Terry Conway takes a trip back in time and reviews Judy Chicago's 'The Dinner Party'.
In the month where we celebrate international women’s day, I’m cheating a little bit with my picture of the week, because I’m inviting you to a glimpse of a whole art installation – Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.
From my perspective, and more importantly from Chicago’s, it’s a single work of art, but one that I can’t show adequately with a single illustration. And however eloquent my writing was, the best descriptions could not encapsulate the many dimensions of this amazing artefact.
It is made up of a massive triangular table 48 feet long on each side with thirty-nine place settings, each personalised for significant women – in Chicago’s opinion obviously – from western history. The settings themselves bring together different media – gold goblets and utensils, embroidered runner, and painted china plates. It was not only 39 women that Chicago named– the names of another 999 are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the majestic table (and heritage panels displayed elsewhere in the space give you more information about each of these women). Large appliqué banners in bold colours, showing yet another craft to that of the runners, guide visitors towards the focal point.
Its inaugural showings were during a mammoth 13-city international tour between 1979 and 1989. I don’t actually remember precisely when I saw it in London or even exactly where. It must have been in the early 1980s and I’m pretty sure it was in a venue in Islington, somewhere near the Angel that I think must have been purposed solely for this exhibition. I know I went alone as tickets were very hard to come by and I was determined not to miss it in order to go with someone else. And while it was many years ago I remember it aspects of it and the sensations I felt during and after the visit as if it were yesterday.
The first illustration gives you a view of two sides of the table, close enough in the foreground to get some impression of the settings and the scale of the work as a whole. But you don’t see the intricate work of the runners or more importantly the extraordinary creation that was the plates.
So this is a closer view of one of the 39 place settings; organised in 3 wings of 13 places each – Prehistory to Classical Rome, Christianity to The Reformation and the American Revolution to the Women's Revolution. The setting here is. that of the early 17th-century Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. You can see on the decoration that Chicago has used a sword, which Gentileschi’s oft painted subject Judith is often portrayed using to slay Holofernes in her rendering of Artemisia’s name. You can also see the only aspect of the exhibit I didn’t warm to – that of the goblets and cutlery. I can imagine that their plainness is meant to draw you to the other facets of the setting – but for me, they jarred a little.
It was the plates that were the focus of the strongest response to the whole thing – mine, everyone I know who saw it and the media coverage. To show and comment on them all does not make sense – because, while they are so crucial, to show only them close up would I think give an unbalanced appreciation of the work as a whole. I’m disciplining myself by showing only my two favourites – utterly different and equally powerful.
Most of the plates use vulvar shapes and images to depict the women she has chosen to represent the best of an entire culture over centuries. It seems to me at least that this is a conscious inversion of the way many male artists often portray nude women with their genitals hidden, suggesting both availability and the passive absence of sexual desire in the first place. Chicago’s women are completely different. And at a time when violence against women is so high on the agenda, celebrating our bodies and our sexualities in all their diversity seems more important than ever before.
Sojourner Truth (above) and Virginia Woolf (below). Two very different women, two very different plates.
I can’t help thinking that in a situation where Black women – and indeed Black men - are often stereotyped as highly sexualised in a way that suggests this is a threat to white civilisation this plate is very different from the majority, focusing on other parts of Truth’s body – and her life. Nor does the fact that she –or at least the plate – is shown crying – detract at all from an overwhelming sense of power in the image.
The commentary on Woolf in the Brooklyn catalogue refers to this plate as an image of fecundity. It’s certainly true that her creativity was very powerful, but I certainly read it as much more sexualised than that – which could also be because I also find her writing and her life, her attitudes to sexuality, to gender identity, to relationships and to women’s assigned roles fascinating – including in a sexual way. So I not only enjoyed Chicago’s reflection on Woolf as an object but because it corresponded with my own thoughts and feelings.
If I have whetted your appetite for the artefact, for its detail and its power – and for the extraordinary women it celebrates, then go to https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home and take a virtual tour.
Not as impressive as being in the same room as the actual creation – but the closest we can offer for now. I certainly intend to go back and explore it more especially when lockdown keeps me away from real artwork.