Postcards, and Profiles, From the Edge: Two Extravagant Imaginations Take Over Fifth Avenue Museums

A German-Austrian from a family of sculptors, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt began his career with accomplished but unsurprising busts and portraits of the Viennese royal court. In the 1770s, however, either inspiration or madness hit. Nearly two dozen of his striking “character heads” that resulted–and other works done in a more conventional style–are on view in “Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783,” organized by the Louvre Museum and on view at the Neue Galerie through Jan. 10.

Denied a position at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1774, one that he had long believed would be his, Messerschmidt moved to remote Bratislava and began to make art unlike virtually anything of its time. Messerschmidt sculpted dozens of one-off creations solely for his own purposes, even turning down a huge sum from a patron who wished to purchase them. Influenced by neo-Classicism (he had traveled in Italy) yet far from it, these sculptures look like Roman emperors on acid. The visages of men seized by extreme and powerful emotions are variously downcast, jovial, rambunctious, puzzled, goofy, irked, surprised and a host of other moods and emotions. The 60 or so examples that constitute the series were named not by the artist himself, but posthumously, and carry titles such as The Vexed Man, Grief Locked Up Inside, The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing and The Incapable Bassoonist.

Messerschmidt’s heads can be a bit mesmerizing. And it turns out that the artist was close friends with Franz Anton Mesmer, the doctor whose work with “magnet therapy” and ersatz hypnosis begot the verb. The disgraced physician, much like Messerschmidt, lost his academic position in Vienna, and the two shared a house for a time. Some of the works in the show even relate to the doctor: Two heads have metal strips across their mouths, bands that echo one of his controversial prescribed cures.

Much has been written on Messerschmidt’s (arguable) madness, but perhaps not enough on his materials. He mostly made his metal casts from a tin alloy or carved in alabaster, both materials that are softer to work with than bronze and marble. The furrowed brows, exaggerated lips, extra-long and pointy noses, and all those wrinkles seem more lifelike because they are not super-crisp. When depicting similar contortions of the face, Louise Bourgeois fabricated her grimacing heads in cloth and textile; Bruce Nauman turned to holography. When it comes to representing mental anguish, Messerschmidt showed that it’s better to use materials less identified with the fine arts.

But the Neue Galerie show also includes portraits. The more traditional examples, including likenesses of Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein and Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, are accomplished enough to suggest Messerschmidt would have been a force to reckon with had he stayed in Vienna and continued to take commissions. A posthumous portrait of Prince Wenzel conveys a warmth that’s not expressed in painted likenesses by the other artists included in the excellent catalog accompanying the exhibition. As for the duke, who is decked out in sartorial splendor, including the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, it’s apparent that Messerschmidt, who mostly focused on heads, knew a thing or two about how to portray nobility in full.

The artist’s character heads were all but forgotten during the years Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain. (In a film accompanying the show, even Neue Galerie founder Ronald Lauder admits he was unaware of the sculptor until relatively recently.) This show addresses that issue, but doesn’t right all the art-historical wrongs done to the man. In the subtitle of its exhibition, the Neue Galerie suggests Messerschmidt’s work spans “Neoclassicism to Expressionism.” (The better to fit in with the museum’s usual focus, German Expressionism?) But let’s call him what he was, and what he presaged: a supreme proto-Surrealist.


MANY PEOPLE BUY souvenir postcards at a museum. Not many riff on them to create Modernist masterpieces.

“Miró: The Dutch Interiors,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 17, is a focused, in-context celebration of paintings the Surrealist pioneer executed right after a two-week trip to the Netherlands in the spring of 1928. Though he might have been awed in the Rijksmuseum by Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Vermeer’s Milkmaid, the 35-year-old instead used two genre paintings (and the postcards he purchased of them) as inspiration for his own works. His Dutch Interior (I) and Dutch Interior (II) are based on Jan Steen’s Children Teaching a Cat to Dance (circa 1665-1668) and Hendrick Sorgh’s The Lute Player (1661). There’s also a Dutch Interior (III) on view here that the Met suggests, less conclusively, may have been inspired by another Steen.

Miró deftly tampered with the mutely toned, musically themed genre scenes by Steen and Sorgh, artworks that the typical tourist might ignore. There’s no way, however, that anyone would miss the Catalan’s whimsical interpretations of them. Miró’s “versions” feature big, bold, biomorphic shapes; slinky lines; unusual color combinations; and idiosyncratic dogs, cats, insects, goblets and bowls of fruits. At the Met, it’s a dizzying delight to look from the Rijksmuseum works representing Team Old Masters to the three Miró works for Team Surrealism. Miró’s hatted, long-haired man playing a lute resembles Humpty Dumpty before his fall; the barking dog in Dutch Interior (II) might as well be auditioning for a Tim Burton movie; and the va-va-voom woman sashaying in a red skirt in Dutch Interior (III) could be Mae West’s double.

This exhibition marks the first time in the U.S. that Miró’s paintings have been hung alongside the Dutch golden age pictures that inspired them. The show also includes fine paintings that belong to the Metropolitan and to the Museum of Modern Art that Miró did right before and just after the Dutch series; many preparatory drawings that tellingly illuminate the artist’s unique vision and wit; and, charmingly, the two postcards he purchased on his 1928 vacation. Postcards, and Profiles, From the Edge: Two Extravagant Imaginations Take Over Fifth Avenue Museums