Seven drawings and three stories about Franz Xaver Messerschmidt View online
Seven drawings and three stories about Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
1: Proportion
Messerschmidt takes time from his work to look through his window at the setting sun over the Danube. Night is coming to his little room, and the spirits will be back to torment him. He has not completed enough work to keep them all at bay. There are still holes in his armor- holes that need chasing and plugging. He has heads yet to finish before he can hope to lock them all out.
He rouses from his thoughts and returns to his work by pinching himself hard below the ribs on the right side. He is bruised there- purple and black like bronze- so his face tightens and contorts and he steals a glimpse in the mirror beside him. The mouth of the piece must be flatter and pinched tight. The edges more contorted- pushed farther down into a grimace. He tries to memorize the sweeping bright crows feet near his eyes.
When he’s ready to sculpt, he steals a glance at the drawing of Hermes hanging by the window and is refilled with peace at the perfection of it. The monsters will torture him tonight.  And the worst of them all, the terrifying Spirit of Proportion, will caper from the shadows in his room and peck at him with his bird-like pursed lips and laugh. He knows that there is always balance to the laws of nature, and Messerschmidt has found ancient secrets and symmetries, so they will have revenge for his work.
He pinches himself again hard under his ribs and almost cries out but keeps control enough to quickly study his reflection. He knows that he is doing everything he can to survive.
2: Pity this Little Prometheus
One of the spirits tonight told Messerschmidt of the future.
While the monstrous angel was bent over his bed like a canopy, scraping broken glass across his back, it told him about the futility of his work. The spirit croaked in a bullfrog’s voice that within two years of Messerschmidt’s death, all his work will be sold for a pittance. That a hospital cook will buy his heads for a week’s wage- all of his talismans will be sold for rotten bread and displayed for children with fevers. His work will become a farce. A stranger will name them with blasphemous titles like “Afflicted with Constipation” and “Overcome by Flatulence.” A sculpture with the mouth open in a perfectly silent scream will be neutered and called ”The Yawner”. His likeness, with bowed head in prayer, will be called ”A Hypocrite and A Slanderer.”
He will be considered an oddity, and at the Vienna carnival they will shoot arrows at plaster copies of his divine postures for fun.
The spirit pressed hot pins into the flesh of Messerschmidt’s feet and whispered to him that all which will remain of his life’s work will be his polite portraits of disgraced and unfavored royalty and his gentle, shallow cameos of the ruling class. He will be remembered as an odd and soft-bellied barnacle of the aristocracy. Not a martyr who unearthed the secret knowledge for which he pays so dearly.
As the flesh on his feet smoked and bled, as boils ballooned and were popped, the spirit spit on him. Messerschmidt made the pursed and strained expression of a head he hasn't carved yet and the spirit cracked like alabaster and disappeared in a spark and smell of hot oil.
Messerschmidt cried out- sobbed into his straw bed and was scared to return to sleep- not knowing which side of the horizon he was on.
3: How to Carve Rope
Messerschmidt is carving the twisting braid of rope crowning the head, but he is thinking of his friend Mesmer and his knowledge of the invisible fluid that rules us all. How it is affected or blocked by trauma to the body and mind, but has been mastered by Mesmer's science and reason. The temperamental fluid can be smoothed and calmed with the aid of his miraculous magnetic machinery.
He is thinking of the nights in Mesmer’s garden; the rope around his head and waist, or the clamp on his leg and the metal bar in his mouth, and the Baquet- the wood machine with arms like a great fat spider, connecting them all together in Animal Magnetism.
He is carving the braid of rope, rolling his hands over the knot at the forehead like the curves of a churning wave, and he is thinking of cannons. It’s nothing short of fate, when he thinks of his work in the Imperial arms foundries. That carving the designs of curling rope which embellish the cannonades has brought him here. Pulled him like a magnet to this moment. This humble little room and now the rope under his fingers.
He is carving the rope but thinking of how lucky he is to live in an age of transition in reason. He’s learned great things through his study of Ancient Egypt, from his studies of Hermes Trismegustus. And he’s also learned from the masters of his age. From Lavater’s Physiognomy he has learned that we wear ourselves in our faces; our minds might be read in the lines of our expressions and grimaces. And he’s found the way that the truth is all tied- from the masters of Egypt to now- and through to the future.

And he is punished for it every night.
In the pursuit of perfection, it is worthy to attain the state of noble creatures, and creatures don’t show the pink of their lips to each other. So some of his heads will have tightly shut mouths and some will have no lips at all, just a blank bar of metal, as he saw it in Mesmer’s garden.
Thank you for reading. 
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was an 18th century Viennese sculptor. For the first part of his career he was a well-regarded court sculptor with royal commissions, and on the path to become the sculpture chair at the Royal Academy of the Arts. By the end of his life he was a paranoid eccentric in Pressburg, obsessed with completing his "Köpf-Stückhe" or "Head Pieces."
I first stumbled across the heads at a Getty exhibit, and his work has stuck with me ever since. And I'm hardly the only one. From Egon Schiele to Tony Cragg, Messerschmidt has had a profound effect on artists. And had he been just a few decades later, plucked from the waning years of the ornate and stoic Baroque period and dropped into the frenzied explosion of ideas in the Enlightenment, he would have had a very different life and legacy.
We have very few sources for his life and his purpose for these works, so the mystery has blossomed with time. To me, that idea is as interesting as the pieces themselves. I don't claim to be an expert, but I read everything I could find about him while working on this. And even in the analysis of his work and motives, there is a good deal of contradiction and muddy water. Which really is the cat-bird seat for an artist, and a good excuse for me to entertain my own conclusions.
These stories and drawings are similar in that they are representational of the source, just pushed about a bit. But they are poor consolation for seeing the character heads themselves. In a way, the heads exist outside of history's timeline. Like the obelisks in 2001, they just show up out of nowhere and rocket us toward evolution. Too bad they get kicked around a little bit before we figure it out.
They truly are a wonder. And now that my own academic exploration of this work is done, I look forward to the ways in which Franz Messerschmidt will continue to influence.

Thanks again for reading. As always there is an archive for these missives at  nealvonflue.com/newsletter/newsletter-archive

You might have noticed some upgrades to this newsletter (enjoy the GIANT-sized images with our new design and more reliable mail server, amongst other things) I’m putting some effort towards professionality with this project, because they are so gratifying to work on and I often get very positive feedback from you. So in that spirit, I'd like to ask a favor: 

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