Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: an anachronistic community of its time

‘Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?’ is a familiar stock question from magazine celebrity profiles, usually eliciting an anachronistic assemblage of historical and even fictional figures who could never possibly have shared a meal at the same table. The creation of such groups goes back to classical antiquity, with the anachronistic groups assembled as the cast of dialogues such as Athenaeus’ Sophists at Dinner and Macrobius’ Saturnalia. More recently, in the 1970s the artist Judy Chicago (1939- ) used the idea of the fantasy dinner party to construct a celebration of often untold stories of women’s history and skills, in The Dinner Party (1974-79), an installation now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. The monumental work presents table settings at a celebratory banquet for 39 women from the past, a refreshing and informative alternative to male-dominated groups, and a visible version and expansion of new feminist research into women’s history. Chicago has described the work as ‘an imaginative picture of women’s long struggle for freedom and dignity’, which she hoped would help both men and women to develop ‘an understanding of the full history of the human race’. The imagined women diners stretch back into mythical prehistory – the ‘Primordial Goddess’ of a posited matriarchal past society – and reach to the present, to the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who was still alive when the work was created.

The organisation of the Dinner Party repays attention for its simultaneous subversion and deployment of historiographic and genealogical structures from literature and art. It challenges some cultural practices – the traditional focus on male achievement in historiography, and the privileging of fine art in art history – while replicating others. Its strict periodisation of the past is not the only hierarchy in play, although it is the most visible. The triangular arrangement of the table groups the women into three periods: from ‘prehistory to Classical Rome’, from the beginning of Christianity to the Reformation, and from the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution.

This periodisation itself is strongly marked, suggesting a traditional connection between the Roman and American republics, and also the privileged position of Christianity in historiographical organisation, also suggested by the choice of 13 seats at each table, as at the Last Supper. The first group shows how historical periodisation can overwrite other forms of organisation of the past. The Primordial Goddess is the first in a sequence which moves from women identified as ‘mythic’, including named goddesses Ishtar and Kali, to the ‘legendary’, Sophia and Amazon, to the historical, starting with Hatshepsut, one of few women to have ruled Egypt as pharaoh, and including Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea and finally Hypatia, who appropriately marks the boundary between the pagan and Christian pasts.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party on display in Brooklyn
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is now displayed in a custom gallery at the Brooklyn Museum

The ends of each table meet, so Georgia O’Keeffe is also sitting next to the Primordial Goddess, which implies a cyclicality and an achronic view that surmounts the temporal divisions; but the plates in each place develop from flat surfaces to the fully three-dimensional and non-functional ‘plate’ representing O’Keeffe. The imagery of the vulva and the butterfly which runs through the plate designs links them to Chicago’s own artistic practice, in turn criticised for its essentialist emphasis on the body by later feminist critics such as Rozsika Parker and Grizelda Pollock in Old Mistresses (1981: 127-130). The plates also led to controversy, being described as ‘pornographic’ by politicians seeking to deny funding for the work’s continuing display.

Another hierarchy emerges from the installation’s ‘Heritage Floor’; as well as the 39 women seated at the dinner, the names of 999 ‘women of merit’ are painted in gold on the floor, organised into ‘streams of influence’ and each related in time and action to one of the seated diners. In a similar way, Judy Chicago as creator represents the many women who worked on researching and making the installation, many of them working the intricate embroideries that customise each place setting. Photos of each originally appeared on ‘Acknowledgement Panels’ which are an integral part of the work, but not currently on display (though accessible online). The impact of Chicago’s attempt to make visible the collaborative labour of making art has been lessened.

Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner
Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner

Feminism has moved on since the creation of the Dinner Party, and some of its juxtapositions present imagery jarring from present perspectives. The idea of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) as dining companions is an intriguing example of the work’s creation of an anachronistic community, but their adjacent place-settings point to some limitations of feminist analysis of the 1970s. The English writer and campaigner Wollstonecraft is depicted with a particularly fine instance of the embroidery skills she despised, showing her calling girls to exercise their right to education, and featuring embroidered versions of her words; the back of her place setting uses the same techniques for a moving depiction of her death in childbirth. The plate for Sojourner Truth, the black and formerly enslaved American campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and for women’s rights, on the other hand, puts images of African art on the table, acknowledging an important connection – but the central image is a mask; Truth’s runner is entirely non-figurative, drawing on the traditions of African textile art but making no direct personal connection with her works. While this represents the original cultures of African Americans and responds to the experiences of the enslaved, it turns Truth into a cipher for the suffering of slavery, gazing on her otherness rather than representing her unique campaigning voice.

Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party
Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party

The monumental installation was first exhibited in 1979, and toured the world during the 1980s, but was not then exhibited again until it became the centrepiece of the Elisabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The temporary exhibition galleries surround the triangular space in which the Dinner Partyis displayed; they surround its permanent and anachronic narrative with changing questions. This is particularly true of the Center’s current exhibition, ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’, which offers a very different history of a liberation struggle, that for LGBT rights. The contrast between the two displays materialises changes in debates on women’s and LGBT liberation struggles in the past fifty years. The protagonists of the Stonewall Uprising are not a presence at the Dinner Party; but in the temporary Stonewall exhibition, titled after the words of activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92), the complex temporality of queer liberation struggle is evident in works recognising the impact of social precarity and the AIDS crisis on queer communities and celebrating their activism. This complicates artists’ urge to connect with a past beyond that told by conventional histories, both to explore the historical context of the Stonewall riot and its cultural legacy, and to reach into a deeper mythic past. The rich range of media deployed by artists includes textile banners, which in this display context can be seen to converse with those of the Dinner Party.

Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- )
Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ), on display at the Brooklyn Museum in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall 

And one colourful and optimistic work in particular connects the present with the mythic past, Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ). In this painting, a femme figure – perhaps a primordial goddess like those Chicago evokes? – mounted on a rainbow-tailed horse leads a riotous assembly of bodies across the cosmos. While Chicago’s structure offers a closed loop of history, and other queer art on display reflects a crisis of futurity, Moleski’s figure points joyfully into a colourful future.

  • The Elisabeth A. Sackler Center’s web page for the Dinner Party contains all the images and detailed, thoughtful commentary, often pointing towards some of the issues discussed here.
  • Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski web site, https://www.amaryllisdejesusmoleski.com
  • Chicago, J. (1996) The Dinner Party (New York and London).
  • Edelman, L. (2004) No Future: queer theory and the death drive (Durham, NC).
  • Gerhard, J.F. (2013) The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 (Athens, Georgia).
  • Lynne, J. (2015) ‘From the Mythic to the Personal, Two Artists Envision Womanhood’, Hyperallergic, 28/4/2015.
  • Parker, R. and Pollock, G. (1981) Old Mistresses: women, art and ideology (London).

 

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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