Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Considering that until the mid-nineteenth century most art was financially motivated (commissioned by the church and later wealthy patrons), self-portraits make a uniquely ‘pure’ category. Seldom created with any financial goal, they’ve only ever existed for vanity’s sake. How do artists see themselves, and how do they want to be seen by posterity? This was the subject of a great documentary called ‘Ego’, presented by Laura Cumming on BBC4 last week.

Famous examples include Michelangelo declaring his unworthiness before God by painting his own likeness onto the flayed skin of Bartholomew in the Last Judgement, Egon Schiele attacked by arrows in a rather ludicrous literal martyrdom, or Andy Warhol hiding his shy persona behind the constructed public image of wig and sunglasses.

The documentary also introduced me to some amazing works by an artist I hadn’t heard of before – Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. I really think these could be among the most striking self-portrait sculptures ever made. With their horrific extremes of expression, they could easily be mistaken for modern conceptual art – when in fact they were made in the strait-laced 18th century.

Messerschmidt was a successful sculptor who had won commissions from European royalty, as well as teaching at the Academy in Vienna. In 1774 he was expelled from teaching, despite having only a few years before been promised the professorship. Little specific detail is recorded, but contemporary documents refer to a ‘confusion in the head’. Messerschmidt, it seems, was going mad.

The sculptor commenced work on a series of ‘character heads’ displaying bizarre extremes of emotion. They were completely personal works, not intended for any audience. The artist himself explained that the various grimaces were observed after repeated pinches to his lower ribs, self-administered to take his mind off an agonizing stomach complaint. Stranger still, he claimed that these sculptures mocked ‘the Spirit of Proportion’, whose spectre visited him at night and subjected him to horrendous physical torture.

As well as their unusual and slightly frightening appearance, these sculptures are truly remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the lucidity of expression summoned by a man who was, clearly, undergoing a horrendous breakdown. Secondly (and perhaps most terrifyingly) the technical ability required to pull these brief, fleeting facial expressions, tense all the facial and neck muscles to snapping point, then faithfully and realistically carve them into a medium as unforgiving as stone.

Digressing slightly, one of my favourite self-portraits (not mentioned in the BBC4 prog) is a 1938 painting by LS Lowry. It’s not the prettiest picture in the world – indeed it’s quite a painful image to look at. With its angry staring bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair and grey whiskers, Lowry looks like a tramp. The artist was fifty one years old, and had thus far achieved no commercial success or recognition in his lifetime. His dreams of an artistic career were fading as age advanced. His beloved mother was close to death. He’d spent a long time nursing her through her final illness, whilst holding down a full time job as a rent collector. The portrait captures him on the brink of a physical and emotional collapse. He had no audience for this work, hence no particular reason to imagine that anyone would ever see it or care for what he was going through. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a silent scream.


  1. The Lowry one is a favourite of mine too!
    I also saw the documentary on 4 and enjoyed it apart from the slightly ott commentary. Those carved heads are amazing - I wouldn't like to be in a room with them all....

  2. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's work formed part of a fascinating exhibition at the Wellcome Trust last year named Madness & Modernity.
    There may be some literature knocking around if one was to search.