by Nancy Lane Fleming
The Dinner Party by artist Judy Chicago is a monumental work in the
form of a huge triangular banquet table, measuring 48 feet on each side.
Place settings for 39 historical and mythological women line the table.
At each place setting is a 14-inch ceramic plate, representing an abstract
image of the woman honored, from the Primordial Goddess to American
artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The painted, sculpted plates rest on elaborate
needlework runners, one for each guest, representing her cultural and
historic period. The mammoth table stands on a floor made up of
triangular porcelain tiles on which are written the names of 999 women
of achievement throughout history. The floor serves as a foundation for
the women honored at the table, and symbolizes the importance of
women supporting one another. -N.L.F.
"I have been personally strengthened and transformed not only by discovering the efforts women have made in the last two centuries, but also by realizing that women have
fought for their dignity and their rights from the moment they first lost their Goddess
and their power. The Dinner Party is a symbolic history of our past, pieced together—like
the Heritage Floor—from small fragments which tell us something about our achievements and our condition throughout Western civilization. The women represented are
either historical or mythological figures; I have brought them together—invited them
to dinner, so to speak—that we might hear what they have to say and see the range and
beauty of a heritage we have not yet had an opportunity to know....To reclaim our past
and insist that it become a part of human history is the task that lies before us, for the
future requires that women, as well as men, shape the world's destiny/7
—Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage
^.^omewhere in the early seventies,
artist Judy Chicago came to see in domestic objects a metaphor for women's
domesticated and trivialized circumstances. As her idea evolved, she conceived the idea of painting abstract
images of great women on china plates,
and setting the plates on a table in a
reinterpretation of the Last Supper.
In Chicago's "First Supper," the
women portrayed would be honored
guests, at the same time honoring the
women who have prepared the meals
and laid the tables throughout history.
Because the women would be confined
in the plates within the place settings,
the work would reflect their oppression
as it declared their achievements.
This ironic tension became the force
behind The Dinner Party. "I want people
to feel joyous that these women are being
celebrated and, at the same time, I want
them to say, 'What are those images
doing on plates?' The piece is like one
giant shriek!" Chicago said in an interview in Mother Jones.
The women honored at The Dinner
Party are served up on plates in an expression of horror at the ways women
have been consumed—swallowed up by
history as it has been told by men. The
names on the Heritage Floor are written
in gold china-paint; they flicker in and
out of view as you walk around the table,
suggesting that "herstory" has existed
all along, but has been hidden from view.
Chicago deliberately chose traditional
techniques—china painting and needlework, techniques associated with women,
and thereby denigrated as "craft," not
art. The plates and runners represent the
domestic objects into which homebound
women have painstakingly poured their
talent and creativity. The Dinner Party
insists on a redefinition of art as it insists
on a retelling of history.
The Dinner Party declares that women's experience is important. Important
enough to be the subject and basis of art.
Butterfly images appear in most of the
plates, a symbol of rebirth and liberation
which has become Judy Chicago's trademark. They twist and rise from a center,
petals surrounding a central orifice, suggesting woman-open and sensual. Accustomed to phallic symbols-a spike or
beam-viewers are often startled by these
transformed female images.
In the later plates, notably those
representing Susan B. Anthony, Virginia
Woolf and Georgia O'Keeffe, the butterfly forms become increasingly unconstrained in high relief sculpted ceramics
of remarkable technical achievement.
Consistent with the confinement of
women expressed throughout The Dinner
Party, however, the images struggle
upward but never leave the surface of the
Chicago's volunteer cooperative totaling 400 men and women-stitchers, painters, sanders, carvers, clay firers, researchers—worked on the project for five years
in the conviction that art can change our
view of the world.
"I see feminist artists as spearheading
a whole revival of art that is relevant in
society," said Chicago. "I think it's
possible to make art of high quality that
will appeal to a broad number of people.
The Dinner Party doesn't require that
you know a lot about art, but I don't
think I've compromised art by making
it accessible. I wanted to introduce the
information to a wide audience, and this
meant making a multiple-avenue approach to the piece."
In her determination to make the
work more accessible, Chicago turned to
print and film. Her book, The Dinner
Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, includes information on the 1,038 women
celebrated in the work, and background
on the project's development. A feature-
length film, in collaboration with filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas, is forthcoming. With the assistance of Diane Gelon,
Susan Hill and Katie Amend, Chicago has
also formed a non-profit corporation,
Through the Flower, which owns the
exhibition and from which they hope to
develop related projects-feminist outreach and children's programs.
Chicago and her staff were able to
obtain some grants to fund the project,
but much of the support came from small
donations. (Please see related story,
p. 14.) Through the Flower is trying to
raise additional money through the sale
of posters, slide sets, postcards, a bibliography and books relating to the exhibition. Write Through the Flower, P. O.
Box 1876, Santa Monica, California
Nancy Lane Fleming was associated with
Houston Community College's Learning
Resource Center. She hosts the weekly
Breakthrough on the Air on KPFT-Radio.