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New Acquisition: Messerschmidt's A Hypocrite and Slanderer

European Sculpture and Decorative Arts chairman Ian Wardropper comments on the powerful new acquisition A Hypocrite and Slanderer. This bust was created by the Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) for his series of character heads depicting different states of mind and pointing the way toward a modern sensibility.


Ian Wardropper: My name is Ian Wardropper. I'm chairman of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I'd like to introduce you to a new acquisition in my department. It is a striking image of a balding, blocky man. He sinks his chin into his chest, and the wrinkles there are realistically detailed, but at the same time very abstract, a series of concentric circles. His eyes are vacant and they're looking away from us,  they're downcast.

So as we try to come to terms with him, we move around him, lowering our head perhaps to look up into his eyes. He's introspective, he's brooding. And we move around to the side and see that this is a very simple, blunt, almost brutal image of a rectangular head that's leaning forward, tipped forward on a socle that evolves or morphs into his shoulders. It's a startlingly different object in the context of late-eighteenth-century art, in the gallery where we find it in the Museum.  Why did it come about? Why is it so different?

It's made by an Austrian sculptor named Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who in the 1760s was the leading sculptor at the imperial court. He made florid, Baroque sculptures of the emperor, of the empress, and many figures at court, and had great success. But by the end of the decade of the 1760s, he had made a trip to Italy, where he was very impressed by the Neoclassical movement, by ancient sculptures, and his style began to change to a much simpler, more contained approach to forms. And then something occurred which scholars debate, in the beginning of the 1770s, and that is that he may have had a mental breakdown. But it's also possible that it was simply an intrigue in the academy, where he sought a position as professor of sculpture in the Academy of Fine Arts. Whatever happened, he was denied this position and, in the middle of the 1770s, left the capital for the provinces, eventually settling in what is now called Bratislava.

And there he continued to have some commissions. But for the most part he concentrated on a personal project of character heads, or kopfstücke, headpieces, as he also referred to them. And between the mid-1770s and his death in 1783, he completed over sixty in a series of these heads, which are absolutely remarkable for their time period.

They range from a very straightforward self-portrait—where he may be smiling, maybe just a little bit too much, or scowling—to a series that are more frankly caricatural or comical—somebody who is reacting to a strong odor, for example, or yawning really widely—to a series, and the newly acquired bust in the Met really belongs to this last series, of very serious, introspective figures, whose expression was referred to in the late eighteenth century as belonging to a group of "refusers"—that is, people who are denying contact with the environment around them.

This bust of a man, created between 1775 and 1783, is done in a tin alloy, a soft metal, and has the title A Hypocrite and Slanderer, which was first conferred on it when it was publicly exhibited along with forty-eight others in 1793.

So what did this mean to Messerschmidt? This has been hotly debated and there are a number of clues, which we have from his background and from the scientific theories which would have been available to him at the time. To begin with, there is a long tradition in the history of art relating expressions of people to their character, to their inner emotions. This goes back to Leonardo da Vinci, who did grotesque heads and drawings, to Charles Le Brun in the seventeenth century, who had a theory called the traité des passions, the theory that one could codify expressions and show how they related to people's inner feelings. So, in some sense, Messerschmidt, who was an academician, was interested and knew about theories relating to the way in which physical features, facial features, could convey a sense of emotion. At the same time there was a growing body of scientific theory, which he was probably aware of. One of these is—the physician Lavater, who had promulgated a theory that the shape of your cranium reflected your inner thoughts. But of particular interest for us is the work of Franz Anton Mesmer, who was an Austrian physician and was a neighbor of Messerschmidt. Messerschmidt lived near him for about four years. And Mesmer—our term "to mesmerize" comes from his name, because hypnotism was part of his cure—Mesmer believed that our outward organs, such as sight or hearing, connected to our inner emotions. And he developed a curative theory that involved applying magnets and pieces of metal to people's bodies, who were then immersed in a bath.

So the sculptor Messerschmidt must have observed many of these patients in different forms of mental stress and was well aware of this and other medical theories at the time dealing with expression and emotion. His series of character heads clearly are a range of mental states. This has led to modern psychologists—Ernst Kris in the 1930s, for example—stating that these heads were a form of exorcism for the sculptor; he was trying to exorcize his inner demons.

By the time of Messerschmidt's death in 1783, he had completed, we believe, about sixty-nine of these heads. And there are some fifty-two of them, which are known around the world, mostly in European collections. So when you look at this head in the Metropolitan Museum, you should be aware that it's part of a series and was intended to be a long-term exploration of the meaning of self, in fact. All of these heads are slightly different, one from the next. Each is unique. There are no multiple castings of these heads. They are mostly composed in soft materials. This is a tin alloy, which has the effect of reducing the tense lines that he has created. Some of them are in alabaster, a very soft stone. But in total, the series constitutes one of the most forward-looking explorations of the self in sculpture, certainly of the eighteenth century, and in a pre-Freudian world was remarkable for the way in which it picks up on aspects of psychoanalysis, which we take for granted today, and, formally, is remarkable for moving beyond Neoclassicism towards a reductive line that forecasts our modern sensibility of minimalism.

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