Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the enlightenment. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not only a madman but also a mad artist. At the same time that he began to withdraw from society, he started to work on the project that would isolate him artistically as well, the Kopfstücke, or “character heads,” in which he concentrated his efforts to depict the passions and emotions of humanity. The trivial titles assigned to them by an anonymous writer ten years after Messerschmidt’s death—Afflicted by Constipation, A Hypocrite and Slanderer, The Incapable Bassoonist—are nothing but an attempt to resist their social illegibility.
The Neue Galerie’s exhibition of no fewer than twenty-one character heads displays the full spectrum of Messerschmidt’s studies of expression. Facial muscles contract, eyes squint, eyebrows rise, mouths contort. These distorted faces are disturbing because we cannot place them in any familiar social setting or assign them to any known psychic condition. More than half of the twenty-one busts are bald. Their necks, unencumbered by collars or scarves, reveal their larynxes and tendons. In this naked state, the contortions of their features are pitilessly on display. The Yawner tears open his mouth as if about to scream, his entire face transformed into a bestial mask. The gaze of the Arch-Rascal (catalog only) sinks to his chest as if in abject guilt. The agitated features have something self-destructive about them.
The rediscovery of Messerschmidt’s character heads in the twentieth century occurred just as psychiatrists and art historians were becoming interested in the art of the mentally ill. The excesses of his works were read as the symptoms of his illness. But the solution to understanding his work cannot be simply to interpret Messerschmidt’s supposed “case history,” the undeniably pathologic “confusion in his head,” but also to try to understand it historically. The character heads were one of many attempts, beginning with Descartes’ treatise Les passions de l’ame, to codify the human passions. Messerschmidt seems to have been searching for such a system, but failed to find it. His character heads are decoupled from communication, autistically imprisoned, and that is what makes them so fascinating. The silly arguments about whether and “how” Messerschmidt was mad should give way to the insight that in modern society, abnormality and insanity have become part of the history of art.
These comments are drawn from Willibald Sauerländer’s article about Messerschmidt, which appears in the October 28 issue of The New York Review.
“Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736–1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism” is showing at the Neue Galerie in New York through January 10, 2011. The catalog is edited by Maria Pötzl-Malikova and Guilhem Scherf.