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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.”