Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Character Head Number 33, “An arch villain” (1777/1783), pewter casting (79.9% tin, 18.8% lead), 39 x 26 x 25 cm, height above ground: 105 cm (all images courtesy Belvedere Museum unless otherwise noted)

On August 23, 1783, the Wiener Zeitung reported the death of sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. In a sympathetic obituary, the Vienna newspaper reminded readers “of the artist’s successful activity in Vienna,” noting that he was “famous for his extraordinary skill as an artist and for several outstanding works of art.” After serving as sculptor to the Imperial Court, Messerschmidt had disappeared from the Viennese art scene to embark on a somewhat peripatetic existence that finally came to an end in Pressburg, present-day Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. 

Yet today Messerschmidt is mostly remembered for his Character Heads, a series of around 60 busts that portray men with extremely contracted features, as if laughing or about to sneeze, their eyes squinting or wide open, which have intrigued the public and experts alike for the last three centuries. 

Better known for Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907–8), the Belvedere Museum in Vienna also houses a collection of 16 of the heads Messerschmidt made between 1771 and 1783, among the most startling works of the late Baroque period, or ever. Nine of them are displayed atop tall pedestals in a Baroque wing of the museum, like a cluster of big, fantastic mushrooms with human faces.

With their timeless yet eerie allure, the busts will likely make viewers wonder about the artist’s motivations as much as about the work itself. More than an iconographic reading, Messerschmidt invites interpretations of a psychiatric nature — it’s difficult to see the Character Heads without wondering whether some kind of compulsive obsession is behind them.  

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Character Head Number 17, “The Sheepshead” (1777/1783), brown spotted alabaster, 43.5 x 21 x 33 cm, height above ground: 105 cm

In the German writer Friedrich Nicolai’s 18th-century account, the artist claimed a magical force he called the “Spirit of Proportions” subjected him to all kinds of torments for having penetrated its secrets. The proof, Messerschmidt told Nicolai, was that every time he was making one of his busts he felt pain in the part of the head that corresponded to the particular spot he was working on. The heads were his way to forestall the demons that tortured him, he believed. 

“While people made fun of these objects in earlier times we nowadays see that these faces are not joking but rather show, in some cases, extreme cramps: a man that does not feel well, a man that you have to look at again and again to better understand him and the expressions in his face,” says Georg Lechner, a Baroque-era curator at the Belvedere. “We see an artist improving his skills but also struggling with his illness.”

As he studied his own face to create the busts, in a sense they are self-portraits, which tend to be more intense than other portraits, Lechner adds. “Very representative portraits were common in those days, in a way that can be compared to the selfies of our era.” 

The sculptures demonstrate surgical precision, their minutely carved wrinkles and other facial traits conveying senility or illness. This corresponds to the sober representations of reality in art during the reign of Emperor Joseph II, as author Maria Pötzl-Malikova wrote in her book on the artist. 

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Character Head Number 6, “Second Beak Head” (1777/1781), brown spotted alabaster, 42.5 x 26 x 24.5 cm, height above ground: 105 cm

Accounts, recorded by Pötzl-Malikova, of Messerschmidt’s private life point to something amiss. Testimonies about his erratic behavior include his threat to kill painter Hubert Maurer in what was apparently a psychotic episode as both were working in a late-night session at the Academy in Vienna. As a result, Maurer “no longer dared remain in his company.” 

Most experts see expressions of schizophrenia in the busts, as Ernst Kris, an Austrian art historian and psychoanalyst, pointed out in a seminal 1932 psychoanalytic study on Messerschmidt. Another medical hypothesis has been recently proposed. While agreeing with Kris’s diagnosis, psychiatrist Michal Maršálek, of Charles University in Prague, has posited that the Character Heads display symptoms of dystonia, a rare neurological condition characterized by involuntary muscular contractions. (The incidence of this type of neurological conditions is higher among schizophrenia sufferers.) 

Regardless of the cause, the masterly execution of faces contorted into expressions that are not usually associated with beauty demonstrates a principle stated by Aristotle in Poetics: “Things that we normally view with disgust we instead view with pleasure when images of them are portrayed with accuracy.”

“An Arch-Rascal,” “A Hypochondriac,” and other dubious monikers for the Character Heads come from a booklet commissioned by Franz Friedrich Strunz, a restaurateur who organized their first public showing in Vienna in November of 1793. The Curious Life History of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Imperial Royal Teacher of the Art of Sculpture was, in fact, a hurriedly compiled sales catalogue, as the heads were risking a descent into kitsch. 

Yet at the Belvedere Messerschmidt’s work has been restored to its rightful place, where he may now finally live on. 

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Character Head Number 31, “Smell that makes you sneeze” (1777/1783), cast lead, H: 47 x 27 x 33 cm; base: D 14 cm x W 14 cm
Installation view of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Character Heads at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna (photo by the author)

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet...