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  • Post published:March 29, 2019

FX Messerschmidt
at Belvedere:
A theatre of madness


© By Sheila 

Edit: A new exhibition with Messerschmidt’s art called “Talking Heads” recently started at Belvedere.
The Belvedere Museum Vienna always impresses me with its beauty. It’s a location of the past, that shapes future till today. At least future minds, if we consider the exhibitions taking place in this extraordinary home of art. Here we are, in front of a collection of surprisingly honest pieces of art: The busts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, displaying a theatre of madness at its best.

The bust in front of me is dramatic and speaks of – transfer? Overhaul? Or is it regulated effort? Let’s See: The chin is pressed with force against the breast – underneath, wrinkles roll over the nearly unrecognizable neck. The lips are tightly closed, chiseled to each other with spasmodic force. To the left and right of this, again wrinkles arise next to the full cheeks. These lips are impressive, depicting an often-familiar or imagined emotion of everyday life, but they recede behind the appearance and frame it only – much more profoundly does the gaze stop at the nose, eyes and forehead. And here the contours become sharper. 

This bust of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt belongs to his collection of "Charakterköpfen" (translated "character heads") located at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna. It is made of metal and shows a male head, whose whole face cramps into a grimace. Messerschmidt did excellent work by carving very realistic facial expressions and sharp lines.
The bronze sculpture "arch villain" by Messerschmidt at Belvedere Museum Vienna.

Only then does the bust of Messerschmidt unfold its frightening variety for the viewer – an experience of fine, sharp wrinkles, running deep on this face and originating from an eye area that can no longer see under this pressure. They spread onto the root of the nose, even to the tip of the nose and flow over to the forehead. Even the ears of the head seem, as if they withdraw in the impression of this force of nature. It is a bust, in whose horror Messerschmidt has perpetuated many possibilities. And like the other busts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, it radiates an enormously engaging presence – physically and psychologically. The metal is alive.

The picture displays author Sheila in front of one of Messerschmidt's busts at belvedere.
I almost felt soaked in by the presence of Messerschmidt's busts.

They truly are “character heads”, baptized by Messerschmidt himself “Kopf-Stückhe”. Originally 69 busts were to be made, of which 54 have been preserved. 12 of them are exhibited in the Upper Belvedere. They were made of metal (a lead tin alloy) or alabaster and that, hard to believe, between 1777 and 1783. Also other unusual expressions can be found in this collection: Among them “the strong smell”, the “Smell that irritates to sneeze” or “a hanged man”. Incidentally, the bust described above bears the name “the arch villain.”

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (born 1736 in Wiesensteig, died 1783 in Pressburg) himself began his path as a celebrated court artist, until his career was destroyed abruptly by a mental confusion, which was attested to him. The previously made Baroque works, such as the gilded bronze statues of Maria Theresa and Franz I Stephans of Lorraine gave way to merciless portrayals. The character heads are among the most important works of Messerschmidt and were made by the isolated artist in Pressburg, today Bratislava.

The sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt at Belvedere Museum Vienna

This piece, however, has particularly captivated me. The distorted muscles, the entire facial expression is a single border violation. Do we flee? Do we laugh about it, as the tourists in the Belvedere do in the presence of a group? Or is the expression physically uncomfortable, and if yes- where.

The front of Messerschmidt's bust "Erzbösewicht" (translated that means arch villain). We can see the extreme power of the expression. The dark metal shines in the light corner room of the Upper Belvedere.
Frontal view of the "arch villain". What a madness.

Messerschmidt’s mad sculpture triggers a change, first degrading us to witnesses. Perhaps it also amuses or puzzles us while confronting us with a moving madness, as we seldom allow it to happen. Those who are brave and concentrated enough are subsequently drawn inside – into feelings and memories,  which spring from our personal history. Have a try?

I hope you enjoyed this post, stay in touch!

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Babsie Steger

    Well let’s say… i love this blog ! Why ? Because Vienna is one of my favorite cities… ! quiet impressive, Sheila I love your website, and for me this is just the best way from Paris to discover what’s going on in “ART IN Vienna”

    Well let’s say… i love the blog ! Why ? Because Vienna is one of my favorite cities… quiet impressive, Sheila I just love it, and for me this is the best way( from Paris) to discover what’s going on about “ART IN Vienna”

    1. Sheila

      Thank you so much for your words! So happy about that, dear Babi!

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