Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Franz Messerschmidt's Grimacing Figure Heads

Brigitte Kronauer is a major German novelist (a Büchner Prize recipient) who also writes wonderful essays on art. Many years ago I read her essay (in the collection Die Einöde und ihr Prophet) on the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Last summer when I was in Vienna I finally had an opportunity to view the collection of Messerschmidt's "heads" at the Belvedere Museum. (Herewith a large selection.) Messerschmidt had always seemed unique to me, but I had to revise that opinion today at the Metropolitan Museum, when I encountered this bust of Marsyas from about 1680 by the Austrian sculptor Balthasar Permoser. Clearly there is quite a tradition of "non-classical" portrayals. "Connect, only connect," as Goethe reminded us.

Messerschmidt, born in 1736 in Bavarian territory, had a successful career as sculptor at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, turning out portrait busts of nobles and local prominences, what Kronauer calls "official masks, desired images for the public world." In 1775, however, Messerschmidt turned his back on Vienna, where he had failed to gain promotion because of his erratic behavior, perhaps a result of the lead poisoning from which he would die in 1783. In the decade before his death he turned out seventy "character heads," of which forty-nine are now extant. He never had a commission for any of the heads, and he sold none during his lifetime. The titles that now attach to the works have been added by later collectors.

Kronauer reviews the facts of his life and quarrels with the consensus that he was mentally ill. (She seems to underestimate the effect of the lead poisoning.) For the most part, she is interested in the effect of these smirking, pinched, dented, grimacing, puffed-up, wrinkled faces. Grimacing, she writes, urges us to respond by imitation, but with these character heads one recognizes immediately that their expression is not directed at us, the viewers, but, simultaneously, at some external object that we are unable to see (a ghost perhaps?) as well as at something that is trapped inside the head, behind the outer skin. "Even if it were technically possible, we wouldn't be able to mimick the expression of these variously old faces, since we can't know the soul- and mind-shattering and mobilizing impetus."

Messerschmidt was a contemporary of Lavater, the friend of Goethe's youth. With Goethe's assistance, Lavater produced his Physiognomical Fragments (1774-78), which sought to show that a person's character can be deduced from his facial features. The young Goethe might have found something to admire in Messerschmidt's busts, had he ever seen them, but the "classical" Goethe could not have approved. On a literary note, he advised readers to be careful about the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann. In 1827 he approvingly quoted the judgment of an English reviewer who wrote that Hoffman's tales are "the fevered dreams of an unsettled sick brain." If one wants to read a really good tale, he advised, one in which the impossible and the low-down, the unheard-of and the ordinary, are melded, one should instead turn to "Die neue Melusine," his own tale! I leave it to readers to decide whether Goethe's retelling of the Melusine legend ranks as high as Hoffmann's tales.

Picture credits: J. Paul Getty Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art

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