Judy Chicago's Dinner Party Project

In 1979, a new and monumental art installation came into existence. Regarded as an icon of twentieth-century art, it is one of the most significant pieces of feminist art ever made -- Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. The purpose of the installation was to reinterpret one of the most important icons of Western art, Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, from the point of view of women, who "throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table". (1)

Judy Chicago and her 'Dinner Party Project'
Image Source: http://judychicago.arted.psu.edu/archived/dpcp/DPCP_Splash/DPCP_Splash_Image.gif
Chicago is no stranger to controversy. Her original idea for the exhibit was to create a series of 25 china plates to hang on a wall entitled 'Twenty-five women who were eaten alive' - a reference to women whose achievements had been forgotten or obscured by history. The idea expanded to include 100 abstract portraits of women who fit this category. As plans progressed, the concept was further enlarged to incorporate the idea of a table setting in the format of a 'Dinner Party' to celebrate each woman and honor her achievements. Plans for the table structure initially involved a 'circle' but were later modified to an equilateral triangle (which had symbolic links to the "Goddess" or Divine Feminine). Each side of the table was to include 13 place settings - a reference to Christ's Last Supper with his apostles, as well as the total number of witches in a conventional coven. (2)

Another view of the Dinner Party Project and Heritage Floor
Image Source: http://judychicago.com/application/assets/images/home/banner-9.jpg
Thousands of women were researched as potential inclusions, and finally the final 39 were selected. Each place setting included a porcelain plate featuring either a butterfly or flower motif incorporating a vulva and a runner featuring some of a variety of fiber art techniques traditionally performed by women, such as weaving, embroidery and sewing. The installation was set up on a "Heritage Floor" on which was inscribed the names of the 999 women who were also considered as candidates for a place at the table. Chicago points out that the achievements of the women "presented at the table had to be seen against the background of this larger female history."

Over eight years, an army of some 400 volunteers assisted with the project, embroidering runners, researching the women to be included, creating the tableware, fundraising and generating publicity. A documentary on the subject entitled Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Part, was filmed by Johanna Demetrakas.

Historical and mythical personalities, archetypes and even texts were included in the table settings these include:

Wing 1: (which covers Prehistory to the Roman Empire) - The Primordial Goddess, Fertile Goddess, Ishtar (the Sumerian goddess of fertility), Kali (The Hindu Goddes), the Snake Goddess, Sophia (the Greek Goddess of Wisdom), Amazon (The Greek race of Warrior women), Hatshepsut (the fifth Egyptian Goddess who was also a woman), Judith (immortalized in the Torah and Old Testament in the Book of Judith), Sappho (the Greek lyric poet born on the island of Lesbos), Aspasia (a Greek courtesan who features in the works of Plato, Xenophon and other philosophers), Boadicea (the British Queen who led the uprising against the Romans), Hypatia (a female astronomer and philosopher who was head of the Neoplatonic School at Alexandria)

Wing 2: (which covers the beginning of Christianity up to the Reformation) - Marcella(a monastic and saint venerated by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches), Saint Bridget (an Irish Catholic saint who shares her name with a Celtic Goddess), Theodora (empress of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian), Hrosvitha (a German canoness, dramatist and poet), Trotula (a group of three medieval texts on women's medicine), Eleanor of Aquitaine (medieval French duchess who patronized literary figures of her day), Hildegarde of Bingen (German Benedictine abbess who was also a composer, philosopher, writer, visionary, mystic and polymath), Petronilla de Meath (the first woman accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake), Christine de Pisan (an Italian-French late medieval author), Isabella d'Este (leading cultural and political figure in the Italian Renaissance), Elizabeth R (Queen Elizabeth I of England), Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian Baroque artist), Anna van Schurman (German born, Dutch painter, engraver, poet, scholar and champion of female education)

Wing 3: (which covers the period from the American revolution to the Women's revolution)  - Anne Hutchinson (a mother of 15 and key figure in the development of religious freedom in America), Sacajawea (Native American woman who researched natural history and established contacts between the colonizers and Native Americans), Caroline Herschel (German British Astronomer), Mary Wollstonecraft (English writer, philosopher and advocate of women's rights), Sojourner Truth (African American abolitionist and women's rights activist), Susan B Anthony (American suffragette), Elizabeth Blackwell (one of the first British doctors), Emily Dickinson (American poet), Ethel Smyth (English composer and suffragette), Margaret Sanger (American birth control activist), Natalie Barney (American playwright, poet and novelist), Virginia Woolf (British writer), Georgia O'Keeffe (American artist).

The List of Women on the Heritage Floor was compiled based on whether the woman had made one or more of the following contributions:
1. Had a made a worthwhile contribution to society
2. Tried to improve the lot of other women
3. Illuminated significant aspects of women's history through her life and work
4. Had been a role model for a more egalitarian future.

For an online 'tour' of the exhibition, see 'The Dinner Party: A tour of the Exhibition'

The exhibition opened at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and toured Canada, Europe and Australia before going into storage in 1988, nine years after it opened. Throughout it's existence the Dinner Party Project has attracted both accolades and censure.  In 1990, Chicago donated the exhibition to The University of the District of Columbia, but withdrew the donation after congressmen and conservative groups protested and withdrew funding, labeling the exhibit as "offensive" and "pornographic". In 2001, philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler purchased the exhibition and donated a part of it to the Brooklyn Museum in 2002. It has subsequently become a permanent attraction at the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art (since 2007).

Chicago also launched the Dinner Party Curriculm Project through Penn State University and appears at numerous universities explaining her perspective, vision and goals, while fielding criticism on the overtly sexual nature of the exhibits and how that trivializes the women depicted. The choice of women included has also been widely criticized as being skewed in favor of white American women. Despite its obvious shortcomings, this is a bold experiment on a grand scale and should be recognised as such.

References:
1. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-chicago-judy.htm
2. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/genesis/
3. http://judychicago.arted.psu.edu/dpcp/
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dinner_Party



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