Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hypocrite and Slanderer

No wonder the Met wanted a Messerschmidt.

When I saw this picture of Austrian artist, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's sculpture, Hypocrite and Slanderer, in the New York Times this morning, I was sure I was seeing the work of a brilliant contemporary artist. It's frank, raw expression conceived in a sleek, pared down way struck me as modern - like a three dimensional Odd Nerdrum - and made me want to know more.

The piece dates, it turns out, to the 1760's and is one of a series of similar works by Messerschmidt.

One of the things that strikes me in the New York Times's story is the artist's unwillingness to sell the series of sculptures - a clear indication that he made them for his own reasons, with no compromise or commission, and didn't care if anyone got them or liked them or not. Which is of course what made the work so deeply affecting and sought after ever since.

The picture shows a bronze of a powerful, bald man with chin on chest and furrowed brow, seen in profile. The man is seemingly observed in a private moment of deep self-reflection.

In the pose and the cool yet sensitive rendering, the sculpture speaks of simultaneous contempt and compassion for the subject on the part of its maker. He holds up the man's failings, yet he does not judge or condemn. It's a quality common to greatly drawn characters throughout the history of art - Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime & Punishment, Shakespeare's King Lear, Nabokov's Quilty in Lolita come to mind. In choosing the hypocrite and slanderer as a subject, Messerschmidt acknowledges something dark in himself, and dares the viewer to judge - or do the same.
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Hypocrite and Slanderer

Read the New York Times article on the Met's new Messerschmidt sculpture

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