Most people think of Klimt’s The Kiss when they think of Belvedere. Which is fair enough. But the palace galleries contain other artistic treasures, such as the famous series of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt from his Character Heads series.
- Extraordinary collection of contorted faces from the 1700s
- Upper Belvedere normally has a good dozen on display, but that can vary
- See also:
Quick Upper Belvedere tickets
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The Messerschmidt busts
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was an 18th century sculptor who studied and worked in Vienna in the 1750s, 60s and 70s.
Messerschmidt’s works included fairly conventional sculptures: a bust of the physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, for example, sits in the Belvedere collections.
(Character head by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Photo courtesy of and © Belvedere, Wien. Reproduced with permission under the terms of Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Messerschmidt also did the large tin statue of Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary that you can see in the main entrance to Upper Belvedere palace.
And then we have the fascinating character busts. The kind you don’t associate with the late 1700s…not representations of gentle, placid folk, but the sort of faces you 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?
Despite their unusual nature, the busts’ appeal has lasted across the decades. The Wiener-Theater Zeitung wrote, for example, in 1835 (my excerpted rough translation):
The original character busts by F. X. Messerschmidt…have attracted the attention and admiration of all friends of the sculptural arts…
…and went on to describe him as the German Hogarth.
Nobody quite knows exactly what Messerschmidt attempted to portray.
One theory suggests the subjects were victims of dystonia (a neurological affliction causing involuntary contractions and spasms). The sculptor himself may have suffered from that condition, making the busts a kind of self-portraiture.
One or two look frighteningly unnatural: the kind of man-like creatures you might find in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, skittering away behind fallen blocks of masonry as you approach.
The Belvedere owns sixteen of Messerschmidt’s character busts. Others are owned by the likes of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan, and the Louvre.
Normally, a decent number of Belvedere’s collection have their own little spot at the end of one wing of the first floor of Upper Belvedere. But they can move around (note that Upper Belvedere is currently reorganising its permanent displays).
- In 2022, Upper Belvedere put on the Face to Face exhibition, where Marc Quinn’s Emotional Detox series of sculptures enter into an artistic dialogue with the character busts. I also spotted four of the busts in Upper Belvedere’s history exhibition on one visit
- In 2019, the busts starred in an exhibition at the Orangerie within the Lower Belvedere complex. Talking Heads used Messerschmidt’s Baroque creations as a context for modern works that examine the head as an art motif. Featured artists included such luminaries as Arnulf Rainer and Maria Lassnig.
(You might also find a couple of miniature versions in the Belvedere shop.)
An entrance ticket* to Upper Belvedere includes access to any busts you might find within the public galleries.