Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: Character Heads – Open Depository

5 July - 17 Novemeber 2013

The unique series of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, traditionally called the Character Heads, excited public interest from their very inception, as well as causing various reactions and interpretations. Their expressiveness stood alone compared to any 18th century sculpture, and they are still an inspiration for many contemporary artists today. From 5 July to 17 November 2013, in the form of a so-called Open Depository, we present casts of this series unique in the history of sculpture. A special part of the installation is made up of plinths made for the plaster casts by order of Prince Liechtenstein for his Valtice seat in the fi rst quarter of the 19th century.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736 Wiesensteig – 1783 Bratislava) appears to have inherited his artistic talent from his mother, who was from the eminent Straub carving family. He was taught the arts by his uncles in Munich and Graz, and his education was completed at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In his mostly portrait production for the Imperial family and its court, he followed the principles of the late Baroque with subsequent leanings towards Classicism. His works include the representative tin full-fi gure sculptures of Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary and Francis Stephen of Lorraine, or a number of portrait busts of important individuals from Vienna and its sphere.

Messerschmidt’s social rise was cut short by his being suddenly expelled from the Academy, just as he was expecting a promotion and the professorial title. This disappointment led the sculptor to leave Vienna and settle in Bratislava, in the now-disappeared Zuckermandel quarter. He lived and worked there until his death in 1783; and the majority of the Character Heads were made there.

The group was made gradually between the years 1770 – 1783. After Messerschmidt’s death, the 49-part series was fi rst exhibited in 1793 in the Vienna Bürgerspital under the name Charakterköpfe (Character Heads). The opportunity was then taken to name and number the individual busts, though this numbering is purely accidental and has no bearing on the order in which they were originally made. During the 19th century they were exhibited at various occasions and in diff erent spaces, including non-gallery ones (such as the Vienna Prater). During the 1889 public auction no one was found willing to purchase the entire series, and so the heads were sold individually and were lost to the public for a long time in various, mostly private collections. During the 20th century, the heads began to gradually emerge. Today 38 originals are known, most of which are owned by the Austrian Gallery Belvedere in Vienna.

An important aspect of research into the work of F. X. Messerschmidt is the unique series of casts, made of plaster and with grey patination, of the entire series of 49 Character Heads, which was made during the fi rst quarter of the 19th century for Prince Liechtenstein and his castle palace of Valtice (Schloss Feldsberg) in Moravia. The Open Depository presents only some of the plinths with original individual labels due to the fragility of the busts themselves. The Character Heads on show are metal casts (bronze, tin, and lead) made between 1978 – 1989 at the Brno Technical Academy, mostly cast by Pavel Hřebíček.