© Photo by RTE Staff
Traveling from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Judy Chicago’s installation of “The Dinner Party” caused such a sensation that in the Fall of 1981 one hundred thousand visitors waited in lines outside the Brooklyn Museum to see it. In 2003 eighty thousand people waited in lines again and worldwide it is estimated that fifteen million people have viewed this “first epic feminist artwork”*.
Thirty five years after the original exhibit I pilgrimaged to the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum early on a Sunday morning to see the now permanent installation of “The Dinner Party”. The triangular shape of the table was the first thing I noticed. In reading I have come to understand that the artist is honoring the sacredness of the three stages of women’s lives; the Virgin, Mother and Wisdom Crone. There are thirty nine place settings created as a symbolic chronological history of women in Western Civilization.
For me the simplicity of the idea is so wonderful. Judy Chicago considered and then choose the goddesses, historical figures and important women that she would like to have dinner with. It took her eight years and collaboration with over 400 artists, craftspeople and researchers to set this table. Each female guest has a unique ceramic plate setting featuring a symbol that is butterfly or flower-like that is meant to embrace the vulva. The drape of the 39 table runners has the name of every women embroidered in gold thread beneath her plate. Each on has symbols and images that relate to her accomplishments and is meant to celebrate the textile arts devalued by male culture. In the center of the triangle is an immense porcelain floor made of 2300 hand-cast, gilded tiles which have the names scripted in gold of 999 other important women invisible in history. This is known as Heritage Floor. Closing my eyes I could imagine the party and I felt a presence in the room of joy, laughter and sacredness.
The first wing of the equilateral triangle representing equality is 48 feet long and begins with prehistory of the Primordial Goddess. It depicts six additional mythic or legendary figures. These place settings were intended to represent pre-patriarchal societies where the female god was worshipped. From the installation I learned that as men used violence to conquer and gain control of civilization the female, human and Divine, was suppressed. The next sequence chronicles the development of Judaism, early Greek societies and emergence of Roman culture. The Second Wing of the table embraces Christianity and the Reformation. The Third has women from the American to the Women’s Revolution and the last woman to be celebrated is the artist Georgia O’Keefe.
For me the research that was done for the installation is what makes it so unique for a piece of art. The table is subtly lit and you can walk around the perimeter. The impression of each place setting is visual and because many of the names are unfamiliar I had to rely solely on the visual art. However next door there is an installation on the museum’s walls of meticulous researched history of The Dinner Party guests and of the notable women on the porcelain floor. As I walked around the history room and read the names of women I had never heard of I realized how we have been erased from Western Civilization.
There is so much to absorb in one visit that people return many times to see the visual art and read about the history of each of these 1,038 women. After a visit it’s hard not to realize how important these women were to Western civilization. The mission of Judy Chicago is to educate us in the contributions that women have made and to celebrate women’s handiwork of pottery, embroidery and painting as high art.
When my niece told me that The Dinner Party was in Brooklyn and that I would enjoy it I vaguely remembered the celebration of the work when it came East. I had seen photographs and read about the project but standing there on this Sunday morning I knew that I had missed something by not seeing The Dinner Party in 1981. A part of me mourned living a life without this information about my foremothers. If you have an opportunity to see this installation I promise you that your life will not be the same.
*The Dinner Party Wikipedia
3 Wings -
Wing One from Pre-history to Roman Empire has place settings for the Primordial Goddess, Fertile Goddess, Ishatar, Kali, Snake Goddess, Sophia, Amazon, Hatshepsut, Judith, Sappho, Aspasia, Boadaceia and Haypatia,
Wing Two From the beginning of Christianity to the Reformation has them for Marcella, Saint Bridget, Theodora, Hrosritha, Trotula, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegarde of Bingen, Petronilla de Meth, Christine de Pisan, Isabella d’Este, Elizabeth r, Artemisia Gentileschi and Anna van Schurman
Wing Three from the American to the Women’s Revolution has them for Anne Hutchinson, Sacajawea, Caroline Herschel, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Dickinson, Ethel Smyth, Margaret Sanger, Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe.