In 1974, Judy Chicago, a pioneer of feminist art and art education, set out to put together a legendary dinner party. Her carefully chosen guest list included 1,038 incredible women – 39 “guests of honor,” who would each have their rightful place at a grand triangular table, and 999 others, who would have their names inscribed in the floor on which the massive ceremonial banquet would rest. It took five years and the help of hundreds of collaborators and volunteers to orchestrate Judy’s vision, but the result was extraordinary… a monumental, multimedia installation and “a true milestone celebration of women in history” that, thirty-seven years later, continues to this day. This is your invitation to The Dinner Party.
To comprehend the groundbreaking importance of Judy’s undertaking, consider that when she began thinking about The Dinner Party in the late 1960s, “there were no women’s studies programs, no women in history courses, no seminaries teaching about the female principle in religion, and scarcely any women leading churches.” What’s more, “There were no exhibitions, books, or courses surveying women in art.” So through the work, Judy intended to create a visual symbol “to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.”
“…the large-scale work celebrates the achievements of 1,038 actual and mythical female figures, most of whom have been neglected by history until they were reclaimed by feminist scholars. In honoring those individuals, the work at the same time pays tribute to all women who have been lost to history.”
Completed in 1979, The Dinner Party is considered “the first truly significant work of American art, conceptualized by a woman, to survey the historic contributions of women to Western civilization over the millennia,” and, in turn, “elevates female achievement to a heroic scale traditionally reserved for men.”
Judy’s career now spans five decades and The Dinner Party has been exhibited in 16 venues in 6 countries on 3 continents to a viewing audience of over one million people. Since early 2007, the massive work of art has been permanently housed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, NY.
A “YOU MUST SEE THIS” suggestion from one of our readers was the impetus for a WYSK staff field trip to Brooklyn. We had no idea what to expect and were all completely BLOWN AWAY by what we saw… certainly one of the coolest women’s history lessons we’ve ever gotten and one of the most inspiring dinner parties we have ever been invited to attend.
The Table And Place Settings
When we entered the room that houses The Dinner Party our mouths collectively dropped open as we stood before an enormous triangular table that is covered with fine white cloths and open in the center – a visual symbol of equality. Each side of the triangle measures 48 feet in length to accommodate 13 elaborately unique place settings for Judy’s 39 guests of honor… goddesses, historical figures and important women. The base of each place setting is an intricately designed runner, which hangs over both sides of the table. Every runner bears an individual woman’s name and reflects an overall motif that embodies who she was and what she stood for using an array of needle and fiber techniques that are executed in a manner that is historically accurate to her specific time period. All 39 hold the same gold ceramic chalice, utensils and a napkin with an embroidered edge. In the center of each runner sits a fourteen-inch china-painted plate with a distinct style. Though they are all different, every plate is based on butterfly and vulvar forms. One place setting is more gorgeous than the next and the detail, interest and craftsmanship of every component is just incredible.
As detailed by the Brooklyn Museum, “Wing One of the table begins in prehistory with the Primordial Goddess and continues chronologically with the development of Judaism; it then moves to early Greek societies to the Roman Empire, marking the decline in women’s power, signified by Hypatia’s place setting. Wing Two represents early Christianity through the Reformation, depicting women who signify early expressions of the fight for equal rights, from Marcella to Anna van Schurman. Wing Three begins with Anne Hutchinson and addresses the American Revolution, Suffragism, and the movement toward women’s increased individual creative expression, symbolized at last by Georgia O’Keeffe.”
The Heritage Floor
The table sits on an immense, porcelain Heritage Floor comprised of 2,304 hand-cast, gilded and lustred tiles that have the inscribed names of 999 other important women from prehistory to the 20th century – goddesses, mythological figures, religious figures, government leaders, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers, architects, scholars, historians, educators, military figures, athletes, physicians, scientists, explorers, philanthropists, activists, and suffragettes.
The process of creating the Heritage Floor took over two years. Out of 3,000 names researched and compiled, 999 were selected for inclusion on the floor’s tiles to contextualize the 39 women represented in the place settings. They are also meant to convey “how many women had struggled into prominence or been able to make their ideas known—sometimes in the face of overwhelming obstacles—only (like the women on the table) to have their hard-earned achievements marginalized or erased.” [Photo: Judy Chicago at Santa Monica Studio applying gold luster to the Floor test, 1977 – via Through the Flower Archives]
How She Did It
Judy Chicago began The Dinner Party alone. After months of work, her concept had evolved to the stage where it required the assistance of other people. Gradually, a studio team was built, and over the course of the next few years (1974-1979), hundreds of volunteers helped the core staff of The Dinner Party studio to realize Judy’s vision. They brought a variety of skills to the project including ceramics, needlework, fabrication, graphics, photography, and research, and worked together under Judy’s guidance to complete the piece.
Editor’s Note:Whether you live in the NYC area or anywhere else on the planet, we’re passing along the same “YOU MUST SEE THIS” we got. It was a recommendation we are so thankful we took because The Dinner Party is a spectacular celebration of Women You Should Know. To learn more about The Dinner Party, please visit BrooklynMuseum.org and ThroughTheFlower.org
This article was originally published on Women You Should Know on January 16, 2012