Messerschmidt

Willibald Sauerländer reads into the collection of 18th centurt artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's character heads at The Neue Galerie:

Facial muscles contract, eyes squint, eyebrows rise, mouths contort. These distorted faces are disturbing because we cannot place them in any familiar social setting or assign them to any known psychic condition. ...

The rediscovery of Messerschmidt’s character heads in the twentieth century occurred just as psychiatrists and art historians were becoming interested in the art of the mentally ill. The excesses of his works were read as the symptoms of his illness. ... The character heads were one of many attempts, beginning with Descartes’ treatise Les passions de l’ame, to codify the human passions. Messerschmidt seems to have been searching for such a system, but failed to find it. His character heads are decoupled from communication, autistically imprisoned, and that is what makes them so fascinating.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.