During my visit to the British Museum last year, I noticed that certain sculptures in the Greek/Roman exhibit were grouped together under the heading of 'grotesque figures.' In a post titled Cultural Grotesques, I commented that this arrangement could be seen to illustrate the subjective and contemporary nature of the term 'grotesque' as it relates to certain bodies, specifically the aged, disabled, and racial 'Others.'
So, what should I see during my visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but a remarkably similar grouping of figures... The following statues were brought together in a case titled "Realism in Hellenistic Art" in the Roman section (click to enlarge):
Note: the 'type' referred to above links to the realistic depiction of age, and the larger associated statue is this one:
I didn't get the whole caption for some reason, but you get the gist of it.
These small figures were in the case right beside the Realism case shown above:
The first two are explicitly related to the 'grotesque dwarf' in the Realism case, by virtue of their status as 'grotesques' in the museum description. The third is understood to be a 'grotesque head.'
While none of the heads in the Realism case were explicitly described as 'grotesque heads,' their close proximity with the head labeled 'grotesque' above arguably draws them into a discursive parallel. Likewise, while not all of the bodies present in the Realism case were called 'grotesques,' the presence of more than one body with that label has a defining effect upon the group as a whole.
By marking these particular figures as grotesque and dividing them from the rest of the collection, both the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum actively engage with and produce the grotesque as a cultural category. They also endorse and perpetuate a Bakhtinian understanding of the grotesque as that which is in direct opposition to the 'classical' style of seamless physical perfection.
I'm not suggesting that the depiction of aged, non-white or alternatively shaped bodies is not remarkable in the context of Greek sculpture. Rather, I'm interested in the effect that sectioning and regrouping these bodies might have in a museum environment today, especially when using the term 'grotesque' as one of their unifying characteristics. By linking the elderly body, the non-white body, the disabled body, and even the anorexic body, the Realism case might be seen to reflect a notion of shared marginality that says less about history and more about contemporary views of the body. It is food for thought.