Thursday, 31 March 2011

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s ‘Character Heads’ (1770-1783)

This is one of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s ‘Character heads’. As far as I can tell he made 64 of these in the last decade of his life. Unfortunately I’ve never seen them in real life but I think they’re dotted about the place so perhaps I’ll bump into one of his grimaces one day soon. Although they look quite modern they were in fact made in the eighteenth century. While his neoclassicist mates were flouncing around painting pictures of Pompeii, and well before the romantics had ever laid eyes on a girl, this man was locked away in his studio pulling faces at himself in the mirror - and preserving the results in marble and bronze.

Why? Because according to a psychoanalyst called Ernst Kris, Messerschmidt suffered from schizophrenia. Not that this psychoanalyst ever spoke to Messerschmidt or anything - the diagnosis came in 1932. Ernst Kris argued the heads were connected to paranoid thoughts and hallucinations Messerschmidt experienced.

During his life Messerschmidt had been accused of suffering from an ‘unhealthy imagination’, and yes he was fired from his job due to ‘confusion in the head’…but interpreting these sculptures as being the result of a schizophrenic mind is at the end of the day just another interpretation.

It’s been recorded that Messerschmidt was interested in the ‘golden ratio’ and believed that his heads angered the ‘spirit of proportion’ who guarded this knowledge. As a result of this anger, Messerschmidt believed the spirit visited him at night and tortured him. This all sounds fairly delusional, but another explanation could be that perhaps he was just a sufferer of sleep paralysis (hypnogogia), like myself. With a lack of modern day knowledge I’m certain I’d have come up with some bizzare explanation as to who was terrorising me in the night too.

What I also find interesting is that Messerschmidt was often in a great deal of pain due to having the digestive disorder Crohn’s disease. He explained that in order to take his mind off the pain he would pinch his right lower rib and observe the resulting facial expression. These were the expressions he recorded.

Nowadays this would be called ‘art therapy’.

I like to think that Messerschmidt didn’t suffer from schizophrenia at all and instead he was a victim of his time. His interests in magic and mythology, which he said was the inspiration for his heads, have perhaps been misinterpreted as mental illness. Ironically he may have found a way to stop his chronic pain (and perhaps also a terrifying sleep disorder) from driving him insane by creating these brilliant sculptures!

Above all I don’t think it matters at all whether he had schizophrenia or not. What I like about the whole debate is that these works are a fantastic testament to the way interpretations of both art and mental illness vary across time. I’m sure current ideas about Messerschmidt’s mental state and ideas about his art will change again - whether this change is due to knowing more about schizophrenia, or more about the spirit of proportion, is yet to be determined…

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