It’s All in the Head

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer
Left: Photo d'Art, Brussels/Private Collection, Belgium; right: Belvedere, Vienna
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing, 1777–1781 (left), and An Arch-Rascal, 1771–1783 (right)

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the Enlightenment. There was always something unsettled about his biography, the life of an outsider. He was born in the small town of Wiesensteig in Württemberg, the son of a tanner. At the time, Wiesensteig belonged to the territories ruled by the Elector of Bavaria, and Johann Baptist Straub, a leading sculptor of the Bavarian rococo, was Messerschmidt’s maternal uncle. He became Straub’s apprentice in Munich and then moved on to Vienna; in 1755, as a nineteen-year-old, he shows up in a list of pupils at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts.

Later, he was drawn into the circle of Viennese court artists. When he was twenty-four, he completed portrait busts of the Emperor Francis I and the Empress Maria Theresa at the behest of the Prince von Liechtenstein, works of orotund baroque bombast. Around 1765, the court commissioned him to sculpt a statue of Maria Theresa as the queen of Hungary. The result is a piece of courtly masquerade, lively but not graceful. If he had continued to produce such works, Messerschmidt would have earned a place in the history of late-baroque courtly sculpture: an impressive talent, but no genius.

Around 1770, however, the baroque works cease and the courtly allure disappears. The wigs fall, as do the flattering costumes. It was the hour of the Zurich physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), and there was an awakening interest in physiognomy as a key to character. Another contemporary was Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), the investigator of hypnotism and “animal magnetism” who may have been a friend of Messerschmidt’s. From then on, his busts show only the face of the natural, free man whose character, no longer decked out in breastplates and medals, speaks from his physiognomy alone.

A bust of 1770–1772 for the tomb of Gerard van Swieten, Maria Theresa’s personal physician, shows an intelligent face sinking in rolls of fat, not at all aristocratic, but lively and wide awake. Nothing is left out: the flat nose, the double chin. This transition to natural, nonaristocratic portrait sculpture can be seen elsewhere around 1770, in Joseph Nollekens’s famous head of Laurence Sterne in London, for instance—misproportioned, but fiercely intelligent—and in Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck, his pockmarked face ablaze with genius. But nowhere does the blunt truth of an ordinary face emerge so honestly as in Messerschmidt’s bust of the royal physician.

An even more striking example of Messerschmidt’s radical change of direction after 1770 is the bust of the Prince von Liechtenstein, rediscovered only in 2004. This portrait, too, is unadorned: no wig, no drapery, no modish panegyric. The prince’s nobility is…

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