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Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Seated Male Nude Holding a Staff
mid 18th-late 18th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art
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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.

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