While most of America headed to the mall for the annual Black Friday shop-a-thon, I did one of the things I like to do best - visit a museum! It was a strategic decision - I chose a museum that would allow for a nice walk through Central Park, would be relatively uncrowded and was presenting something that seemed amusing and totally fresh. I found the perfect destination in one of my favorite institutions, the temple to German and Austrian Modernist Art, the Neue Galerie!
In what seems like a total departure from the usual fare of Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka and the like, the Neue Galerie, in conjunction with the Musée du Louvre, Paris, is now showing the work of a relatively unknown 18th Century sculptor. "What could have possessed them?" one may legitimately ask, but the answer is clear after a few short minutes in the exhibition.
Until January 10, 2011, visitors have the rare opportunity to explore the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a fascinating Bavarian born, Austrian artist who worked in Vienna in the late 1700's. His career began in Vienna as portrait sculptor to the Habsburg court where he made fine but relatively ordinary busts of the aristocracy in the Baroque style. Around 1770 his fortunes changed due in part to the death of his patron and also to a presumed psychotic breakdown.
He left Vienna and wandered for six years before settling in Pressburg, or Bratislava as the city is now known, and began work on a series of "character heads" that would become his life's work. Of the 60 sculptures in alabaster or metal, 49 are still extant and nineteen of those are here on display. In an effort to rid himself of resentful spirits, Messerschmidt would pinch himself and contort his face while looking in the mirror and later record these expressions in sculptural form. The result is a series of bizarre, but to 21st Century eyes humorous, life-sized heads with contorted facial expressions.
With descriptive titles such as "The Ill Humored Man", "The Yawner" (above left), "The Vexed Man", "Afflicted With Constipation", "A Strong Man" and "A Hypocrite and Slanderer" (above right) there was not a visitor in the gallery without a smile on his or her face! The final vitrine containing the only true self-portrait in the exhibition entitled "The Artist As He Imagined Himself Laughing" was almost bitter sweet. Condemned as "insane" by early 20th Century historians, Messerschmidt had been described as a "modest and disciplined man...a person of unusual strength of mind and body - in his art an extraordinary genius" by his contemporaries. I guess it has to do with the times one lives in - what was common in the 18th Century comes across as crazy today - makes you wonder what our ancestors will think of us!
Sane or insane, Messerschmidt was a gifted artist who left behind a small but intense body of work which we are fortunate to be able to enjoy today.
Moving downstairs to the second floor, where beautiful objects in porcelain and silver are usually on display, is another small but lovely exhibition of Wiener Werkstätte postcards from the collection of Mr. Leonard Lauder. This is the first major museum show dedicated solely to postcards produced during this period and it is a perfect showcase for both the medium and the era.
The Viennese Workshops, or Wiener Werkstätte, was founded in 1903 by Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser with the objective of creating practical objects of exceptional design and craftsmanship. This included furniture, fashion, ceramics, jewelry, silverware, architecture and printed objects such as posters, books and a series of postcards begun in 1907. Almost all of the designers of the movement contributed to this series and when production ceased in 1920, 925 different postcards by 57 artist had been published.
Mr. Lauder is recognized as a pioneer in this field of collecting and through his prescience has amassed what is probably the most complete ensemble of this œuvre in the world. On view are many fine examples selected for their graphic design, marvelous coloration and overall charm. Various themes include fashion, portraits, fairy tales, dogs, cigars and cigarettes and interiors as interpreted by such luminaries of the movement as Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Moriz Jung and Maria Likarz-Strauss (see above left). All the postcards are numbered as part of the series and all are printed using chromolithography.
In a perfect demonstration of turning mass-marketed objects into works of art, the Wiener Werkstätte artisans succeeded in making boring documentary postcards into little jewels of design. I think you will agree, a visit to the Neue Galerie is a precious experience not to be missed!