Most people think of Klimt’s The Kiss when they think of the 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 series of contorted faces from the 1700s
- Upper Belvedere normally has a good dozen on display
- Part of a special Face to Face exhibition for part of 2022
- See also:
The Messerschmidt busts
(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, 60s and 70s.
Although he numbered the Imperial family among his clients, he eventually left town precipitously after not receiving a promised professorship.
Messerschmidt’s works included fairly conventional sculptures: a bust of the physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, for example (also in the Belvedere collections). Or a large tin statue of Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary that sits in the entrance to Upper Belvedere palace.
And then we have the fascinating character busts. The kind you’d not expect from the late 1700s…not representations of gentle, placid folk, but the sort of faces 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?
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 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 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, twelve of Belvedere’s collection have their own little spot at the end of one wing of the first floor of Upper Belvedere (within the Baroque, Neoclassicism and Romanticism/Biedermeier galleries). But they can move around. Fir example:
- In 2022, Upper Belvedere puts on the Face to Face exhibition (February 24th to July 3rd), where Marc Quinn’s Emotional Detox series of sculptures enter into an artistic dialogue with the character busts