SHOWS THAT MATTER: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's Freakishly Fascinating "Character Heads" at the Getty

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, "The Vexed Man," after 1770
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

WHAT: “Messerschmidt and Modernity”

WHEN: Through October 14, 2012

WHERE: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, California

WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: Over two centuries after their creation, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “Character Heads” still influence artists with their exaggerated expressions, a phenomenon that is currently examined in “Messerschmidt and Modernity” at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The German Baroque artist, who made 69 heads from 1770 until his death in 1783, had a surprisingly modern approach in sculpting the busts, reflecting the European Enlightenment's emphasis on emotion, as well as then-popular pseudosciences based on facial structures.

The Getty presents a small group of the 55 heads still in existence, sculpted from metal and alabaster that aged from a pristine white to a fleshy yellow. Messerschmidt wanted to depict the range of human expressions, of which he estimated there were 64, resulting in creations like “The Vexed Man” who cringes deeply in a pull of unhappy wrinkles, or the slumped “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer” with a shameful furrowing across his features. They received their playful titles, including “The Difficult Secret,” “Just Rescued from Drowning,”and “A Cheeky Nitpicky Mocker,” while exhibited in the Vienna Citizen's Hospital in 1793.

Among the Messerschmidt-inspired artists exhibited at the Getty are Arnulf Rainer, who did photographic studies in the 1970s of expressions and covered gelatin silver prints of the heads with oil stick scrawls; Joseph Decreux, whose 1783 self-portrait has him pulling a gaping yawn; and Ken Gonzales-Day, who photographed “The Vexed Man” in silhouette, bringing out its distorted features. There is also work by Bruce Nauman, Tony Bevan, Tony Cragg, and Cindy Sherman.

To see works from the exhibtion click the slide show.