American Culture

For Women’s History Month – meet Judy Chicago

Of Judy Chicago, wikipedia gives the following introduction:

Judy Chicago (born Judith Sylvia Cohen; July 20, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois) is an American feminist artist, art educator, and writer known for her large collaborative art installation pieces which examine the role of women in history and culture. Born in Chicago, Illinois, as Judith Cohen, she changed her name after the death of her father and her first husband, choosing to disconnect from the idea of male dominated naming conventions. By the 1970s, Chicago had coined the term “feminist art” and had founded the first feminist art program in the United States. Chicago’s work incorporates stereotypical women’s artistic skills, such as needlework, counterbalanced with stereotypical male skills such as welding and pyrotechnics. Chicago’s masterpiece is The Dinner Party, which is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Of Chicago’s best-known work, “The Dinner Party,” wikipedia reports as follows:

The Dinner Party is an installation artwork by feminist artist Judy Chicago. Widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork, it functions as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. There are 39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, andTheodora of Byzantium are among the guests.

Each unique place-setting includes a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and chalice, and a napkin with an embroidered gold edge. Each plate, except the one corresponding to Sojourner Truth, depicts a brightly-colored, elaborately styled vagina-esque form. The settings rest upon elaborately embroidered runners, executed in a variety of needlework styles and techniques. The dinner table stands on The Heritage Floor, made up of more than 2,000 white luster-glazed triangular-shaped tiles, each inscribed in gold scripts with the name of one of 999 women who have made a mark on history.

It was produced from 1974 to 1979 as a collaboration and was first exhibited in 1979. Subsequently, despite art world resistance, it toured to 16 venues in 6 countries on 3 continents to a viewing audience of 15 million. It was retired to storage for until 1996 since it was beginning to suffer from constant traveling.[1] Since 2007 it has been on permanent exhibition in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

About the work:

The Dinner Party was created by artist Judy Chicago, with the assistance of numerous volunteers, with the goal to “end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.”

The table is triangular and measures 14.63 m (forty-eight feet) on each side. There are 13 place settings on each of the three sides of the table making 39 settings in all. Wing I honors women from Prehistory to the Roman Empire, Wing II honors women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation and Wing III from the American Revolution to feminism.

Each place setting features a table runner embroidered with the woman’s name and images or symbols relating to her accomplishments, with a napkin, utensils, a glass or goblet, and a plate. Many of the plates feature a butterfly- or flower-like sculpture as a vulva symbol. A collaborative effort of female and male artisans, The Dinner Party celebrates traditional female accomplishments such as textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing) and china painting, which have been framed as craft or domestic art, as opposed to the more culturally valued, male-dominated fine arts.

While this piece is composed of typical craft work such as needlepoint and china painting and normally considered low art, “Chicago made it clear that she wants The Dinner Party to be viewed as high art, that she still subscribes to this structure of value: ‘I’m not willing to say a painting and a pot are the same thing,’ she has stated. ‘It has to do with intent. I want to make art.'”

The white floor of triangular porcelain tiles, called the Heritage Floor, is inscribed with the names of a further 999 notable women each associated with one of the table place settings.

The Dinner Party was donated by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation to the Brooklyn Museum, where it is now permanently housed within the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which opened in March 2007.

Details of the making:

The completed Dinner Party took six years and $250,000 to complete, not including volunteer labor. The work began modestly as “Twenty-Five Women Who Were Eaten Alive”, a way in which Chicago could use her “butterfly-vagina” imagery and interest in china painting in a high-art setting.

Chicago soon expanded it to include the thirty-nine final women arranged in three groups of thirteen. The triangular shape has significance because it has long been a symbol of the female. It is also an equilateral triangle to represent equality. The number thirteen represents the number of people who were present at the Last Supper, an important comparison for Chicago, as the only people involved there were men. Chicago developed the work on her own for the first three years before bringing in others. Over the next three years, over 400 people contributed to the creation of the work, most of them volunteers. About 125 were called “members of the project”, suggesting long-term efforts, and a small group was closely involved with the project for the final three years, including ceramicists, needle-workers, and researchers. The project was organized according to what has been called “benevolent hierarchy” and “non-hierarchical leadership”, as Chicago designed most aspects of the work and had the final control over decisions made.

The 39 plates themselves start flat and begin to emerge in higher relief towards the very end of the chronology, meant to represent modern woman’s gradual independence and equality, though it is still not totally free of societal expectations. The work also uses supplementary written information such as banners, timelines, and a three-book exhibition publication to provide background information on each woman included and the process of making the work.

Women represented in the place settings:

The first wing of the triangular table has place settings for female figures from the goddesses of prehistory through to Hypatia at the time of the Roman Empire. This section covers the emergence and decline of the Classical world.

The second wing begins with Marcella and covers the rise of Christianity. It concludes with Anna van Schurman in the seventeenth century at the time of the Reformation.

The third wing represents the Age of Revolution. It begins with Anne Hutchinson and moves through the twentieth century to the final places paying tribute to Virginia Woolf andGeorgia O’Keeffe.

The 39 women with places at the table are:

Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
3. Ishtar
4. Kali
5. Snake Goddess
6. Sophia
7. Amazon
8. Hatshepsut
9. Judith
10. Sappho
11. Aspasia
12. Boadaceia
13. Hypatia

Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
14. Marcella
15. Saint Bridget
16. Theodora
17. Hrosvitha
18. Trotula
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d’Este
24. Elizabeth R.
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman

Wing III: From the American to the Women’s Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
28. Sacajawea
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O’Keeffe

It’s really beautiful – check it out.

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