Recently Victor Juhasz, one of my very favorite artists and people, and I caught the show of the 21 heads by Franz Xavier Messerschmidt at the Neue Galerie. These are mysterious heads. They are all of faces in extreme discomfort or anguish of some kind. Messerschmidt was a German sculptor who was rising in prominence, doing commissions for the court. At one point his world went sour and he found himself without commissions and even a teaching job. He withdrew into his own world and did these “character heads” for the rest of his life.
“Character heads” is something Victor and I do for a living. The idea of exaggeration for the sake of an idea. This is called caricature but that is too blunt a word, most of the time. Teasing truth from imagery is a tool in every artist’s box. An astonishing thing about Messerschmidt’s heads is that they feel very direct and modern . . . for the 20th century. And these were done in the 18th!! There is nothing before him or after him in the history of sculpture that this connects with. He is just out there listening to whatever music came to him. And in madness, or inspiration or an alloy of the two, this work appears. And speaking for myself I recognize all of them.
“These sculpted heads by Messerschmidt proved to be an unexpectedly exhilarating experience even as they challenged a number of assumptions and tendencies to short cut in the drawing process. You couldn’t. Paying attention was crucial when trying to interpret on paper what he did so magnificently in 3-D. Many of these heads were already caricatures, hyper realistic animated caricatures. Messerschmidt’s complete command of detailing the logic of muscular functions and their intricate relationships to every other muscle in these extreme facial gestures forced me to be extra aware of my shading and direction of line in the drawings. I felt like I was looking at squinting eyes, creases in the face, furrows in the brow, flarings of nostrils and bulging of eyes for the first time. It’s very easy in the studio environment to fall back on tried and true predictable solutions (in other words- bad habits) in drawing and be guilty of not thinking all the time what you’re actually saying about anatomy. These sculpted heads forced me to think about every mark I put down, the weight of the darkness in the shadowing and how getting one thing wrong, from lazy observance threw everything else off. I was humbled by realizing how much I didn’t know. Returning to this exhibit is a definite. I could draw these heads all day and not be bored.”
Below is a group of sketches we both did that day. My work is up here to look closely at his and learn a thing or two.
PS: Vic is off to sketch the troops in Afghanistan next week. I’m sure it will be an amazing experience. We all wish him a safe and art-filled journey. Hoping he can post some of the pieces when he gets back. Meantime Vic, give them our best.