Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

A Little Madness Goes
a Long Creative Way

by Donald Kuspit
About 1770, the German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), famous until then for his Neo-Classical portrait busts of the aristocrats and dignitaries of his time, had what today is called a "psychotic break"-- an emotional crisis that proved unexpectedly fruitful artistically, especially because it produced unexpected sculptures. His "reason occasionally seemed subject to madness," it was said, causing "mental confusion" and "unhealthy imagination."(1) This mental confusion and unhealthy imagination seemed self-evident in the 49 portrait busts he made after his emotional crisis. The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing (1777-81) has been securely identified as a self-portrait -- Messerschmidt wears a hat at a time when everyone wore wigs in public, suggesting his rebellious unconventionality -- but it is not clear that the famous Beak Heads (1781) and before, are self-portraits. If they were, they suggest that Messerschmidt was a freak of nature. 

None of the so-called "character heads" -- a label given them by an anonymous writer on "breeding sheep in Bohemia and Austria," who also gave them their titles (some funny to us today, but all meant to make their exaggerated facial expressions comprehensible, to rationalize their apparent irrationality) -- have wigs. Several are bald, several have long hair; some have round heads, others have oval heads; some are long-necked, others have almost no neck -- all these differences suggest that they are not the same person, or else that they are Messerschmidt’s fantasies of himself as different people. The faces have a mask-like frozenness: was Messerschmidt play-acting, trying out and acting out different identities by making different faces? Some of the characters have a strange kinship with the characters portrayed in the commedia della arte, however uncannily tragic they also seem. They certainly are fantastic and weirdly theatrical -- pretentiously absurd performance art, as it were, for Messerschmidt is performing himself, as all exhibitionistic performance artists do however much they may pretend to be someone else -- whether by the standards of Messerschmidt’s day or ours.

Messerschmidt had a very successful career until his emotional crisis. His first sculptural portraits "emphasize[d] the magnificent appearance of the sitters, adapting the traditional Baroque portrait to incorporate the more natural poses and relaxed arrangement of drapery of the late Rococo."(2) He received important commissions, including the only one Maria Theresa gave a sculptor to represent her as the queen of Hungry. Around 1768, and continuing until his breakdown around 1770, he made a number of "portraits of members of the Enlightenment circles in Vienna [that] broke radically with the traditional portrait type"(3) -- Neo-Classical portraits that rebelliously stripped away Baroque drapery and Rococo casualness, as though they were frivolous accessories, as well as the torso on which the head rested, indicating the body was irrelevant to the person. In these new "enlightened" Neo-Classical sculptures, the face alone mattered. It was presented with "strict frontality" -- the head didn’t turn this way or that, but was fixed in place. The "reductive" austerity of these masterpieces was striking; Messerschmidt gained a reputation as an innovator as well as a virtuoso. He was one of the first German artists -- and the first sculptor -- to turn to Neo-Classicism, which quickly became the reigning style. 

So what happened? In a famous and controversial essay, the psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris -- one of the key figures in the development of so-called ego psychology, which emphasizes the role of the ego and its defenses in the structure of the psyche (besieged by the id from below, the superego from above, and the reality outside the psyche, as Freud said, the ego must balance and integrate their demands, any disturbance in its balancing and integrative function often showing itself as pathological behavior) -- argued that Messerschmidt became schizophrenic. And suggested that his character heads were pathological art.

The evidence is overwhelming. Demons visited him "particularly at night," he says, apparently tempting him the way St. Anthony was tempted, for, like a saint, Messerschmidt "always lived in chastity," as he says -- suggesting that his sexuality caught up with him in fantastic form.(4) "Man must completely hide the red of the lip," he asserts, which can "be interpreted as a denial of sexuality," as Kris says, for "the lips are the symbol of sexual impulses." He envies animals, who have "vast advantages over man," for "they knew and sensed many things in nature which were concealed to man," suggesting that he wished to be an animal -- as instinctive as an animal. It seems clear that he sacrificed his instincts -- his animal sexuality and animal aggression -- when he turned away from his early Baroque and Rococo style, in which the instincts were materially elaborated in moving form, perhaps above all in dramatically erotic drapery, seemingly uncontrollable, and developed his Neo-Classicism, with its revolutionary austerity. Neo-Classicism was becoming fashionable, but Messerschmidt’s Neo-Classicism was more severe than fashion required.

But his instincts finally caught up with him in his bizarre character heads, which are clearly pathological in character. No doubt he had to restrain them in servile and formal obedience to his patrons, who were socially and economically superior to him however prominent he was as an artist -- not a person to the manner born. He came from a humble background, they inherited their elite status, making it all the more humiliating to have to depend on them for commissions. He had to ingratiate himself with them -- the ultimate subservience. He lived in a world in which one had to bow and scrape to get ahead -- perhaps not different from our own world, however more informal it seems. I suggest that his denied instincts threatened to erupt, and that the tightly closed lips and mouth in the majority of his character heads reflect his desperate attempt to restrain them, and the difficulty of doing so. His instincts made themselves felt in the symptomatic distortion -- almost to the point of grotesqueness -- of the faces of the heads. It gives them their peculiarly absurd power, for it reflects his powerlessness to control them, indeed, their sudden power over him, threatening to overpower him. In the few cases where their mouths are open, perhaps notably in his laughing self-portrait, the teeth are conspicuously displayed, suggesting a latent hostility. Animals supposedly show the "red of the lip" when they are threatened and threaten in return.  

The distortion of the faces reflects the unresolved conflict between his id and his ego, indicating the distorting effect the id has on the ego, and the pressure the id puts on the ego that can lead to its collapse -- the ego you lose when you psychotically break with reality and imagine yourself to be persecuted by demons. Messerschmidt could not find a socially and artistically respectable way of containing his id, which is why the expressions on the faces of his character heads seem disrespectful and anti-social, not to say provocative. They had to wait for our time to be respected for their artfulness (so-called formal properties), to the extent of being hyped as proto-expressionistic, as the Neue Galerie exhibition does, rather than perversely expressive -- confirming that even the most socially alien art (and socially alienated artist) ends up socialized into respectability. No doubt the heads have the hallucinatory quality of many German Expressionist portraits, but they don’t seem bewitched by demonic hallucinations. 

But Messerschmidt’s character heads, for all their ostentatious yet one-dimensional expressivity -- which gives them their peculiar frozen look, as though the eyes were petrified by what they saw on his inside when they when they were closed on the outside -- seem peculiarly characterless. Indeed, Kris is "struck by the rigidity and emptiness of their expression," and argues that Messerschmidt "was not concerned with representing the expression of affects,"(5) as is generally thought -- making him a student of physiognomy in the tradition of Le Brun, Hogarth (Messerschmidt was sometimes called the "Austrian Hogarth"), and Lavater, among many other pseudo-scientific observers of facial expressions and head types -- but rather concerned with not "yielding or surrendering to the demons"(6) that plagued him. His instincts were finally irrepressible, as instincts always are in whatever demonic symbolic way they may announce their presence. Thus, as Kris writes, "In order to gain control over the ‘demons of proportion,’ Messerschmidt pinched himself in certain parts of the body -- particularly the right side under the ribs -- and combined this act with a grimace ‘which is in the exact required relationship to the pinching of his flesh. . . he pinched himself, made grimaces in front of the mirror, and believed thus to have achieved miraculous control over the demons. While he was working, he looked into the mirror every half minute and made, with the greatest exactitude, precisely that grimace which he just needed’." It seems he had to behave pathologically to make art.

Kris regards grimaces -- "the autoplastic ancestor of masks" -- as "apotropaic act[s]." He brilliantly argues that Messerschmidt’s "grimaces are aimed at warding off, or intimidating, the demons," even as his grimacing faces belong to the demons. He thought that through a "regression to magical behavior. . . he had achieved. . . miraculous control"(7) over the demons that inhabited and possessed him -- the demons that were what psychoanalysts call a split off (and I would argue unsatisfied and rebellious) part of himself. The character heads in effect externalized and imitated the demons even as it defended against them by making faces at them, as it were -- faces that are as ugly as they are.

What triggered Messerschmidt’s paranoid delusions, his delusion that he was persecuted by demons, in all probability tempting female succubi, as his confessed chastity -- it seems he never lost his virginity -- suggests? The answer suggests another explanation of the character heads, however convincing and accurate Kris’ explanation is. Messerschmidt was at the height of his fame, and expected to become, in 1774, the new professor of sculpture at the Vienna Academy, for the old professor had died.  He had been "promised this position contractually" but was thought to be "not suitable for it, because for the past three years he had demonstrated ‘some mental confusion,’" although "his condition had improved in the meanwhile enough for him to resume work."(8) The rejection, and with that his forced retirement, had to be a blow to his ego and self-esteem -- a major disappointment. He was in effect cast out of the establishment. "Deeply offended," he "refused to accept a pension without some service in return. . . . For several months he tried to remain in Vienna, but then he resigned himself to the situation and decided to return to Wiesenberg, his native town [now Bratislava in the Czech Republic]. . . leaving Vienna forever on May 8, 1775."  

It proved to be a creative opportunity, however mentally ill he became -- for he may have been consciously resigned to his social mistreatment but his unconscious was not resigned, all the more so because the instincts he had denied while serving his society through his art now demanded to be seen, if in demonic form, which made them more insistent and terrifying than ever. He could no longer dismiss them, as he was dismissed by society. Strange as it may seem, it was their constant presence that released his art from the straight-jacket of impersonal Neo-Classicism, allowing it to become "very personal." I suggest that Messerschmidt suffered from what the psychiatrist Henri Ellenberger -- the author of the famous History of the Unconscious -- calls a "creative malady."  "Psychosomaticians" have shown that "misdirected emotions or ideas can be transformed into illness." "Invert[ing] this theory. . . the philosopher-physician Viktor von Weizsacker argues that "illness [could] disappear through a transformation into an idea"(9) (or art) -- a "personalized idea" (or art), to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term. Ellenberger agrees, offering examples, from different areas of cultural and intellectual activity, of such startling transformations.

But in Messerschmidt’s case the transformation was incompletely creative, for the demons remained alive and well in his demonic portraits. He may have displaced them onto other people, as the different heads and faces suggest, but they were his grimacing demons, for their mad faces appeared in his mirror. He defensively represented them, as Kris says, in an unsuccessful effort to purge them, and without using what Winnicott calls the "spontaneous gesture" that would have made him a true and modern expressionist. I suggest that Messerschmidt came to realize, through the unhappy experience of being passed over for an important position and losing his place in society (and thus "losing face"), that he had been living an inauthentic existence -- that he had become a False Self, a dispensable part of the social machinery of art, to play on Winnicott’s idea that the False Self is like a compliant cog in a social machine. It made him mad, but his madness was a rude awakening to the existential truth of his life as a successful artist, a recognition of the emotional price he had paid for his fame, and a revolt against the society that gave it to him and then took it back when his best days seemed behind him and he was no longer of use to it. His madness was the final step in the "enlightenment" that began with his Enlightenment portraits -- portraits of the self stripped bare, the self without the trappings of royalty. Royalty had raised him from obscurity, and royalty dropped him back into it without a second thought, unless the crown’s offer of a small pension showed that it had some conscience. But he had the strength of character to reject a payoff, however much his madness changed his character.

 His madness proved to be strangely liberating. Leaving cosmopolitan Vienna for his provincial hometown. he began to make art that was true to himself -- art that was as mad as he was. Returning to the place of his birth, he was reborn as an artist -- a strange one, no doubt, but no longer a stranger to himself -- as well as a person. He had become authentic, socially as well as artistically, someone wearing an unpretentious hat rather than a self-glorifying wig. No longer aspiring to be an aristocrat, including an aristocrat of art, he had become a democrat -- one of the people. Of course he was not just another face in the crowd, as his mad face -- his true face rather than the false face he put on in Viennese high society -- -made clear. Sculpting his mad face -- the face he found when he lost face, when he was stripped of his social mask, when his star had fallen -- he became a True Self. His demons were now his muses, and he made the creative best of them by portraying them. He had to, because they never disappeared from his mirror. They hid in it like Jacks in the box, ready to come out when needed. Their faces constantly changed, but they all looked inward, fascinated by their own madness. Messerschmidt took pleasure from his madness, the pleasure he denied himself during his painful ascent to the social heights of art -- the pleasure in life he forfeited when he aspired to become a great artist and be recognized as such by society -- the pleasure that his ambition deprived him of, pleasure that finally became the strange pleasure of madness, for he seemed to enjoy making faces at himself.       

"Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism," Sept. 16, 2010-Jan. 10, 2011, at the Neue Galerie New York, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Maria Potzl-Malikova, "The Life and Work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt," Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (Paris: Louvre and New York: Neue Galerie, 2010; exhibition catalogue), 21

(2) Ibid., 17

(3) Ibid., 19

(4) Quoted in Ernst Kris, "A Psychotic Sculptor of the Eighteenth Century," Psychoanalytic Explorations of Art (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 137. Kris quotes extensively from the detailed report (1781) of Messerschmidt’s behavior by his friend Friedrich Nicolai.

(5) Ibid., 135

(6) Ibid., 139       

(7) Ibid., 138

(8) Potzl-Malikova, 21

(9) Henri F. Ellenberger, "The Concept of ‘Maladie Creatrice’" [1964], Beyond the Unconscious: Essays in the History of Psychiatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 329