alleviate the terrible discomfort he felt.  We might call it art therapy today but the busts in marble and bronze were to template himself for future medical study.

Messerschmidt told Nicolai that he felt he had angered the ‘Spirit of Proportion’ who it was said guarded the knowledge of universal balance which he was trying to express in his work. The spirit would come to him in the dead of night and inflict endless and humiliating tortures on him, which inspired one of his head, The Beaked, above. Messerschmidt died two years after this meeting.

Excluded effectively from society by the powers of the Academy, Messerschmidt died in isolation, labeled both antisocial and unreasoned.  In a way it preserved the dominant artistic ideologies of the time but Messerschmidt’s hyper real portraits have survived the centuries.  Perhaps he truly was mad but if so it was accompanied by its twin, the madness of inspiration.

Image Credit Wikimedia 

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You may not have heard of the quoll.  However, do not suspect they are a creature of invention.  These small marsupials are native to Australia and Papua New Guineau and – as you can see – they are extremely appealing to the eye.  

This is an Eastern Quoll fawn. The tribe (that's a rank between family and genus) that the quoll belongs to also contains the much better known Tasmanian Devil.

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