A TOUCH OF VIENNA – Emoticons in marble and bronze: Messerschmidt’s intriguing “character heads”






Pascal POULLALIÉ, MA
Servier International
DTC Medical Publications
Division, 50 rue Carnot
92284 Suresnes Cedex
FRANCE (e-mail: pascal.poullalié@fr.netgrs.com)

Emoticons in marble and bronze: Messerschmidt’s intriguing “character heads”
by P. Poullalié, France



Who are these characters who laugh and weep, sing and yell, moan and gnash their teeth, who shudder and shake and wince in the eternal silence of the Belvedere in Vienna, of the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava? Self-portraits perchance? One and the same man, his countenance frozen in myriad expressions? Or, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, a scientific study of expressions of the soul? Did the artist seek to give form to his woes, to free himself from inner demons? He plays with the principle of series, with repetition, molding a strange and somber material—metallic, yielding, elastic—into heads so true to nature that they could be mistaken for life masks. These are the creative choices of a modernist. Yet the sculptor of these baffling and unfathomable heads, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, was born nearly three hundred years ago.

Medicographia. 2013;35:362-371 (see French abstract on page 371)


“Oh, the most violent Paradise of the furious grimace!”

Arthur Rimbaud, Parade. In: Illuminations, 1873-1875



Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born into a family of sculptors in 1736 in Wiesensteig, in the Swabian Alps. His uncle, Johann Baptist Straub, one of the masters of the Rococo style in Bavaria, took him on as a 10-year-old apprentice after the death of his father. Franz Xaver continued his apprenticeship under three other uncles, the Straub brothers Philipp Jakob and Johann Georg, and then Joseph with whom Messerschmidt perfected the astonishing mastery of wood sculpture which would later so dazzle his fellow students in Vienna and Rome. When sixteen, Messerschmidt began training at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna under the renowned 18th century masters Matthäus Donner and Jakob Schletterer, studied with the sculptor Balthasar Ferdinand Moll, and developed his metalworking technique using an alloy of lead and tin.

Life and works

The rector of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the painter Martin van Meytens, supported Messerschmidt, who received his first commissions from 1760, after which his reputation grew. From the outset, Messerschmidt executed with great skill works remarkable in their majesty and attention to detail. This was the beginning of a rich artistic decade. Messerschmidt made imperial busts and larger-than-life statues of Empress Maria Theresa, (2 meters high) and of her husband Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor (2.16 meters), the most remarkable statues of the age in Central Europe. David Chatelle, an artillery captain in the cannon foundry of the imperial arsenal, devised a special alloy, essentially tin plus some copper, to cast these two statues. This alloy was easy to work and cast, and gave the sculptures a silvery gleam that was much appreciated at the time. Messerschmidt used it for all his metal sculptures.

In 1765, Messerschmidt spent a year working and studying in Rome, and then four years later, once again with the support of Meytens, obtained a teaching post at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Messerschmidt was thirty-three years old and at the peak of his career. With the proceeds of plentiful commissions Messerschmidt bought a house and garden near the home of one of his patrons, Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, the founder of the theory of animal magnetism. Mesmer commissioned Messerschmidt to make his bust and a fountain for the garden in which he treated patients with his famous magnetic healing. There is nothing though to substantiate the legend that Messerschmidt befriended Mesmer and stayed at his house for two years upon his return from Rome, or that Mesmer used magnetic healing to treat Messerschmidt when in 1771 he fell victim to a mysterious and to this day unelucidated mental instability. This breakdown seems to have triggered Messerschmidt’s work on the heads, to which he devoted the whole of the next decade.

Modern interpretations of Messerschmidt’s mental breakdown vary. Using historical accounts and analysis of the works, Ernst Kris, the Austrian psychoanalyst and art historian, concluded that Messerschmidt was schizophrenic. Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, the German art historians, saw him as an eccentric who was paranoid at certain times of his life.



The Ill-Humored Man. Sculpture by Franz Xaver
Messerschmidt. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/René-Gabriel Ojéda.



The flow of commissions dwindled and Messerschmidt found himself isolated. During this period of alienation Messerschmidt did, however, receive a commission for a bust of Gerard van Swieten, the Dutch-Austrian physician, and another, recently discovered, of Joseph Wenzel, Prince of Liechtenstein. Yet lacking exhibitions and sales, his pecuniary situation became untenable, and he had to sell his house. On 19 May 1774, old Professor Jakob Schletterer died. Contractually, the professor’s post should have gone to Messerschmidt, but over the previous three years the word was that he “sometimes seems to lose to his mind,” and though his health had improved since the breakdown, he still manifested “some brain problems” and from time to time showed signs of a “morbid imagination.” Messerschmidt was passed over for the professorship. Two official documents dated 1774 allude to this deterioration in the sculptor’s health: a report by the academic council of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and a letter Prince Kaunitz sent to Maria Theresa. The empress was advised that the afflicted artist should be given a modest pension and could perhaps work for the imperial buildings, but Messerschmidt refused the pension, particularly as no commissions were attached. He resigned from the Academy, left Vienna on 8 May 1775, and went to the Bavarian village of Wiesensteig, his birthplace, to live with his mother, taking with him the first five heads. The situation though was unbearable as his mother had sold the house to her son-in-law. So Messerschmidt set up in a hut and resumed work on the heads.

This exile and solitude were short-lived because at the end of the year he moved to Munich where the Court had promised him commissions, even a position. Messerschmidt hoped to present six sculpted heads to the Prince Elector of Bavaria, to showcase his talent, but nothing came of it.



Bust of Gerard Van Swieten. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Österreichische Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images.




The Archvillain. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Österreichische Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images/Erich Lessing.




A Grievously Wounded Man. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Österreichische Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images.




The Beaked. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Österreichische
Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images.



After this failure, Messerschmidt left Munich in August 1777 and set up house in Pressburg (modern-day Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia), a flourishing city and the capital of the government of the Kingdom of Hungary. His younger brother Johann Adam Messerschmidt, also a sculptor, had a house and studio there and created living and working space for Franz Xaver. Although the brothers did not see eye to eye, this arrangement lasted for five years before Franz Xaver moved into his own house, “The Hart’s Abode,” in December 1780.

Messerschmidt’s main sponsors in Pressburg were Prince Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen, and two counts. His reputation for oddness did not hinder the flow of commissions, and he executed the works in a neoclassical style with a very hard rendering of the face, which contrasted with the minute details of the hair and clothes. It was during this period that Messerschmidt produced most of his heads. And it was the heads that made his name. Men of letters and travelers passing through wished to meet the artist and discover his work.

Birth of a legend

The German writer Christoph Friedrich Nicolai left us an exceptional record of his visit to Messerschmidt in 1781. Full of anecdotes, his account should, however, be viewed with circumspection. Nicolai presents Messerschmidt as a “singular” man and artist, a solitary genius in the grip of attacks by evil spirits from which he could only escape by pinching himself hard under the lowest right rib. “…He observes himself, grimaces into the mirror… All the heads represent his image. I saw him work on the 61st head. He looked at himself in the mirror every thirty seconds and carefully pulled the faces needed. As works of art, these are genuine masterpieces.”

According to Nicolai, it was in Vienna (through Mesmer?) that Messerschmidt entered into relations with Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and secret sects conversing with the spirits and claiming access to the secrets of the universe. Messerschmidt’s fascination with the esoteric theories of these secret societies is attested by his interest in the art of Ancient Egypt, his allusions to the god Thoth, the ibis headed man of the Egyptian pantheon of deities, and a sketch of an armless Egyptian statue that he stuck on his window.

This interest in things Egyptian was not solely philosophical, but also artistic, as witnessed by his bust entitled A Seriously Injured Person, which we know of thanks to a plaster copy made in the 19th century and whose hair irresistibly suggests an Egyptian headdress.

Nicolai speaks of Messerschmidt’s belief in the apotropaic magic of the heads, of the chasing away of evil spirits, notably the “Spirit of Proportion,” which “frightened and plagued him at night” and who, he felt, was jealous of his remarkable learning, and of the fact that he had uncovered the secret of the proportions. He who, wrote Nicolai, “has always lived chastely,” suffers from “painful sensations in the lower belly and thighs” when he sculpts a part of the face that “corresponds to a certain part of the nether regions of the body.” The vital talismanic purpose of these works is attested by the fact that Messerschmidt refused to sell the heads, even though he claimed to want to make even more beautiful ones if he found a taker.

Critical fortune and modernity

Sixty-nine heads were found in the artist’s house upon his sudden death at age 47, apparently of pneumonia. Fifty-three, in wood, alabaster, wax, and lead, were preserved. Ten years later, in 1793, an exhibition at the Citizen’s Hospital in Vienna displayed 49 heads, which were seen as freakish works rep- resenting monstrosities or caricatures of human expressions. An anonymous brochure soon dubbed them “Character Heads.” Each was given an illustrative title which, naturally, bore no relation to the artist’s intentions. Messerschmidt himself called them head pieces (Kopfstücke), and saw them as a means of expressing the whole range of human expressions, which he believed numbered 64.

We have a visual record of the 49 heads thanks to Matthias Rudolph Toma (see cover), who published a lithograph, based on an earlier drawing, four years after they were first exhibited in 1835 by their owner Josef Jüttner, who showed them again in 1853. One commentator wrote: “Messerschmidt, this expert of the esthetic of the ugly, can with good reason be considered the Hogarth of sculpture.” Irremediably dispersed at an auction in 1889, the 49 heads have over the years been tracked down using Toma’s famous lithograph.

Camillo Sitte, a renowned Viennese architect, was the first who tried to collect the Character Heads, and at the 1889 auction bought a large number both privately and above all as director of the Staatsgewerbeschule (state industrial school) for an educational exhibition It is thought that Egon Schiele discovered Messerschmidt’s works at this exhibition.

From this moment on there was a veritable rehabilitation and artistic and scientific reappraisal of Messerschmidt’s work. In particular, Emil and Berta Zuckerkandl, ardent defenders of the paintings of Gustav Klimt, did much to reunite the Character Heads. Emil Zuckerkandl was an eminent physician, professor of anatomy, and author of numerous studies on the anatomy of the head and particularly the nose. His wife, Berta, who had trained with Albert Ilg, one of the first historians to rediscover Baroque art and the author of the first serious study of Messerschmidt in 1885, throughout her life ran brilliant literary and intellectual gatherings where artists were able to discover these highly original sculptures. Around 1905-1906, some of the Character Heads were presented to the public by the playwright Richard Beer-Hofmann, who had been a member of Young Vienna (Jung Wien), a society of writers who met in Vienna’s coffeehouses in the 1890s. Against the backdrop of the movement of the Vienna Secession and the Vienna of Freud, the Character Heads intrigued, fascinated, and inspired painters, writers, and doctors.

Others found a more mundane use for the heads. Right up until the 1960s, copies cast in molds taken from originals served as targets on shooting ranges or were used to compose freakish and parodic scenes at the Prater, an amusement park in Vienna. Still more could be seen in a hat shop window, and three decorated a wine bar in the Hungarian town of Esztergom. Once aroused, the elite’s interest in the Character Heads never waned. Picasso owned a set of images of the heads, and Ludwig Wittgenstein kept a copy of The Simpleton on his desk.



An Intentional Jester. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Österreichische
Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images.



From shooting ranges at the Prater, Messerschmidt returned to the world of the museum, through exhibitions of his Character Heads, but also by inspiring major contemporary artists like the Austrian Arnulf Rainer, the British sculptor Tony Cragg, the British painter Tony Bevan, and the French artist Bernard Crespin and his series of self-portraits. Messerschmidt is indissociable from modernity in the minds of museum curators. The Louvre in Paris presented the Character Heads with sculptures by Tony Cragg in 2011, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2012 staged an exhibition entitled “Messerschmidt and Modernity,” which presented sculptures by Messerschmidt and works by contemporary artists who draw inspiration from his work.



Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt. Tony Bevan, 2009,
acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 99×80 cm. © Tony Bevan/
Galerie Vidal-Saint Phalle. With kind permission.




Bad Guys. Tony Cragg, 2005, bronze, 120×100×110 cm,
photographer Lothar Schnepf. © Tony Cragg. With kind permission.




Der Strichstricker. Arnulf Rainer, 1970s (After Messerschmidt.
“Der Heftige Geruch” – “The Strong Smell”), ca 60.7×47.5 cm,
lead pencil on photo. © Arnulf Rainer. With kind permission.




Ricordo #10. Bernard Crespin, 2010/2011. Pigment print on
paper (unique prooof), 102.5×82.5 cm. © Bernard Crespin.

With kind permission.

The legend under the scrutiny of stylistic interpretation

Of 49 heads catalogued in 1793, a total of 38 originals are accounted for today, plus six variants that were not part of the set of 49. These heads sustain the romantic myth of the mad, solitary genius, but a stylistic analysis puts these heads squarely in the esthetic and philosophical context of their time. This analysis reveals a virtuoso artist, recognized, sought after throughout Eastern Europe, scion of a family of famous sculptors, welcomed in the studios of the greatest artists of his time. Although Messerschmidt trained in the Rococo tradition of sculpture, he is the harbinger of the movement of art toward the classicism of antiquity. Sickly it is true, aggressive and uncouth with those around him, Messerschmidt was nonetheless aware of the philosophical and artistic movements of his time: Enlightenment ideas, esoteric knowledge, the magnetism of Franz Anton Mesmer, pathognomonic analysis, the Swiss Johann Kaspar Lavater’s physiognomy, the somnambulism induced by A. M. J. Chastenet de Puységur.

Messerschmidt’s stylistic evolution can be detached from the psychological crisis of 1771, insofar as his art presents perceptible changes from the pivotal period between 1767 and 1769 when he received the commission for the bust of van Swieten. This stylistic and esthetic progression was consolidated with the realization circa 1780 of the spectacular lead-tin cast of the head known as Capuchin.

From the outset, then, Messerschmidt proved innovative and distanced himself from the official Rococo style, a tendency that quickly became marked in his portraiture. Messerschmidt abandoned the bust, which was a pretext for spectacular and dramatic effects of draped clothing or for decorative and symbolic elements like medals, jewelry, symbols of the subject’s power and status. Instead, he used a frontal representation of a bare head, in contrast to the official portraits of that time in which the subjects were bewigged.

Messerschmidt refused to idealize or to embellish portraits and made them as realistic as possible, seeking to translate their intemporal truth, in contrast to the Baroque, which sought to translate movement and the ephemeral.

Messerschmidt was the only artist to propose neoclassical portraits uncompromised by the triumphal Baroque style of the era. This stylistic evolution has no equivalent among Messerschmidt’s peers. He drew inspiration from the frontal and realistic portraits of the end of the Roman Republic that he discovered during his stay in Rome, and from his knowledge of the sculpture and art of Ancient Egypt. This quest for the ideal does not break completely with a sensual rendering, which preserves something of the Baroque spirit. Remarkably for the time, the Character Heads were not commissioned and none was sold during the artist’s lifetime, despite attractive financial offers. Messerschmidt, at Pressburg, made extremely costly marble busts for wealthy clients, not to mention the sale of alabaster medallions which he entrusted to his servant and which gave the artist a certain wherewithal and allowed him to pursue his work on the heads. This is an extremely modern approach.



The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy. Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Österreichische Galerie im Belvedere.

© akg-images.


The legend rides the winds of change

One should not forget the philosophical and esoteric world in which artists moved or Mesmer’s theories and treatments, which were familiar to Messerschmidt. Some critics interpret the gag, the rope around the forehead or neck of certain heads as the magnetics or accessories that Mesmer attached to his patients to stimulate the flow of magnetic fluid. Nicolai reports another, more tormented, explanation given by Messerschmidt himself: “Man must completely draw in the red of his lips, because no animal shows it.” The artist was convinced that animals were superior to humans in the perception of a good many things, notably the spirits, “the absence of obvious lips in animals” being the explanation, whence the effacement of lips on his heads.

The mystery remains: the problems of series

Messerschmidt maintained, once more according to Nicolai, that there are 64 different expressions or “grimaces” that express all the proportions of the head and, by extension, of the human body. The series of heads was intended to review and fix forever these 64 versions of the proportions. In truth, careful analysis of the heads shows that Messerschmidt used his ownmirrored expressions to compose the heads, but also selected items already sculpted. This is not snapshot mimicry of expressions the virtuoso artist fixed in alabaster or in a leadtin cast. Rather, Messerschmidt assembles and reassembles graphic elements (eyes,mouths, chins, eyebrows, and so forth) in shaping a head, which is therefore in no way naturalistic.

The paradox of this work lies in its principle: the series. In appearance, the rendering is hyperrealistic. The face contorts because the body is pinched. The artist models each bulging muscle, each furrow induced by the contortion of features. But this rendition is not unique (there are variations of some heads) and is part of a repetitive, serial approach which necessitates the abandonment of naturalistic or realistic interpretation for a more formal and esthetic probing. The series annihilates veristic representation and propels us toward abstract questioning.

Moreover, the strange illusionism of these heads is not devoid of anatomical implausibilities. So the Character Heads are neither naturalistic self-portraits (some heads have features that differ completely from those of the rest of the series) nor a scientific attempt to describe the outward display of the soul’s inner workings, manifestations which would anyway be hard to pin down (from laughing to weeping, from pain to pleasure).

The importance of, not to say obsession with, the mouth, which is reminiscent of that of the painter Francis Bacon, leads to spectacular and complete misshaping of the whole head in the two heads called The Beaked, in which the face ends in a birdlike beak. These two heads terrorized the artist. Nicolai relates that: “[The spirit] pinched him again and again until the faces saw daylight. He [Messerschmidt] thought ‘I’ll get the better of you yet’, but admitted that he had almost died in the attempt.” However we interpret the series, these heads are not the artist’s inner, intangible self portrayed through a glass, darkly.

Everlasting modernity

Historical facts, their interpretation, dismantle the fascinating legend of Messerschmidt as the “damned” artist, the mad genius who withdrew to Pressburg, sculpting fearfully in a desperate fight against his inner demons and the Spirit of Proportion. What remain are his heads, larger than life, so precisely and convincingly fashioned that their creator has earned an everlasting presence through his works. The force of this work is such that its mystery is preserved and lasting and all musings and interpretations are permitted… It is perhaps just this which explains the beauty, the vitality, the modernity of Messerschmidt’s Character Heads. _


Further reading:
– Pötzl-Maliková M, Scherf G, Boström A, Lambotte MC. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783. Paris, France: Louvre Editions & Milan, Italy: Officina Libraria; 2011.
– Boström A, Scherf G, Lambotte MC, Pötzl-Maliková M. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783; From Neoclassicism to Expressionism. Milan, Italy: Officina Libraria, 2010.
– Bückling M. Die Phantastischen Kopfe des Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Munich, Germany: Hirmer Verlag GmbH; 2007.
– Bückling M, Fanta R, Keleti M, Krapf M, Krapf-Weiler A, Häusler W. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag; 2002.
– Keleti M, Thevenon L, Loubet C, Forneris J, Croué G. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), Sculpteur baroque, Têtes de caractère. Nice, France: Palais Masséna, Musée d’Art de d’Histoire; 1993.
– Boström A. Messerschmidt and Modernity. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum: 2012.
– Guédron M. L’Art de la Grimace. Paris, France: Hazan: 2011.
– Clair J, Comar P, Faroult G, Guégan S. Mélancolie: Génie et Folie en Occident. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Gallimard; 2008.
– Le Brun C. Expressions des Passions de l’Âme: Représentées en Plusieurs Testes Gravées d’Après les Dessins de Monsieur Le Brun. Paris, France: GLM; 1956.
– Cyroulnik P, Crespin B. À Visages Découverts – Pratiques Contemporaines de l’Autoportrait. Montbéliard, France: Le 19 – Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain; 2005.
– Bouttemy MF, Van Hoeke N, Hattori C, Tapié A. Goya: Les Caprices & Chapman, Morimura, Pondick, Schütte. Paris, France: Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Somogy; 2008
– Baudry MT. Sculpture: Méthode et Vocabulaire. Paris, France: Monum, Ed du Patrimoine, Imprimerie nationale; 2000.
– Faraut C, Faraut P. Modelage de Portraits en Argile: Anatomie et Expressions du Visage. Paris, France: Eyrolles; 2010.
– Bajac Q. À Fleur de Peau: Le Moulage sur Nature au XIXe Siècle. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux; 2001.
– Courtine JJ, Haroche C. Histoire du Visage: Exprimer et Taire ses Emotions (du XVIe Siècle au Début du XXe siècle). Paris, France: Payot; 2007.
– http://www.charleslebrun.com.
– http://www.textesrares.com.