Doppelgängers: A Greco-Roman “Grotesque” and Jim Henson’s Puppet

There is a class of objects from Greco-Roman antiquity called “grotesques” in which humans are presented with exaggerated, distorted features.

Figure 1. Grotesque head fragment, Roman, 50 BCE–100 CE. Terracotta, 1 13/16 x 1 3/8 x 15/16 in. 2010.63

The reasons for the use of caricature in the Greco-Roman context are varied, but can generally be interpreted as a form of visual humor, a depiction of theatrical masks or figures from the theater, or portraits of people with specific pathologies.[1] One such fragment from the Mead’s collection (Fig. 1) depicts a face with a crooked nose and full, asymmetrical lips, all surrounded by deeply exaggerated wrinkles. Although its fragmentary nature and lack of secure findspot prevent any definitive interpretation of its original context and meaning, this object was perhaps part of a vessel and was probably intended to provoke laughter.

Figure 2. Hoggle, from the classic film Labyrinth, was a puppet made by Jim Henson, performed by Shari Weiser, and voiced by Brian Henson. (Image:

As we know, the use of exaggeration and caricature is a practice not limited to the ancient world. For example, the much-beloved Hoggle (Fig. 2), created by the brilliant puppeteer Jim Henson and a character in the 1986 cult-classic Labyrinth (starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly), is just such an example of the “grotesque” in the modern world. In fact, Hoggle and the Mead’s Grotesque Head Fragment closely resemble each other.

This ancient object and its modern doppelgänger tell us something about the effectiveness of caricature and exaggeration as visual cues. Because of their departure from the “norm,” the extreme treatment of their features grabs our attention and calls into question some of our assumptions. Hoggle’s “monstrous” appearance may be assumed, at first, to preclude human feelings of kindness and compassion, but in the course of the movie he defies those expectations, becoming the main character’s affectionate protector. Dreamworks’s Shrek similarly flouts the association of “ogre” with meanness.

While caricature’s meaning is contextual, as a form of visual communication it has been an effective means of visual transmission from antiquity to the present.

—Keffie Feldman

Cecelia (Keffie) Feldman is Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. She holds a PhD in archaeology from Brown University.

[1] A.G. Mitchell, “Grotesque Terracotta in the Greco-Roman world: The Role of Caricature in Visual Humour, of Theatrical Masks in the Realm of Comedy and of Portraits of Deformity in Ancient Medical Centres,” paper delivered at the 50th Congresso Nazionale SNO 2010 Parma, 19–22 Maggio 2010, Historical Panel “Storia, Arte e Neurologia?” 


Small but spacious corner room with stunning view. High ceilings. Gleaming hardwood floor. Perfect spot for one or more.

Usually you pay more for a room with a view. Not at the Mead, though.

It costs nothing to step inside the Mead’s newly built room, situated in a corner of the main gallery, and enjoy a view of the Seine at sunrise in a village 50 miles outside Paris.

Claude Monet’s Morning on the Seine, Giverny (Matinée sur la Seine, 1897) is the single work of art installed in this room, which was constructed in the Mead’s main gallery as part of a renovation and reinstallation project that took place over the summer. “We designed the room as a space for contemplation,” says Mead director and chief curator David E. Little. “Visitors can sit in there and immerse themselves in one artwork.”

From the doorway of the new room in the Mead’s main gallery, a peek at Monet’s Morning on the Seine (oil on canvas, bequest of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss, 1966.48). Photo by Cathryn Keefe

Monet’s Morning on the Seine will remain on view throughout the fall. Next semester, Little said, visitors will find a different work in the corner room.

How One Jazzy Intern Is Educating Audiences About Art

Eric Zhou is the education intern at the Mead this summer, working with Keely Sarr, the assistant educator on staff, to create “bonus features” for the the fall exhibitions — interpretive materials for audiences who want more information about the art on view. He is also building a WordPress website to hold the content he develops. Eric 1What’s it like being at Amherst over the summer? And what qualifies Eric as “jazzy”? Read on!

Name, class year: Eric Zhou, Class of 2019
Hometown: Shoreline, Washington, just north of Seattle
I’m contemplating majoring in history, classics, or biochemistry.
Internship projects: So far I’m developing a printed guide for young visitors to the Mead and an online handbook focusing on the ancient Greek collection. I’m also creating a page that will provide biographies of notable Americans in the collection, such as the actor Paul Robeson and writer Gertrude Stein, and a Prezi/timeline map of artworks that capture aspects of daily life shown in art.
Behind the scenes at the Mead I’ve discovered it takes a lot of work to create any sort of project. Also, that there is a rhyme and reason in how an exhibition is put together.

Eric is creating an online handbook about the ancient Greek collection. Greek amphora, Archaic Period (ca. 520 BCE). Ceramic, black figure, 1950.59

My previous experience as an educator includes volunteering as a tutor in the Amherst public schools last year, in an after-school program called VELA Scholars.
Summer in Amherst gives me time to focus on what I like to do, without worrying about homework. And go out more.

Paul Robeson
One of the portraits that will be on view at the Mead this fall, and that Eric is researching, is Edward Steichen, “Paul Robeson as Emperor Jones, New York,” 1933. Gelatin silver print. 1985.59.4



Most people don’t know that I play alto sax. I was in the Amherst jazz combo Song X last year.
Next year I want to continue playing jazz, and I hope to play club soccer.