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Character Head: The Yawner Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Artist

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Wiesensteig, 1736 – Pozsony [Bratislava], 1783

Culture Austrian
Date 1771–1783
Object type sculpture
Medium, technique tin
Dimensions

42 × 21.5 × 26 cm

Inventory number 53.655
Collection Sculpture
On view Museum of Fine Arts, Second Floor, European Sculpture 1350-1800, Gallery 3

The upward path of Messerschmidt’s career was brought to a halt by a mysterious illness. He was tipped to be professor of sculpture in the Academy of Arts in Vienna, and was a favourite sculptor in the imperial court, when he was suddenly pensioned off on account of his mental illness. Upset, he took leave of Vienna for good and settled in Pozsony. It was here that most of his Character heads were made, a unique series of about fifty busts.
Much head-scratching has gone on over the interpretation of the busts, which after the sculptor’s death were displayed as a raree-show in the Prater in Vienna. Initially they were associated with the artist’s presumed schizophrenia, and in a Freudian vein they were seen as a reflection of the subconscious. Others suggested that the heads were inspired by the peculiar methods of the doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, a close friend of the artist’s, which are held to be the forerunner of psychotherapy. Mesmer believed the root of psychological and even indirectly physical diseases was the disorder of the magnetic field of the nervous system. During the sessions Messerschmidt would have seen such extreme emotions on the patients’ faces. It is true, however, that in Messerschmidt’s time the representation of human emotions was a central issue of art. As a teacher at the academy he certainly knew contemporary studies of expressions, thus in spite of their traditional titles the heads explore various, sometimes extreme grimaces rather than human characters.

Miriam Szőcs

Catalogue entry

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born in Wiesensteig, Bavaria, and started his career as a sculptor in the workshops of his uncles, Johann Baptist and Philipp Jakob Straub, before enrolling at the Viennese Academy of Arts. Here, the young Messerschmidt received commissions from the imperial family already in 1760. His rise in prominence came to a sudden end with his illness: his appointment as the professor of sculpture at the Academy of Arts was denied on the grounds of mental illness in 1774, and he was forced to retire at the age of thirty-eight. In 1777, the deeply offended artist moved to Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) where he settled for the rest of his life. Here he created most of the pieces from his famous series called Character Heads that is unique in the history of sculpture. The heads were made variously from alabaster and a tin-lead alloy. Fifty-four pieces have survived; the Museum of Fine Arts holds three from these. Since the rediscovery of Messerschmidt’s works at the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been several attempts to interpret the faces frozen in a strange grimace that were not created on commission. Influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, Ernst Kris connected the heads to the alleged schizophrenia of the artist, and interpreted the works as a reflection of his subconscious. Many art historians considered the Character Heads to be influenced by the physiognomical theories of Johann Caspar Lavater, according to which one’s facial features reflect their personality. Michael Krapf suggested that the artist’s friendship with Franz Anton Mesmer might have exerted further influences on the heads, especially Mesmer’s peculiar therapies. Mesmer, who earned his diploma at the Medical Faculty in Vienna, maintained that the illnesses of the mind, and indirectly of the body, were caused by the dysfunctions of the magnetism of the nervous system. During the treatment applied by Mesmer, who is regarded as the founder of psychotherapy, extreme emotions appeared on the face of the patients, and these experiences might have informed Messerschmidt’s Character Heads. At the same time, one has to bear in mind that the depiction of emotions was a central topic of eighteenth-century art. As a teacher at the Academy, Messerschmidt had to be aware of the treatises on physiognomy, and this central topic of academic teaching must have influenced his busts of extreme grimaces and emotions. In June 1781, the German writer Friedrich Nicolai visited Messerschmidt. Nicolai must have seen The Yawner in person since he described the bust in a later account of his journey. Two years after Messerschmidt’s death, the German yearbook of Bratislava, the Musen-Almanach, published a short commemorative poem on the sculptor, mentioning the Character Heads, and The Yawner. Miriam Szőcs

This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.

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