Franz Messerschmidt’s Busted Heads

Posted on | November 13, 2010 | 1 Comment

Another trip to New York, another visit to the Neue Galerie.  I first encountered Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the subject of the Neue Galerie’s current show, when the Met acquired “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer,” one of his “character heads,” earlier this year.  When not on loan to the Neue, “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer” stands in a small room filled with plates and spoons and other curiosities of the European decorative arts.  The bust is of their period, technically, but you would never know to look at it: the man’s eyes are wrenched shut, his mouth grimacing, chin pulled tight to his chest.  Even the material—a dark tin cast—feels too modern for its time.

The Neue Galerie’s show includes the piece from the Met, along with a selection of others from the series.  It’s a small exhibition for the space, but the sculptures are powerful enough to carry the show.  The character heads are shocking in their expressiveness, a rebuke to the empty-eyed Romans that one associates with the form.  In “Childish Weeping,” the contours of the face promise tears, even in their absence.  While Messerschmidt has a couple figures in marble, the majority are in tin and lead, making their twisted features that much darker.  The intense contortions of the faces—their crinkled eyes, their fleshy jowls—stand in marked contrast to the natural smoothness of the material.

What makes Messerschmidt’s sculptures so otherworldly is their warped singularity within a form usually devoted to idealism and perfection.  Busts are meant to be honorific, not ugly.  The force of this contrast is most striking in “The Yawner” (pictured here), which has a black gaping cavity of a mouth that, were it not occupied by a tensed tongue, could probably fit my fist.  As I stared at “The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing,” it occurred to me that I’d never before seen a bust with teeth.

Even after seeing the full range of Messerschmidt’s characters, I think my favorite remains “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer,” perhaps because it still holds the power of that first encounter.  But the more I look at it, the less apt the title seems.  (The descriptive titles, I was disappointed to learn, are not Messerschmidt’s own; they were added by a Viennese curator after his death in 1783.)  The downward-facing head, impossible to really look into, appears closed off to all but the depth of his own private remorse.

Some of the character heads can be seen on NYRB’s site here.

Comments

One Response to “Franz Messerschmidt’s Busted Heads”

  1. Shelley
    November 23rd, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    I’m a Texas writer and love my state; still, your phrase “another trip to New York” made me sigh with envy.