Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: A Genius Sculptor with a Quirky Streak?

Franz Xaver Messerscmidt Character Head - Smiling

The character heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt continue to puzzle the experts, even after 234 years’ of his death. Numerous analysts, historians and scientists tried to explain the inspirations behind the grotesque figureheads that the sculptor is famous for. Some of these hypotheses are no less bizarre than the sculptures themselves.

While sifting through the maze of these interpretations, what often gets overlooked is in fact of infinitely greater importance: the skill of the artist and his power of observation.

The reasons behind his famous busts, psychological or otherwise, don’t undermine his abilities as an artist.

Character Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Ironically, you don’t feel amused viewing these character heads. If anything, you feel a deep sense of gloom and sadness looking at these figures. It is as if a well of pain is kept carefully hidden behind these ridiculous façades.

Sorrow is a powerful emotion. It has been a source of some of the most well-known sculptures. Contemporary sculptor Susan Clinard transforms strong human emotions like pain and sorrow through her figurative sculptures.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt – The Early Days of the Sculptor

Messerschmidt was born on February 6, 1736, in Swabia, Germany. The Early death of his father left the family in the doldrums. The artist had to work as a shepherd boy to earn his living. As a boy, he made numerous very poignant sketches of the surrounding scenery which, in a way, foretold the future.

At a young age, Messerschmidt relocated to Munich. He started living in his uncle’s home. There he got the early opportunity to learn and create sculptures from his two uncles, Johann Baptist Straub and Philipp Jakob Straub. For a few years, he also studied in Rome. His late baroque style flourished under the influence of neoclassicism in Rome.

Maria Theresa, Sculpture by Franz Xaver MesserschmidtStone Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

The artist’s innate talent and skilful execution earned him commissions from Maria Theresa of Austria and Princess of Savoy. However, his progress in this regard was curtailed. According to some critics, his somewhat brusque nature did not endear him to the aristocrats of Vienna. Others believe, he started showing some disturbing psychological symptoms from this time onwards.

Whatever the actual reason might be, Messerschmidt sold all his possessions including his artworks and engravings and relocated to a small town near Pressburg, now in Bratislava. He always preferred living a humble life sans any pomp and finery.

Birth of the Messerschmidt Character Heads

According to Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, an author and bookseller who came in close contact with Messerschmidt, he was sometimes ridiculed for the trait. Some of his fellow students in Rome mistakenly thought him to be a poor labourer instead of a talented artist.

During his stay near Pressburg, he came closest to achieving the simplicity he always craved for in his life. He supported himself by working on small projects. The artist started working on his most renowned body of art while living a life of relative seclusion.

An acquaintance with Franz Mesmer and the awareness of the latter’s revolutionary ideas brought definitive touches to Messerschmidt’s art. Since 1770, he started creating busts depicting various facial expressions and continued until the very end of his life in 1783.

According to many experts, a combination of nervous disorder and its adverse psychological effects prompted him to create such contorted self-portraits. Christoph Friedrich Nicolai recalls how he would look in the mirror once in every 30 seconds or so, draw out the facial expression that he was planning to sculpt and work on his media with great accuracy.

Character Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

The Importance of Messerschmidt Self Portraits

It is not uncommon for artists to work on self-portraits. Rembrandt left behind an extensive collection of self-portraits. These paintings, etchings and drawings were created over a period of forty years. Many of his later day self-portraits reveal a great deal about the worried frame of mind of the artist.

Vincent van Gogh painted several self-portraits throughout his life. Two of the self-portraits show him with bandaged ears, the story behind which is well known now.

Artists like Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Zinaida Serebriakova painted many self-portraits. Most of these paintings were created on a very different note. Some of the paintings show them in a domestic setting, surrounded by their children. Works like these show us rare glimpses of an artist’s life.

However, very few artists have sculpted their own portraits, if anyone at all. And, almost no one has done it like Frank Xaver Messerschmidt.

Messerschmidt used lead, tin, alabaster and limewood to sculpt sixty four life-size character heads. Such is the enduring appeal of his work that some two centuries later his grimacing and wincing figureheads continue to mesmerize us.