At first glance, the sculptures of German-Austrian artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt look as though they were made in just the last century, when in fact they were created in the 1700’s. In a similar fashion to artists such as Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, there are two distinct styles in Messerschmidt’s career. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, he worked in a neoclassical style and even had a few royal commissions. It was during this time that he created some of the most important sculptures of the century, and was well known for being uncompromising in his dedication to realism. The features of his subjects were kept true to nature, so anything that signified their age was included and in no way did the sculptures idealize the subjects.
Around the 1770’s something changed inMesserschmidt’s life and the style of his art went in an entirely new direction. It was believed that he was experiencing psychological issues. His lost his position at the academy where he had been teaching, then applied for a position but was subsequently expelled from teaching altogether. He returned to his native village and began work on his “Character Heads”, which he is not famously known for. As you can see the busts feature intense, distorted, and often pained expressions. It turns out that the artist may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease, and was in a a great deal of discomfort. In order to create the expressions for these works, and to take his mind away from the pain, he would look in a mirror and pinch himself and contort his face. His skill at rendering the busts with great detail aided this new style, and he created more than 60 of these character heads before he passed in 1783 at the age of 47.
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(Header image: Detail from a lithograph by Matthias Rudolph Toma depicting Messerschmidt’s “Character Heads” (1839). All via Wikipedia