Friday 6 February 2015

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Beaked

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (Swabia, Germany, 6th February 1736 - Bratislava, Slovakia, 19th August 1783)

Today marks the anniversary of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, sculptor of one of the most remarkable and strange bodies of work created in the 18th century. Born into humble beginnings, Messerschmidt received his training from his uncle, sculptor Johann Baptist Straub, and battling against his own psychological issues and the sometimes debilitating physical symptoms of these, found his work in bronze in demand from the most illustrious houses of Austria.

What has ensure Messerschmidt's place in the history of art is his series of sixty four grimacing, tortured busts that have been termed his character heads. He began work on the heads in the early 1770s, inspired by the digestive agony he suffered as a result of an undiagnosed discomfort. The busts were based on his own facial expressions, which he observed in a mirror when pinching his own body in order to combat the pains in his stomach.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Beaked
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Beaked

The heads came about as a result of Messerschmidt's belief that he was being visited by demonic beings. Indeed, the heads were intended as a method of protection from these devilish creatures and Messerschmidt developed a highly complex system for placing the busts in a particular order that would form a protective barrier between him and his imagined spiritual persecutors.

As Messerschmidt continued his work, he came to firmly believe that his efforts to combat the demons had angered one particularly malevolent character that he termed the Spirit of Proportion. This being, he believed, had existed for millennia and was charged with protecting the arcane knowledge that he alone had discovered. By night, Messerschmidt thought, the Spirit of Proportion visited him in his rooms and tortured him as punishment for his efforts to resist his tormentors by sculpting the heads. 

In response to these agonies, Messerschmidt sculpted The Beaked. It is a nightmarish image of the human face contorted into an agonised grimace and once can only imagine what its creator must have been suffering when he conceived of it. Messerschmidt's art is remarkable and, as far as I know, unique; once seen, it is not easily forgotten.


Mari Christian said...

Poor, poor man. I must say that I could not live with even one of his sculptures.

Catherine Curzon said...

Right there at the end of the bed!

angus smith said...

I know the work and never did know why he made the work the way he did ! Thanks , now it all makes sense . I understood he was " merely insane, " but clearly he was in agony .

Catherine Curzon said...

I can't imagine how much!