The 18th Century’s Most Insane Sculptor
Franz Xaver Messerschmidst was, by all accounts, an incredibly talented sculptor. By the end of his life he was also, by most accounts, thoroughly insane. He was born in Austria in 1736 and by the 1770s had become recognized as one of the great neoclassical sculptors of his day — and then everything seemed to go wrong. His friends and colleagues were afraid he was losing his mind. He suffered from an aggravating complaint of the bowels, which modern doctors think might’ve been Crohn’s disease. He found minor relief only in pinching and contorting his ribcage in very specific ways, and in doing so he had to make some very funny faces. He began to sculpt what he saw in the mirror — and around the same time, he began suffering from what was likely schizophrenia. The dozens of busts — known as his “heads” — that he would create in the last years of his life are so incredibly lifelike, and so incredibly strange, that’s it’s difficult to believe they were sculpted more than 300 years ago.
Slate did a nice slideshow of Messerschmidt’s work recently, and they write:
Messerschmidt, wrote an author who visited him during this late period of his life, believed there were “sixty-four variations on the grimaces,” the 61st of which Nicolai found him working on. Many, if not most, were self-portraits, such as the one shown here, posthumously named “The Yawner” and praised by Nicolai for revealing elements, like the underside of the tongue, perhaps “never before been represented by a sculptor.”
He believed a being called the “Spirit of Proportion” came to torment him in the night, and one of his most famous heads, The Beaked, was apparently modeled after his phantasmagorical visitor.
For more, check out Slate’s slideshow.