Without A Net

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Getty's Messerschmidt exhibit dialogues with the past, present, and the Internet-obsessed

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Make your face cringe. Now, while you cringe, also grimace.  Now, try and roll your eyes back into your head. Hard, right?

According to Antonia Boström, a senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts of the Getty Museum, this is partially the intent of the current exhibition "Messerschmidt and Modernity" - to give the audience a literal understanding of how difficult it is to make a facial expression like the ones displayed on the Messerschmidt busts. 

The exhibit, according to the Getty, "explores the astonishingly modern series of so-called 'Character Heads' created by the German Baroque artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt." The entire piece, curated by Boström herself, consists of three separate and disturbing rooms.

The first room centers around eight individual busts with varying facial expressions. They have names like, "The Vexed Man", "A Hypcrite and a Slanderer" and "The Ill Humored Man". The British curator explained that the titles of each bust were given ten years after the atrist's death and that "these names, which have nothing to do with Messerschmidt's intention, have stuck because they are all quite similar [looking]."

She also points out that the artist, who sculpted 69 heads throughout his career, mainly out of tin-lead alloy, was ultimately interested the art as a means of exploring physiognomy.

Don Davis, an L.A.-based composer who will be performing at the Getty Center tonight alongside Mark Mothersbaugh, will present music exploring Messerschmidt's work.

"The grimacing expressed in 'The Vexed Man', suggests an intense bitterness and an emotional state that's at first holding back and then ready to explode and so I try to convey that in [my] piece," Davis told KPCC on a brutally hot Tuesday afternoon. 

The adjacent room displaying paintings, photographs, and sculptures that are modern homages, commentaries and critiques of Messerschmidt's pieces from 1770-1783. Davis said he was intrigued specifically with the curation. He added had never encountered an "exhibition that showed an artistic expression and then the legacy of it."

Meanwhile, Boström, reflecting on the dark or even sinister nature of some pieces in the modern room, explained that it was not her intention to give this specific undertone. "It may reflect more on those atrists responding to Messermidcht," who was speculated to be fighting his own personal demons throughout the construction of the original busts.

Christopher Boas, a Pennsylvania-based photographer, gave more insight into a piece by Arnulf Rainer saying, "there is certainly more pain than joy going on here," pointing to the degraded photographs compiled as the "Messerschmidt Series." While, Boas does find the Rainer series to be powerful, he called them "cartoonish" and added that they "seem to be a playful game compared to the 'Character Heads.'" 

With all the disturbing features of the two rooms combined, it was still the third room called the "Expression Lab" that was the main attraction of the afternoon. On Getty's blog, Boström explained the third room is a place where "visitors can experiment with their own faces by trying to mimic some of the 'Character Heads'. By engaging in a "seemingly frivolous activity," the participants can see "how difficult it is to form Messerschmidt’s expressions." 

Inside the interactive space, visitors sit at a bench and try to recreate an expression of a specific Messerschmidt head. After taking the picture, the Getty Center allows participants to email the image as a souvenir, but only if the museum is given permission to display the image in the Expression Lab room. 

Either way though, the exhibit does seem to tap into every facet of the past, present, and future of the art world; and if that doesn't do it for you, you get a free souvenir you can post on Facebook.

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