Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Afflicted with Constipation, 1771–83, lead-tin cast.
The eighteenth-century bookseller Christoph Friedrich Nicolai was a leading figure in the German Enlightenment and a quixotic critic of the younger German Romantics—Goethe, Schiller—who would soon supplant his own circle of intellectuals. He was also a keen observer and chronicler, and in his “Description of a Journey Through Germany and Switzerland,” Nicolai wrote of his 1781 encounter with sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in a breezy dispatch that seems eerily like a contemporary profile of a living artist. Once a court sculptor preparing imperial commissions, Messerschmidt had, by the time Nicholai met him, descended into a kind of necromantic madness and retreated to Pressburg, where between 1771 and 1783 he worked over a private series of busts—or “heads,” as they came to be known—that exhibit both a stunning realism and a mesmerizing fascination with the expressive possibilities of the human grotesque. The text below is an abridged version of that profile, translated by Herbert Ranharter.
From left: The Yawner, 1771-81, tin cast; The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing, 1777-81, tin cast.
The most peculiar artist was without a doubt Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who subsequently died in August of 1783 in his fifty-first year. He lived and dressed like an ordinary citizen. When he began his studies in Rome, he bought a trunk of a lime tree and lugged it into the Farnesi Palace, where he put it down in front of the Hercules statue. Two Spanish sculptors, living off their courtly pensions, dressed in their fashionable morning gowns while mucking about with their measuring devices and clay models, looked over their shoulders at the German stranger with the shabby clothes and short hair and rather thought him to be a day laborer. Messerschmidt set to work with a few carving knives and whittling the wood this way and that. The other artists watched him and, particularly the Spaniards, shrugged their shoulders, thinking that nothing good can come of such activity. Their mockery soon turned to astonishment when they saw a beautiful Hercules emerge from the unwieldy trunk. The Spaniards, who had never been taught this approach, thought that this must have been accomplished with the help of evil spirits, and one of them made utterances to that effect. Messerschmidt, who was always a bit brusque, slapped this man, who was not particularly liked by his fellow students, for making such assertions. Thus Messerschmidt asserted his place with honor, giving him a new status among his peers.