Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Tony Cragg at the Louvre

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Yawner, 1771 – 1783

As part of it’s 18th century season, the Louvre (Richelieu wing) presents – for his first ever monographic show in France – the work of Bavarian-born Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736 – 1783). Messerschmidt trained as a sculptor and began his career sculpting portrait busts in Vienna. However, more interesting than his – admittedly finely executed – portrait busts are his “character heads”: sculpted busts of of extreme grimaces and contorted facial expressions. These sculptors are unidentified and were never intended for sale, but kept in the artist’s studio. They can be seen as a reflection of the artist’s deteriorating mental health, but are also an expression of 18th century aesthetic preoccupations. The practice of physiognomy¬† – the assessment of character through appearence – had been revived by Swiss physiognomist, Johann Lavater. Messerschmidt’s busts can also be seen as three-dimensional versions of academic “character studies” which circultaed widely in print form (the show includes a character study by French ceiling painter extraordianire Charles Le Brun).

Messerschmidt’s sculpted heads are strikingly modern. It is fascinating to see the fruit of the artist’s imagination and experimentation, rather than the more usual commissioned or commercial pieces from the 18th century.

Tony Cragg, Red Figure

Across the way in the Cours Marly and Puguet (also Richelieu wing), sculptures by British artist Tony Cragg have infiltrated the monumental French sculptures. It could be argued that placing these abstract contemporary pieces amongst the refined skills of the royal 16th century sculptors doesn’t do the former any favours. But actually, some of Cragg’s sculptures have carved a space for themselves, in dialogue with the Classical and Baroque surroundings. There is also a giant red sculpture, Versus, at the main entrance under the pyramid. A bold move for such a historical establishment. Go and see what you think!

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Tony Cragg: Figure in/Figure out are on at the Louvre (Richelieu Wing, lower ground floor and Cours Marly and Puguet respectively) until 25/04/11