Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translated by Miss XS
You may have seen already some of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Heads here and there in exhibitions suxh as ‘L’âme au corps’ (although it seems that most of these were false; posthumous reprints from the plaster moulds conserved in Bratislava), Portraits publics, portraits privés or Mélancolie.
But the present exhibition at the Louvre (until the 25th of April) is the first presentation in France (after Vienna and Frankfurt amongst others) showcasing a significant 22 of the Character Heads of this strange sculptor, who recently re-emerged at the front of the art scene. A renowned sculptor within the court of Vienna, with a restrained style, somewhat airy, but nevertheless quite conventional (some examples are shown here such as a bust of Marie-Therese), his life radically changed when a cabal costed him a chair at the Academy, probably because of his slightly strange demeanour. He then left Vienna, to settle later in Bratislava (Pressburg), then the capital of Hungary. He continued to sculpt the busts of princes and important people, but these sculptures are not terribly interesting (although they prove that he was a wealthy bourgeois, not a poor and cursed artist, as it is often wrongly said). However, during this period, he also developed a very personal approach with his famous heads in metal, (lead and tin) and alabaster (on top: image no.27, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
After his death in 1783, 49 of the heads were sold to a Viennese chef who exhibited them (in his restaurant? A strange way of igniting appetite), documented them (catalogue, 1793, image no.8; Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienne), and then gave them up to another collector. The collection was dispersed in 1889; and even if Klimt and Schiele appreciated these heads, it was the psychiatrist Ernst Krist (co-author of the excellent essay on artistic creation with Otto Kurz titled The Legend of the Artist) who rediscovered them in 1932. Messerschmidt’s fame did not surpass Central European frontiers until recently, when the Louvre acquired one of his heads in 2005 (a decision, so I heard through the grapevine, that was opposed by some reluctant conservative curators, unable to see beyond classical sculpture). Understandably, this is due to Messerschmidt’s revelations of unexplored territory, which are without doubt outside the narrow patrimonial vision of many of our curators. (Image no.13, courtesy of the Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest).
So, what exactly are these Heads? Their titles given during an exhibition of 1793, ten years afterhis death, have no relevance aside from being anecdotal (therefore I chose not to mention them here). What do these faces show? The enlightened philosopher Friedrich Nicolai, who visited Messerschmidt on the 29th of June, 1781, reported that the sculptor explained how, having been persecuted by demons and suffering pain in his thighs and abdominal region (a modest, but significant euphemism, no doubt), he pinched himself in front of the mirror and then attempted to reproduce his characteristic grimaces in his works. For me, whilst contemplating these heads (they are all mental self-portraits, but do not pretend to be true resemblances), they are effigies of pain: perhaps physical pain, psychosomatic pain, and certainly psychic pain. No, this is not a man who yawns (as thet posthumous title of this image n°23 in the Szépmüvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest would have you believe), this is a man who howls in pain when facing his demons, misery and torture, fighting hopelessly against his hallucinations. Even when he seems to be smiling (image no.10, Belgian collection), the pain is present. Very rarely in art, has one been able to reproduce such intimate pain that occupies the whole body and the whole spirit, the pain that leaves no respite; not the acme of brief or accidental pain (like for example, the woman of Guernica), but rather the perennial pain that accompanies every day. Perhaps only Bacon had this effulgence, this contained but insupportable violence (and also, seen a few days later by coincidence, the yelling Marie in the Compianto by Niccolo dell’Arca in Bologna).
That Messerschmidt’s pain was a mental one, no doubt, everything about him points to a very tormented personality. One can mention an evident kinship with Mesmer* (whom he met in Vienna, while Mesmer was developing his magnetic trials, which later brought him success in Paris), and with Lavater and his physiognomies, (however with Greco, I hardly see any connection, unlike Mr Dagen). One can marvel at the realism of his heads, their wrinkles and crow’s feet, the tension of their skin, the depiction of their grins, the salience of their withered appearance, the texture of their shaved heads- even more so prominent in the plaster heads (image no. 16, courtesy of the Getty Museum, LA) whereby even the protrusion of clenched skin is inscribed in the texture of the stone- it’s a homage to his talent and his perfection at realistically rendering every single detail. One can say that, aesthetically, he was working in a totally contrary manner to his own official work, contrary to the dogma of the right proportions which is so characteristic of the Enlightment period (and that he certainly learned and taught at the Academy). But all these intelligent approaches do not give justice to this ultimate cry, this overwhelming pain, sometimes dramatically repressed ( as seen in Image no. 24, Belvedere, Vienna, a sort of autistic sculpture) and sometimes expressed with violence.
Three of the heads (among which the one owned by the Louvre; image no.20) have strips over their mouths: it is unlikely to be a Mesmerising magnet, and we are led to think that it is more of a symbol of repressed passion, which Kris identified psychoanalytically as a chastity belt exposed in front of everyone’s eyes: Messerschmidt does not convey his absence of sexual desire (rather on the contrary, one could say), but he displays the non-realisation of his desires. He himself even told Nicolai that he was utterly chaste, adding that “Man must always retain the red of his lips,” hiding what can be seen to evoke an intimacy, an internality, a suppressed and ambiguous sexuality.
It’s an exhibition to see time and time again, a visit that will change according to your own mood, an echo of your own troubled feelings, and maybe even of your own personal pains. And you absolutely must read the excellent catalogue.
* and not (Pierre) Messmer, Legionnaire and Prime Minister of France.
Photos courtesy of the Louvre’ press service. Copyright of the photos: loaning institutions. Additionally, image no.10 ©Brussels, Art photo: image no.20 ©Louvre Museum / Pierre Philibert; image no.24 ©Fotostudio Otto, Vienna.