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    Frame by Frame

    Staring him right in the face

    “A Hypochondriac” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
    “A Hypochondriac” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

    When I take my two kids to the Museum of Fine Arts, I invite them to pose on either side of this sculpture, and to make an ugly face for the camera. Invariably, they accept.

    The work is by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83), an Austrian sculptor who was himself expert at making extravagant faces in the mirror. He would tense his body and contort his face, and record what he saw in three dimensions with extraordinary fidelity and precision.

    In this way, he turned out a series of 69 sculptures in alabaster and lead known as “Charakterkoepfe,” or “Character Heads.”

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    Ostensibly, these studies, of which 49 survive, were Messerschmidt’s contribution to the pseudo-science of physiognomy — the notion that facial expression can be studied as an accurate index to character. Accordingly, the sculptures were given titles such as “A Hypocrite and Slanderer,” “The Ill-Humored Man,” and, in this case, “The Hypochondriac.”

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    But don’t be misled: The sculptures are really about the urge to pull faces.

    Messerschmidt embarked on his “Character Heads” back in his native Bavaria after his glittering career, replete with royal commissions, was derailed. He was forced to resign from the Vienna Academy just five years after he had been made professor.

    He seemed to be struggling with private demons. Mental illness has been assumed. So the “Character Heads” can be seen as part of Messerschmidt’s attempt to exorcise his demons. More generally, they might make us wonder where the urge to pull faces comes from.

    There is a great passage about face-pulling in Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid.” A woman has seen, across an airport terminal, late at night, her ex-lover. She feels a nostalgic tug, an urge to go up and touch him, to “surprise him with his happiness.”

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    But before she can, he turns around. He sees her. His reaction is spontaneous:

    “He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing. It was hard to believe, but she saw it.”

    “She,” in Munro’s story, is a television reporter. In her work, she has sometimes sensed in otherwise composed and dignified subjects speaking live on air a similar desire to make a face. These people — “skillful politicians and witty liberal bishops and honored humanitarians” and so on — “were longing to sabotage themselves, to make a face or say a dirty word.”

    “Was this,” wonders Munro’s female protagonist, “the face they all wanted to make? To show somebody? To show everybody? They wouldn’t do it, though; they wouldn’t get the chance. Special circumstances were required. A lurid, unreal place, the middle of the night, a staggering, unhinging weariness, the sudden, hallucinatory appearance of your true enemy.”

    Did poor Messerschmidt, divided against himself and slowly unraveling, see something similar when he looked in the mirror? We can only wonder.

    A HYPOCHONDRIAC

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    By Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

    At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

    Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.