top of page

Bodies Unbound: The Classical and Grotesque

April 10 - June 13, 2010

Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University



The essential mission of Bodies Unbound: The Classical and Grotesque has been to understand two distinct types of bodies—the “Classical” and “Grotesque”—and to open up the definitions of these bodies for broader interpretation. While the classical figure embodies the tradition of proportionality, containment, and idealization, the grotesque body is defined by protrusion, openness, and materiality. Polykleitos, the famous sculptor of Antiquity, provides a foundation for the characteristics of the classical body, suggesting that perfection and beauty emerge from clearly defined boundaries, order, balance, and the interdependence of parts to achieve a harmonious whole. Modern thinker and critic Mikhail Bakhtin has been equally fundamental to theorizing the grotesque, positing that a grotesque body must expand beyond its own natural limits to subvert typically conceived norms. Both of these frameworks, however, necessitate distortion of the human form, and as a result, the same manipulated body can be read as both classical and grotesque.

This overlap manifests itself throughout Bodies Unbound.


For example, the bodies meant to represent an “ideal”—in Martha Rosler’s Bowl of Fruit, Goltzius’s Neptune, and Barbie—exhibit exaggerated and distorted parts, which join to form an unnatural body. The construction of these bodies requires them to exceed beyond their natural state and in this way become grotesque; that is, in an effort to render a “perfect” model (Classical), these bodies ultimately display an impossible mixture of parts (Grotesque). The exhibition highlights a number of other themes that similarly blur boundaries: images of isolation and the crowd explore the physical limits of the body in relation to space; anthropomorphism points to the similarities and differences between human and animal bodies; objectification and spectacle comment on the material nature of the body; portraiture explores methods and types of representation; and fragmented body parts and extremities question the idea of a unified body. The exhibition has been arranged within the gallery in loose thematic groups to allow for new and unexpected connections to surface as well.

It is our hope that these themes, in conjunction with the range of artworks on view, will provide a broad foundation for the visitor’s own contemplation. Ultimately, we are not concerned with writing a new and definitive definition of either “Classical” or  “Grotesque”; rather, we aim to highlight the myriad threads that relate to these terms, and to open up a discussion concerning the endless ideas that they conjure. Just as the body can be ordered, disordered, arranged, and rearranged, so, too, can the definitions of the body.

In the end, this show urges its visitors to question how they perceive, understand, and react to the body. We also invite viewers to consider the characteristics that define a body: What makes a body recognizable or unfamiliar; ugly or beautiful; strange or understandable; classical or grotesque? Why do artists choose to manipulate the human body? How can we unbind definitions of the body, and what do we gain by unbinding the physical body itself?

bottom of page