Judy Chicago Dinner Party Essay

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26 JUDY CHICAGO'S DINNER PARTY
A Personal Vision of Women's History
JOSEPHINE WITHERS
In the fifteenth century, Christine de Pisan dreamt of building an ideal city for eminent and virtuous women, and with the help of her three "muses," the sisters Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, she reflected on the many women in history and mythology who might live together in this Cité des Dames. Almost exactly four centuries later, the American sculptor and feminist Harriet Hosmer envisioned a beautiful temple dedicated to the achievements of women. Now such a grand idea has been realized. Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 1979, is a synthesis of the decorative and fine arts; it is theater, literature, history; it is a complex set of ideas; it is monumental in conception and execution; it is a transcendental vision of women's history, culture, and aspirations. As the title suggests, The Dinner Party uses some of the most familiar objects and experiences of women's lives to illuminate that history through the domestic ritual of serving food, and the material components of that ritual—painted porcelain tableware and embroidered napery. 1 The Dinner Party is installed within a large room which is entered through a hallway hung with large woven banners that give an idea of what to expect inside. The table within [1], three wings in the form of an equilateral triangle, is forty-six feet on each side and rests on a raised floor covered with porcelain luster tiles. Each of the thirty-nine place settings honors an individual woman, historical or mythical, whose name is embroidered on the front face of her table runner [2]. 2 For each of the table settings there is a fourteen-inch painted porcelain plate, its design specific to that woman, and an embroidered runner whose design is specific both to the woman and to the historical period in which she flourished. Linen napkins, porcelain flatware, and gold lustered goblets complete the settings. As one circulates around this richly invested feast table, one glimpses filaments of gold luster on the porcelain floor, which turn out to be the names of women—nine hundred and ninety-nine names—interlaced across the floor. While The Dinner Party stands as an independent work, it is supplemented by a book by Judy Chicago (The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage) and a film by Johanna Demetrakas. As with Demetrakas's film on Miriam Schapiro's and Judy Chicago's Womanhouse project, the Dinner Party film presents the finished piece and public response to it; it also documents the complex process of making The Dinner Party. Design and execution of each element of the installation, historical research, and the ongoing work, meetings, disagreements, exhilarations, and discoveries in the ceramics, needlework, and graphics studios make up the informative core of this documentary film. In an unpublished manuscript entitled "The Revelations of the Goddess," Chicago creates a mythic context for The Dinner Party. The book begins with the creation of the world and the early Matriarchy, and then describes the establishment of Patriarchal society. The Great Goddess prophesies that one day the wisdom of women will be needed again: Until that day, in each generation, some of your daughters and their daughters must be my Disciples and my Apostles as their mothers were before them.... Each will be a symbol of her age, demonstrating what women can achieve, preserving the fragments of our power, embodying all that we will be once again. And in the days of affliction that will come to pass, three will be their holy number, the triangle their sign, and my Apostles and Disciples will know each other by the thirteenth letter of the alphabet which signifies the Millennium when I shall at last return.... 3 The first wing of the table begins with a place setting symbolizing the Primordial Goddess [3] and continues with Ishtar (known also as Isis and Artemis) and...
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