Art.sy Insight: Tony Bevan & Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s Portrait Heads

German Baroque artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) is best known today for his series of busts, made from tin alloy and alabaster, in which distorted male faces grimace, scowl, and express apparent extremes of emotion. Their titles, such as The Vexed Man, A Cheeky Nitpicky Mocker, and A Hypocrite and a Slanderer, were assigned posthumously when the busts were exhibited at the Vienna Citizen’s Hospital in 1793. More than 100 years later, the busts were dubbed “Character Heads” and retroactively psychoanalyzed by Ernst Kris (a colleague of Sigmund Freud) who diagnosed Messerschmidt as schizophrenic, forever changing the way they would be viewed.

Whether or not Messerschmidt suffered from schizophrenia remains unknown, but Tony Bevan is not interested in either resolution. Bevan first encountered the busts as an art student at London’s Goldsmiths College in 1972, and chose them as the subject of his undergraduate thesis. His interpretation was decidedly anti-scientific, however: “I always thought you should just look at the sculptures first—the quality of the sculpture—and forget the titles and forget the psychoanalytic approach, whether this person was psychotic or not, but just to go and look at the sculptures.” Four decades later, Bevan is still reinterpreting the busts, executing contemporary interpretations of the Character Heads through his myriad “Self-Portraits after Messerschmidt”, in which he portrays himself, stylized after Messerschmidt’s aesthetic.