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 Character Heads series of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
- Remarkable collection of contorted faces
- Sculpted in the 1700s
- Normally on display at Upper Belvedere
- Book Upper Belvedere tickets* online
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Faces & expressions
(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.)
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was an 18th century sculptor who studied and worked in Vienna in the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s.
Messerschmidt’s works included fairly conventional sculptures. His busts and reliefs of the Imperial family sat on display in the permanent Belvedere exhibition last time I visited. As did his representation of the famous physician Franz Anton Mesmer.
This Baroque sculptor also produced the large tin statue of Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary that you can see in the Sala Terrena main entrance hall to Upper Belvedere palace.
But then we have the fascinating character busts: the kind of artistic creations 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 often have their faces in contorted expressions, screwed up in…what? Expectation of a blow? Denial of bad news? Shocked surprise?
Despite (or because of) 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 suffered from dystonia (a neurological affliction causing involuntary contractions and spasms). The sculptor himself may have had 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, just off the Toward the Enlightenment gallery of the Baroque section (I saw ten there on my last visit in late March 2023).
The heads have also appeared elsewhere in the past, though.
For example: in 2019, the busts starred in an exhibition at the Orangerie within the Lower Belvedere complex.
This Talking Heads exhibition 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.
Incidentally, if you’d like to take a bust home with you, I spotted a couple of miniature versions available in the Belvedere shops.
An entrance ticket* to Upper Belvedere includes access to any busts you might find within the public galleries.