1736 Wiesensteig, Bavaria to 1783 Preßburg/Bratislava
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a Swabian, is one of the most fascinating sculptors of the Enlightenment. He worked in Vienna with great success for the imperial house under Maria Theresa. He was one of the first artists of his era to break away from the traditional pattern of prestigious baroque portraits and favour classicism. Around 1770 he went through a personal crisis, causing him to radicalise his work and way of life. It was then that he created his best known work group, the "Character Heads".
Messerschmidt came from a simple family background, learning his craft as a sculptor with his uncle Johann Baptist Straub, the court sculptor in Munich. After his academic studies in Vienna, Messerschmidt was appointed as a piece cutter in the imperial arsenal and armoury on Renngasse in Vienna. His first major commission was for the gilded bronze busts of Maria Theresa andFrancis I Stephen of Lorraine for the Kaisersaal in the armoury, the Imperial Hall.
His early works, the statues of the imperial couple, the reliefs of Joseph II and his consort , and the gilded bronze bust of Gerhard van Swieten , show all the properties expected of a baroque prestige portrait and their adherence to the artistic tradition of Vienna.
From 1770, the curve and pathos of baroque sensibility yielded to a cool austerity and rigorous precision in the representation of appearance. His aggressive art of characterisation broke ground for truth and realism in the human portrayal. By the early 1770s, he had made a complete break with artistic tradition; a pivotal change had taken place in his life situation. Illness, the débacle at the academy and the loss of patrons drove Messerschmidt into isolation. He left Vienna and went to Pressburg (Bratisalava). Here he created his most famous achievement, the "Character Heads".
Messerschmidt worked at the 69 heads with an enormous, evidently desperate intensity. The heads are mostly grimacing, even grotesque; in talks with others he called them his "Portreen". They scale the gamut of expression, from natural, almost antique-style portraiture to overwrought, expressionistic masks manifesting turbulent, unfathomable moods of distress.
The Belvedere owns 16 original heads and 13 plaster casts of the total number of 54 that are still preserved for posterity. Messerschmidt died in Bratislava in 1783.
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