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Pfarr, U. (2001). Ernst Kris on F. X. Messerschmidt—A Valuable Stimulus for New Research?. Am. Imago, 58(1):445-461.

(2001). American Imago, 58(1):445-461

Ernst Kris on F. X. Messerschmidt—A Valuable Stimulus for New Research?

Ulrich Pfarr

Many of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's (1736-1783) sculptures confront us with bizarre features whose strange effects are not wholly explained by iconographical or stylistic analysis nor when seen in the context of eighteenth century art theory. This is as true for the famous series of so-called character-heads as for the portraits made at Vienna and at Bratislava between 1770 and 1782. We may mention two significant examples in Vienna, the marble bust of Gerard van Swieten in the Art Historical Museum and the alabaster bust head number 37 in the Baroque Museum.1 Messerschmidt produced without commission at least 54 Egyptian heads, as contemporaries called them, and apparently never intended to sell them.2 Most likely he began this project shortly after a serious professional and social set-back in 1774: six metal busts were finished in 1776 and 12 one year later.3 Although Messerschmidt had been Deputy Professor of Sculpture since 1769 and promised promotion to the chairmanship, he was in fact retired when in 1774 the chair became vacant. The curator of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts proposed a rival for the post, claiming that Messerschmidt had had “some confusion in his head” three years ago, that he still showed a “not perfectly healthy imagination” and that he regarded all his colleagues as enemies.4 Since Messerschmidt wished to be paid only for work he had actually done, he rejected the pension offered by Maria Theresia and in 1775 returned to his birthplace Wiesensteig. After an application for the position of court sculptor at Munich had failed, he retreated in 1777 to Preßburg (Bratislava). There the sale of commissioned portrait busts and small scale works allowed him to spend his time and money on producing a whole series of Egyptian heads.

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