Sculpture Journal

Intrigue or insanity? The case of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Sculpture Journal (2011), 20, (1), 55–70.


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) was one of the most eminent sculptors of the Austrian eighteenth century. From the early 1760s, the Bavarian born artist’s career rose in a formidably short period, and he became the preferred sculptor of the Habsburg imperial family. But it ended suddenly in 1774, when the professorship for sculpture became vacant at the Viennese Academy of Art. Although Messerschmidt was named as professor the nomination finally failed on the justification that the artist suffered from some kind of mental illness. The deeply hurt Messerschmidt left Vienna, and settled in Pozsony (now Bratislava, Slovakia), where he created most of his famous Character Head series. Art historical interest in Messerschmidt began in the first half of twentieth century, when the art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris diagnosed the illness as paranoid schizophrenia. The artist’s insanity became uncritically accepted, and only in recent studies has the hypothesis emerged that behind Messerschmidt’s leaving the Viennese Academy lay intrigue and controversy. This paper demonstrates, on the basis of previously published but never analysed contemporary documents, that in the case of Messerschmidt the intrigue against him was more significant than his supposed mental illness, which was only used by his rivals in support of his final removal from the Academy. The end of Messerschmidt’s public career is here set against the von Kauntiz reforms for the first time.

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Author details

Szőcs, Miriam