Most people think of Klimt’s The Kiss when they think of the art in Belvedere. But there’s much more to discover in the palace galleries.
One such discovery is the series of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt from his Character heads series.
Messerschmidt was an 18th century sculptor who studied and worked in Vienna in the 1750s, 60s and 70s. Although he numbered the Imperial family among his clients, he left town after he was not given a promised professorship.
(One reason for this rejection was apparently his moments of mental confusion, which I would have thought was practically a requirement for such a position.)
I’m pretty sure these busts will have at least one of your eyebrows raised in intrigue, possibly astonishment.
Twelve of them form a ring around the centre of a cabinet room on the first floor of Upper Belvedere, at the far end of the permanent Baroque art exhibition: it’s a bright, white historical setting with a chandelier and gilded reliefs from the world of war that Prince Eugene (Belvedere’s original owner) inhabited.
(Note: the Belvedere sometimes moves displays around, so you may find the busts elsewhere in the palace.)
Go round the ring and you encounter the kind of busts you’d expect from the late 1700s, like the one of the physician Franz Anton Mesmer.
And then there are the other busts.
The kind you’d not expect from the late 1700s.
The busts you’d half expect to see in the props room of a Hitchcock movie.
These heads have their faces in contorted expressions, screwed up in…what? Expectation of a blow? Denial of bad news? Shocked surprise?
Nobody quite knows exactly what Messerschmidt was portraying, though one theory is the subjects were victims of dystonia (a neurological condition causing involuntary contractions and spasms).
One or two busts look frighteningly unnatural, the kind of man-like creature you might find in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, skittering away behind fallen blocks of masonry as you approach.
The collection and display is definitely worth a closer look (and there are less crowds than around The Kiss).
You can also find some more “conventional” work by Messerschmidt in the entrance hall on the lower floor of the palace: statues of Empress Maria Theresia and her husband, Franz Stephan.
Their expressions are quite normal.