I have never met Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. But I feel like I have. He died in August 1783, a little over 185 years before I was born. Also, he was German and I am not. Messerschmidt grew up in Munich, whereas the hop gardens and orchards of Kent and Sussex were my playground.
He trained as a sculptor in Graz before becoming assistant professor of sculpture at the Imperial Academy of Vienna, in 1769. I studied landscape architecture at Leeds and Manchester and, after a lengthy period of professional conformity, I now practise as an artist, making imaginative and participatory transformations of the public realm.
So, as an artist so apparently different from me, what is it about Messerschmidt that I identify with? Why does this progressive and cosmopolitan artist have such an appeal for me? In 1771 he suffered ‘confusion in the head’, and sadly his expectations of being promoted to the Chair of Sculpture were dashed.
After further career disappointments, Messerschmidt finally settled in Pressburg (now Bratislava) where he focused his considerable talent as a craftsman on the production of a series of extraordinary character heads of ‘very strange aspect’, and for which he is best known.
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This article was written in response to ART vs REHAB, a critical catalyst for those working creatively in addiction, homelessness, criminal justice and mental health. For more information, please visit artvsrehab.com.