Mind Boggling

Cragg vs. Messerschmidt: Two Landscapes of the Soul

On The Town | Victoria Oscarrson | March 2008

Face to face: Messerschmidt and Cragg (Photo: Courtesy of the Belvedere.)

Two sculptors, two hundred years apart, obsessed with faces as mental landscapes hang side by side in an unusual exhibition at the Belvedere Orangerie in Vienna, an inquiry into how surface reveals what is hidden within the mind.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) was a curiosity during the Baroque period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today he is seen as a creative renegade who challenged the unforgiving perfection of 18th century formal figural sculpture. Life size expressive busts come across as intense psychological portraits that were known as "character heads," with faces so tormented they verge on the grotesque.

English born Tony Cragg (1949-) transforms heads into whirling dervishes of energized 3-D, abstract at first glance until faces begin to evolve. You might even bump into a mouth or an ear while discovering another profile not recognized before.

The face is power unto itself and an issue in current art.  The concept for the show came from Dr. Agnes Husslein-Arco, the new director for the Belvedere Museum complex of palace and museums, who has long been fascinated with the revered oddity Messerschmidt, much of whose  surviving work (16 original, 42 plaster casts out of 59 "character heads"is in the museum’s collection. Cragg’s work – chosen over other contemporary artists like Bruce Nauman, Vienna’s Arnulf Rainer, and the American dress-up queen, Cindy Sherman – sheds new light on the beloved Messerschmidt, who in turn puts Cragg’s processes in unexpected, dynamic juxtaposition.

Under Husslein’s direction, the Orangerie and Prinz Eugen’s Pomeranzenhaus next door have come alive as revolving gallery space after years of dedication to medieval art. The five renovated rooms offer an elegant, sparse and concentrated installation for fifteen works by each artist – two minds sharing an obsession.

The titles of the works alone are a poem of interior/exterior mental investigation opening a dialogue of the senses: out of sight; a mischievous son; mental landscapes; an arch rascal;... caught dreaming; bent of mind.

Some of the fantasy elements in Messerschmidt are often traced to his association with Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, a so-called miracle healer to the court highly regarded for his invented  "magnetic cures" what became known as being "mesmerized." Having shown signs of mental illness – paranoia, and hallucinations which alienated him from friends, his art milieu and family – Messerschmidt became closely involved with Mesmer as doctor and friend.  Increasingly recluse, he began his series of "character heads."

It is unclear whether these busts are partially self-portraits or purely caricatures of  the emotional states of mind he experienced.  Laughter, angst, sadness, rage, constipation, screams and silence unsettle the viewer through bulging eyes, deep furrows in the brow, stretched neck tendons, roughened hair, contorted mouths and even blank expressions.

In an insightful interview in the catalogue, Cragg mentions a piece called The General which looks like a classical Roman bust yet of all Messerschmidt’s works, may be the most psychologically provocative, almost creepy in its withdrawn nature. Whatever his disorders were, came a genius of portraiture in "landscape of the soul".

Tony Cragg’s body of work is smoothly rendered, tactile like putty, in wood, bronze, stainless steel, stone and plaster. Heads are stretched vertically and horizontally in twists and turns, one on top of the other mixed in with body shapes in what appears free flowing though consciously considered.  Profiles emerge as you get lost in a labyrinth of changing shapes reminiscent of cubism and the Italian early 20th century Futurist, Boccioni. In Out of Sight, at least eight faces are recognizable referred to as families such as in the columnal Point of View or what looks dinosaur-esque in Caught Dreaming.

Both artists approach their work with an almost scientific logic that gives in to psychological power through exaggeration. Cragg spins us into dizziness;  Messerschmidt looks us head on, but not without forcing the viewer to address all sides.  While a row of Messerschmidt’s portraits line a wall at attention, Cragg manipulates form with emotion and energy as is said in a catalogue essay by Maria Stadler, "his volumes and voids create and eliminate space."

Nothing is left to chance. Cragg’s artificiality of surface is outgoing, suggesting humor or a bad dream.  Messerschmidt leaves no mark unconsidered be it pudgy cheeks or inflamed tongue.  Contorted exteriors desperately want to reveal mental states even though almost static keeping madness to itself as if not madness at all.  When Cragg was asked what his favorite material is, he replied, "the most wonderful and complex…is the human mind."  Messerschmidt surely would agree.


Tony Cragg vs. F. X. Messerschmidt

Belvedere Orangerie

3.,Prinz Eugen Strasse 27


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