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'Tis The Season: Creepy 1700s Sculptures

This is a perfectly sane-looking 18th-century portrait sculpture. Placid expression, vacant gaze, ridiculous necktie — the normal nine yards. The following sculptures by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, on the other hand ... Well, I'm somewhat frightened. And frankly cannot believe they were made in the 1700s.

The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing, circa 1770s Franz Xaver Messerschmidt/Courtesy of the Neue Galerie, New York hide caption

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Franz Xaver Messerschmidt/Courtesy of the Neue Galerie, New York

An exhibition of Messerschmidt's weird work is currently on display at New York City's Neue Galerie: Museum for German and Austrian Art. It's the first major museum show in the U.S. devoted entirely to the 18th-century German artist. According to the exhibition description:

In the early 1770s, there was a rupture in Messerschmidt's life, to which those around him reacted with rejection. The artist was thought to have developed psychological problems, including hallucinations and paranoia. ...

Around this time, Messerschmidt began to devote himself to the creation of his so-called "character heads," the body of work for which he would become best known. To produce these works, the artist would look into the mirror, pinching his body and contorting his face. He then rendered, with great precision, his distorted expressions. The artist said that he created these works as a way to protect himself from evil spirits who tortured him. Messerschmidt is known to have produced 49 of these astonishing works before he died in 1783.

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A co-worker forwarded this slideshow to me, in which Slate asks: "Was the 18th-century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt out of his mind?" It's a good question, and there's no definitive answer. Plenty of artists have created works that are stylistically anachronistic. (Like this 1500s painting with uncannily modern details by Hieronymous Bosch.) And critics are on the fence about Messerschmidt. Was he simply a prescient modern expressionist? Or, as Slate asks, "Was he schizophrenic? A typical mystic of the 18th century? Simply suffering physical pains?"

What do you think?

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