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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Sustainable Prospects – Considering Others – Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Messerschmidt created his Character Heads between 1770 and his death in 1783. He called the works Kopfstücke (head pieces), and they were to represent the full range of human expressions, which he reckoned to be 64.

Having a husband who enjoys contorting his face (and he actually let slip that he practices in front of the mirror!), I thought this would be an interesting and fun strand to pursue as part of my performance project.


Figure 1: Matthias Rudolph Toma (1792-1869), Messerschmidt’s “Character Heads” (1839, lithograph on paper)

The lithograph above by Toma of the heads is a good starting point for this project. The actual physical heads though have much more impact for me. Their expressions are stunningly real and compelling to view. They hold a fascination with the range of expressive possibilities of a human face. Yet, they are both grotesque and intriguing to the viewer.


Figure 2: A few of Messerschmidt’s unsettling head pieces. (Photos, L-R: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz / Sailko / Sam Howzit / Jssfrk/Public Domain. Source: Atlas Obscura, 2017

The 64 heads are all different. Messerschmidt was rumoured to be trying to protect himself from ghosts by producing them. Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, a German bookseller who visited Messerschmidt in Pressburg in 1781 reported that “Messerschmidt spent his free time delving into a facet of his life that the university environment had, largely, kept him from exploring—his active relationship with the spirit world. Ghosts had “haunted, scared, and tortured” Messerschmidt nightly for years, he told Nicolai, according to a translation by Herbert Ranharter. In hopes of controlling this unbearable torment, he was making himself a series of talismans: sculpture after sculpture of human faces, including his own, contorted into what he called “the 64 different varieties of grimace.”” (Atlas Obscura, 2017)

Even with this account from Nicolai, scholars and art historians have struggled to explain these works of art. Close observation of the heads does not seem to fit with Nicolai’s account. There have been statements that Messerschmidt had to be insane, or that he tried to illustrate a kind of intellectual system tht is unknown.

Michael Yonan argues that “we are never given the upper hand in Messerschmidt’s game of looking, since although we can look at it at our leisure and explore its details, the represented face continues to acknowledge our presence in a way that, again, insists that we be aware of our act of looking. This is Messerschmidt’s real achievement in these works; by returning our gaze he makes our act of looking a self-conscious one that, in terms of power dynamics, always places the sculpted head in a position of directing or manipulating our scrutiny.” (Yonan, 2009: 442). Yonan goes on to propose that “this project of grimacing and smirking busts offered for Messerschmidt a sense of empowerment.” (Yonan, 2009: 447).

The heads have strange, often inexplicable facial expressions. Some of the heads appear to scowl or sneer. Others appear joyful. The eyes are either tightly closed or bulging out of the head. The noses protrude and the mouths are contorted and unnaturally stretched. In Atlas Obscura, Cara Giaimo comments that “to modern eyes, they look like faces teens Snapchat to their friends while stuck in the drive-through line” (Atlas Obscura, 2017).

I am not sure that scholars will ever solve the mystery of the heads. With the pupils of the open eyes not defined, the eyes of the heads do not seem to look back at us as Yonan suggests. Other heads have eyes scrunched together tightly. This leads me to think that there is no-one behind the masks that these heads appear to wear.

Carrying out a photographic study into the many different expressions it is possible for one person to create, may shed some light on Messerschmidt’s motivation and meaning.


Atlas Obscura. (2017). Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Original Ghost-Buster. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Sep. 2017].

Yonan, M. (2009). The Man Behind the Mask?: Looking at Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42(3), pp.431-451.


Figure 1: WTF Art History. (2017). Which Messerschmidt Mood Are You In?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Sep. 2017].

Figure 2: Atlas Obscura. (2017). Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Original Ghost-Buster. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Sep. 2017].

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