18th C. Artist Captures Cultural Embarrassments of Our Day

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If you haven't heard of 18th Century German artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), don't feel embarrassed, you are not alone. Until I went to his exhibition at the Neue Gallery in New York a couple of years ago, I was not familiar with his works either. And then, during one of my strolls through the Getty Center, I discovered an amazing life-size alabaster bust of a grimacing man. The Getty acquired this rare portrait by Messerschmidt in 2008. It is known that in the last years of his life the artist created 69 similar character heads made out of stone or metal, of which only 55 have survived. The Getty's head is called The Vexed Man.

(L) Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Vexed Man, after 1770, Alabaster
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
(R) Ken Gonzales-Day, Untitled (F. X. Messerschmidt, The Vexed Man. The J. Paul Getty Museum), 2008; Chromogenic print


The Messerschmidt sculptural portraits capture a rich variety of human emotions. His heads snooze, yawn, shout, and on occasion contort their faces into grimaces of embarrassment or disgust. The artist enjoyed a modicum of success in his own time, but it seems that now, two hundred years later, his work has been rediscovered by contemporary artists.

(L) F. X. Messerschmidt, Childish Weeping, after 1770, Tin-lead cast
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
(R) F. X. Messerschmidt, A Strong Man, after 1770, Tin-lead cast. Private Collection


The Getty exhibition has a witty juxtaposition of a dozen or so Messerschmidt sculptures with an equal number of paintings, sculptures and photographs by contemporary artists. My favorites are the paintings by the British artist Tony Bevan and a series of intentionally tortured photographs by Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer.


Tony Bevan, Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt, 2009, Acrylic and charcoal on canvas



(L) Arnulf Rainer, Face Farce from Nervenkrampf, 1969, Photograph
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
(R) A. Rainer, Messerschmidt Series, 1976-1977, Overpainted photograph


And then comes the silkscreen prints by Bruce Nauman, showing the artist using his hands to contort his face into impossibly painful grimaces.

Bruce Nauman, Studies for Holograms, 1969, Silkscreens
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego


As coincidence would have it, I went to the Getty to see Messerschmidt and Modernity the day after the closing of the Republic Convention in Tampa. The media went wild. Everyone was talking about the rather strange, if not outright embarrassing, performance by Clint Eastwood. The TV cameras caught various degrees of puzzlement and disbelief on the faces of the delegates while he was talking with an empty chair. Going through the Getty exhibition I couldn't help but feel that all these grimacing faces somehow echoed the embarrassed faces of the delegates.

Reading today's L.A. Times once again contorted my face into a grimace worthy of Messerschmidt. The trustees of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art scheduled a special meeting for today, which one reads as an attempt to restore public trust in the institution. It was a long summer of discontent for MOCA. The Chief Curator was forced to resign, and the Board announced that the museum would operate without a replacement, only to flip-flop a few weeks later with a promise to start a search for a new curator. One wonders what qualified candidate would be crazy enough to walk into this mess?


The article discusses at length the disillusionment and infighting between the remaining trustees. In spite of the hope that under Jeffrey Deitch's leadership financial support of MOCA would increase, the museum saw a $4 million decline in donations during his first year. It is obviously embarrassing for the trustees that the much smaller UCLA Hammer Museum now has a budget that exceeds MOCA's by three million dollars.


Kenny Scharf, West Hollywood Library Mural. Photos by Edward Goldman


There is one artwork in Los Angeles that unintentionally but nevertheless perfectly expresses our collective dismay at the state of affairs at MOCA. I am talking about the mural by Kenny Scharf that decorates the parking structure of the West Hollywood Public Library. Look at the chorus of cartoonish figures whose faces and bodies are twisted into an impossible mess. One only hopes that at today's meeting the MOCA trustees will succeed in untangling the web of problems of their own creation.

Banner image: (L) Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, German, 1736–1783, Childish Weeping, after 1770, tin-lead cast. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest; (C) F. X. Messerschmidt, The Vexed Man, after 1770 Alabaster. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; (R) Ken Gonzales-Day, Untitled (F. X. Messerschmidt, The Vexed Man, The J. Paul Getty Museum), 2008 Chromogenic print