Franz Xaver Messerschmidt have a contemporary, animated ring to them. It's difficult to imagine the reception these pieces received in the 18th century. Messerschmidt was born in a small town in Bavaria and trained as a sculptor in Munich. At 18 he was at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Not long after, damaging rumors circulated that he was mentally unbalanced. Messerschmidt’s personality, commandingly idiosyncratic, had always set him apart, and by the early 1770s his eccentricities were more pronounced. Possibly after contact with secret societies, of a sort that proliferated at the time like a return of a Gothic repressed, he was having hallucinations, seeing ghosts.
After his death, at 47, a group of more than 40 of these busts were sold en masse as a freak-show attraction in a carnival. Then gradually, with changes in taste, one by one they entered private collections, then museums, being valued most recently as precursors to the early-20th-century German Expressionist painting.