Art/ Online Features/ Viewpoints: Body Language/ A Hypocrite and a Slanderer

A Hypocrite and a Slanderer

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt | Hypocrite | 2010.24 

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (German, 1736–1783). A Hypocrite and a Slanderer, ca. 1770–83. Tin alloy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, and Lila Acheson Wallace, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Richardson Gifts, 2010 (2010.24).

The expression on this man's face is difficult to interpret. Only by looking from below can the knitted brows, tight, thin lips, and carefully arranged grooves around the mouth be observed. This is one of nearly seventy head pieces, or Kopfstücke, that Messerschmidt made after his retirement from the Viennese court. Combining realism and caricature, he explored the shapes and expressions of heads and faces, linking them with different human characters and mental states. Messerschmidt himself suffered from mental illness and one observer said that the artist sculpted these heads hoping to ward off the spirits that invaded his mind. Another thought they were all "very much in his own likeness." This piece was titled A Hypocrite and a Slanderer after the sculptor's death. What Messerschmidt intended remains a matter of speculation.

"If you try to replicate the exact expression, it's nearly impossible to do."

—Alice Schwarz, educator

"He's one of the precursors of Freud, thinking about how emotion is expressed in facial gestures."

—Eric Kandel, neuroscientist

"The artist hoped to ward away spirits by capturing them in these heads."

—Wolfram Koeppe, curator

"The mood is very ashamed, dark, heavy. I wanted to suggest that feeling in the music."

—Joan Jeanrenaud, cellist and composer

All voices: Wolfram Koeppe, curator; Alice Schwarz, educator; Eric Kandel, neuroscientist, Joan Jeanrenaud, cellist and composer

Transcripts: A Face Refuses Contact (Video), One Artist, Many Faces (Video)