Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Character Heads

How these bizarre sculptures give insight into the agitated mind of the artist

Character Heads from the 18th century by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The highly expressive features of Messerschmidt’s “Character Heads” were quite unusual for its time. Since their creation in the second half of the 18th century, they have been the topic of wild speculations. Stories circulated about the artist’s alleged insanity, his eccentric behaviour and how he would jump in front of unsuspecting pedestrians, while being armed with a gun, to study the expression of their frightened faces. While most of these claims have not been proven, the Character Heads can still be interpreted as a depiction of Messerschmidt’s vivid inner life during a painful period of his life.

Character Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The German-Austrian Sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born in the Bavarian town of Wiesensteig, in 1736. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and later held an important position as a sculptor at the court of the empress Maria Theresia. After working in Vienna for years and being rejected for the position of professor at the Academy, he relocated to his hometown Wiesensteig, in 1755. In 1777 he moved to the city of Preßburg. He first lived with his younger brother but later bought his own house in the area, where he would eventually die a few years later. Messerschmidt finished a large part of the Character Heads during his last years in Preßburg. Of the 69 sculptures he created known as Character Heads, only 54 original artworks still exist today.

The sculptures with the eccentric facial expressions depict the face of the artist himself. To capture the look of various distinctive expressions, he observed his own face while looking in a mirror. Each Character head seems to display a different kind of emotion or facial expression. The heads are characterized by lips that look like they are pulled in, contracted facial muscles and skin that heavily wrinkles due to the intense expressions. Titles of the sculptures like “The Yawner” have been added after Messerschmidt’s dead and do not stem from the artist.

Character Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even though there are some sources that suggest that Messerschmidt suffered from mental health problems, none of those claims have been proven. According to the German writer Friedrich Nicolai, the artist believed to be in contact with spirits who were jealous of the perfection he achieved with his art, which is why — as Messerschmidt supposedly believed — they were punishing him with physical pain. Apparently Messerschmidt thought these visions of spirits were a reward for his chaste lifestyle. He also believed animals would be better at perceiving these spirits, which could — according to him — be explained through the absence of their lips. This abstruse explanation is visible in the Character Heads, as he tried to depict the lips as pulled in. Nicolai’s description of the artist’s life and their discussions have not been proven though and have also been discredited due to contradictions in his writing.

Character Head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, he was also described as mentally unwell in a document by the Academy of Fine Arts relating to the available professorship to which Messerschmidt applied. The artist often complained about intrigues against him by the Academy and some literature suggests that exactly that was the case. Since Messerschmidt was the most esteemed sculptor in Vienna at the time, he was surrounded by competitors who probably used the claim of his mental health problems to discredit him. During the time of these accusations — in the 1770s — many of the artist’s patrons died, and he consequently lost commissions. The rejection for the position of professor, the struggle to get commissions and the hostile attitude of the Academy towards Messerschmidt ultimately forced the artist to leave Vienna in 1775. He immersed himself in his work and the completion of his Character Heads. Due to these unpleasant circumstances, the reports of visitors that describe the artist as bad-tempered and odd are less surprising.

Mentally ill or not, the Character Heads offer an astounding, realistic and sometimes exaggerated depiction of human emotion and expression. The portrayal of tension, skin, and liveliness showcase the artist’s extraordinary skill to transfer facial expressions to a rigid and firm material. Even though the creations of the many and skilfully completed Character Heads make the theory of an artist suffering from a severe mental illness unlikely, the sculptures can still be interpreted as the manifestation of Messerschmidt uneasy mind. The decrease in commissions and negative work environment that led to him reluctantly leaving Vienna probably filled the artist with a range of emotions like sadness, anger and confusion. The making of the Character Heads could have served as a way to cope with those experiences and emotions by creating something similar to the strong feelings he might have suffered from. By processing and expressing those feelings through art, the making of the Character Heads could be considered as a form of art therapy, not to counteract a psychiatric illness but to come to terms with one’s unfortunate past.


The Man behind the Mask? Looking at Franz Xaver Messerschmidt by Michael Yonan

Intrigue or Insanity? The Case of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt by Miriam Szőcs

Die Geburt des Kunstwerks durch den Geist der Proportion. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt und seine Charakterköpfe by Axel Christoph Gampp

Art history student and freelance writer from Vienna. Interested in and writing about interpretations of artworks and what we can learn from them.

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