THANK YOU, JUDY CHICAGO!
By: Cornelia Powell – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
I remember the moment I walked into the Egyptian Ballroom in Atlanta’s Fox Theater to see an art exhibition called The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago’s feminist-awakening homage to women—and my first real history lesson! It was early October 1982 and I didn’t know what I was in for; yet I could feel the womb of womanly beauty and power and mystery all around me. It was as though I was reclaiming something, but it’d be years before I had the words to express it.
I had only seen part of the large-scale exhibit when I left the building to find a pay phone; and from a phone booth on Peachtree Street, I called my mother “long distance” telling her that she and my sister had to get to Atlanta right away. There was this art display of women’s history, I said, and the exhibit was closing within days, and they must not miss this!
I’m not sure what Mother told my sister to get her there—in those days Atlanta was a good seven-hour drive from the family farm in Alabama. But my mother was always up for an adventure, especially in the autumn, and she heard something in my voice that she knew to come be with me.
A decade earlier, around 1971, Judy Chicago began creating The Dinner Party, believing that “art can transcend the barriers between us.” Her intention was to celebrate women’s achievements—which she had been researching for years—and “to rededicate the history of Western civilization to the women who are often left out of it,” as Sasha Weiss wrote this year in her cover story in The New York Times Magazine. Judy saw a dinner party as metaphor—communal, connecting, and historically when women did all the cooking and serving. Confronting her own classically-trained prejudice, she incorporated an array of mediums in the massive art project including china painting and needlework, long considered traditional women’s arts and crafts. In the end it took a community of nearly 400 women and men working five years to complete.
In the symbolic-rich exhibition—bold, audacious and absolutely female—each of the thirty-nine women represented at The Dinner Party’s open, equilateral triangle-shaped table (the triangle seen as a symbol of the Goddess) is portrayed by a distinctively-designed plate. Some of the porcelain plates are flat, as in the first group commemorating the Primordial Goddess and Sophia; others are slightly in relief (like for Theodora, Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth); and they gradually become more dimensional to signify the increasing liberation of women (for Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger.) Each decorated plate, plus an embroidered linen napkin, the hand-crafted flatware, and a lustered-and-gold ceramic chalice, sit on an embellished runner, like a holy altar cloth, designed with patterns or needlework from the era the woman lived—all, in Judy Chicago’s words, “lend a sacramental character to the table.” (Names of another 999 heroic women who contributed to the development of Western culture are written in a lyrical script on a shimmering tile “Heritage Floor” where the dinner table sits.)
For some women, viewing the compelling exhibition was a “religious experience”; others recalled moments of “self-realization” (there was certainly something mystical afoot, and yes, you could find yourself there, spoken in a thousand forgotten tongues); many called Judy Chicago a “feminist genius” and Sasha Weiss reverently titled her article, “The Godmother.” For me, although in my early 30s at the time, it was as much a coming-of-age experience as it was a coming-into-my-womanly-skin transformation. (As the creation of it must have been for the artist herself.)
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I was so taken by the names and stories of the women on display, many unknown to me, their names embroidered on the front of each runner, their stories taking me into an intimacy of their lives so that, as I walked around the large “dinner table,” my breath seemed suspended in my throat. Maybe it was this historical beguilement (Hatshepsut, Aspasia, Christine de Pisan—who were these women?) as well as being attracted to the exquisite textile artwork more than the porcelain plates, and perhaps it was simply my naiveté; however, on first viewing, I saw lush interpretations of flowers, petals, and flaming wings vibrantly painted on the sculpted china “dinner plates” and not abstract vulvas.
It was a male friend, when I later shared my excitement about the art exhibition, who mockingly informed me of the “vagina art” he had read about. His cynicism and distain were as much of an “awakening”—like a stinging patriarchal slap—as The Dinner Party had been an opening into my spiritual heart. I was confused, what was I now feeling: shame, embarrassment, feeling belittled, not being seen or heard or respected? Like millions of women before me in various situations when they shared their ideas and enthusiasm from their unique perspective or began asserting their female brilliance, only to be abruptly dismissed. (Looking back, I got that the unashamed femaleness of it all made my friend feel uncomfortable—perhaps the goal of “feminist art”—and then he insinuated his discomfort onto me. Sound familiar?)
Inside that emotional turmoil I allowed my friend to stir in me, I remember how his reaction had me doubt myself: Should I have invited my mother and sister to this, maybe it wasn’t what I thought? I had fallen into the patriarchy’s trap: ‘Make her feel small.’ But like Judy Chicago, I persisted. This was the full female expression that her art was recognizing, beautifying, empowering, even glorifying—rise above the criticisms and insults, she commanded—calling forth woman’s very ascension!
After the initial success in 1979 when The Dinner Party was shown in San Francisco to large crowds and appreciative acclaim, it was not without its own backlash—from art critics, indifferent art institutions, colleagues, and just general misogynists—and the tour was canceled. Judy Chicago retreated for a time, in debt; the artwork boxed up and put into storage, but her evolution as an artist and her singular power and energy as a woman did not—did not retreat or get “boxed up”! Nor did the community of women and men who had assisted in creating the art, or had been moved and inspired by its message, or were instrumental in its promotion. They all rallied and a few years later the exhibition went back on tour, booked in unconventional venues—including, as the angels hovered, in Atlanta.
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In her feature story, and after viewing The Dinner Party last year at its permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum—with the resplendent 78-year-old Judy Chicago as her guide—Sasha Weiss mused ‘what if’ the exhibition had been shown for the first time in 2018, “penetrating the culture so deeply that it would have been impossible to reject.” Weiss believed Judy Chicago’s art “anticipated this generation’s style of feminism — pugilistic, sincere, frank and unapologetically grandiose.” And in so doing, she also “anticipated the very question at the core of the #MeToo movement: What would the world look like if women held power?” What, indeed.
The remembrance of my male friend’s put-down would feel eerily familiar over 30 years later in the emergence of Trumpery and the vile ‘smirkiness’ unleashed. But the extraordinary and once-uncelebrated legacy Judy Chicago revealed, plus the other courageous artists of all generations around the world she inspired, provide a strong foundation to stand on, emboldening us during this harsh backlash to the female spirit, to the Divine Feminine. (And speaking of inspiration—those glorious pink “pussy hats” worn in opposition to Trump’s election? They bore Judy Chicago’s fearless imprint, stitch by every cheeky stitch!)
Hanging at the entrance of The Dinner Party, six banners designed by Judy and woven in the traditional French Aubusson tapestry technique by the San Francisco Tapestry Workshop, welcomes viewers like messages directly from the Great Mother Goddess. Affirming that “once reverence for the feminine is reestablished on Earth, a balance will be restored to human existence…and people will live in peace and harmony.” A tall order, but Judy Chicago’s vision knows few limits.
In 1973, “when she was struggling to create a form language that would convey her experiences as a woman,” as The Dinner Party book explained, Judy Chicago created an image on canvas called “Through the Flower”—choosing a flower as metaphor for her femaleness: a shadowed, circular opening that draws you in, surrounded by soft, seemingly undulating pink petals, simple yet mesmerizing. And life changing.
Three years after both of my visits to The Dinner Party—the second with my mother and sister a few days after my “initiation” which began freeing my own “femaleness”—I gazed deeply “through the flower” and opened the most feminine of businesses. Resurrecting cherished textiles from the past, it was an intuitively curated store with vintage linen and lace clothes refashioned for weddings and all of life’s rites-of-passage—and just for the pleasure of feeling beautiful! Also a place where men could come to buy gifts and grandmothers to dream—and all to feel connected to the memory of beauty. Guiding it with and for a modern-woman’s sensibility, calling on women artists to come express themselves in their own divine language, I stepped into a whole new more fully-formed domain of women and invited all the world inside!
And I never looked at a flower the same way again. ~
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: After many years, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, and its treasured accoutrements, found a permanent home in 2002 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. And there it continues to glow and fire the imagination—don’t miss it! And how wonderful that the world is rediscovering the glorious Judy Chicago—once again; she was named one of “The 100 Most Influential People” of 2018 by TIME magazine. Our very own Godmother Goddess! www.CorneliaPowell.com]
More by Cornelia
Wedding Folklorist, Fashion Historian, Author & Guest Speaker
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