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University of Missouri

Faces of Franz Xaver

Art history professor studies extreme sculptor.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Eighteenth century Bavarian-born Austrian Franz Xaver Messerschmidt sculpted funny faces. Public domain images.

Intolerable stench? Stifled laughter? Gastrointestinal discomfort?

Gaze at the extreme and sometimes comical faces of Bavarian-born Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads,” and you might be compelled to guess the visage-contorting sensation.

The old story about him is that he was insane,” says Michael Yonan, associate professor of art history who is writing a book on Messerschmidt. “Even though scholars have challenged that idea, it persists.”

Messerschmidt spent more than a decade pursuing conventional sculpture before his series of bizarre busts appeared in 1770.

Yonan first observed the artist’s work while studying in Vienna, a city he has visited regularly since 1996. During the spring 2014 semester, he served as a fellow in the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala where he worked on his book Making Messerschmidt: Designs for a Sculptural Project. He hopes to finish by the end of 2014.

I try to talk about [Messerschmidt] as an artist rather than someone with a problem,” Yonan says. “There’s an artistic project here, and if you’re looking at it through the lens of his psychosis, then you’re not appreciating the art on its own terms.”