messerschmidt, a sculptor a(head) of his time



Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is not some cool “up and coming” contemporary artist churning out these fantastically expressive sculptures somewhere in a studio in the former East Berlin.  But you’re forgiven for thinking that.  His portrait busts are so wild and out there, that it is hard to believe they were created from 1770 to 1783. But wait; wasn’t all art supposed to be serious and beautiful back then?  It seems to me there is always someone in the art world stirring up the pot and making a name for themselves whether it’s in the 18th century or the 21st!




Today Messerschmidt’s fabulously grotesque characters are finally getting the respect they’re due.  In his day, the 60 busts he created (often using himself as the model making faces in a mirror) were seen as the creations of a cantankerous madman who had lost touch with the true spirit of art.  His sculptures were dismissed by critics and the public as frivolous art.  But the US$4.8 million paid by the Louvre in 2005 for one of Messerschmidt’s pieces is far from frivolous!  What’s interesting is that its not the average collector of Old Master paintings or sculpture who is drawn to his work, but rather contemporary artists and collectors along with photographers and sculptors who connect with the insanity of the images.




Early in his career, Messerschmidt was a popular artist who showed great promise at the Hapsburg court of Maria Theresa, where he was initially well received.  But by the 1770s his erratic behavior was such that he was passed over twice as professor of sculpture at court and he left Vienna for good, taking up the life of a hermit and pressing on with his series of emotional sculptures.  Tormented by voices and spirits, Messerschmidt died at 47 – another talented artist taken in his prime.  After his death, his niece sold the sculptures to a man who displayed them in Vienna’s amusement park where they were exhibited like a freak show.  Apparently plaster casts painted in loud colors were sold to tourists as souvenirs.  It was only one hundred years later during the time of Freud that Viennese collectors began to appreciate these works.




Looking at Messerschmidt’s sculptures, you cannot help but really feel the emotion he exhibits: yawning, laughing, angry, wincing – you are engaged with the figure in all his dramatic poses.  Most of the busts are bald which highlights the attention paid to the facial muscles and tendons of the neck.  In this respect, I am reminded of the works of Renaissance artists.




Because this was unlike anything seen before in the history of art, is this the shark floating in formaldehyde of the 1770s?  If anything, this teaches us (me included),  that great art isn’t always easy to understand nor appreciated in its time.




richard rabel
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city

images credits: from top to bottom – Belvedere Gallery, Vienna; Belvedere Gallery, Vienna; MET, New York; The Getty, California; Private Collection; Private Collection.