OKKKKKK so my museum brain is slowly mulching whilst on furlough so I have decided that I am going to do a post each day analysing EVERY place setting on The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago (Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Donald Woodman).... brace yourselves!
There are 39 place settings... so you've got me for 39 days... I'm not joking!
But first, a little bit of information about the piece as a whole (and the artist!)...
So who is Judy Chicago? Born Judith Cohen in Chicago in 1939, she was born into a generation engulfed by WW2 and a family of strong religious heritage (her father's family were Rabbis for over 23 generations) she was potentially set for a conservative upbringing..
...however, her father didn't go down the path of devout religion & instead was actively participating in the American Communist Party. This made him promote liberal views, including those around women's rights, which Judy says ultimately influenced her life and artistic path
Chicago's father was so embroiled in Communism that he became a target of the McCarthy-era investigations into Communism in America, which ultimately made life very difficult for their family. Her father died young and Judy stated she never fully got over his death
She attended UCLA in the late 1950s where she met & married her first husband Jerry Gerowitz in 1961. She graduated in 1962, beginning a master in arts programme to refine her practice, but when Jerry died suddenly in 1963 in a car crash (aged just 27) she had a breakdown
Judy continued to study, and graduated from her masters programme in 1964 - whilst completing her masters she created a series of pieces titled Bigamy that represented the death of her husband (Pictured: Bigamy, acrylic on clay, 1964)
In the 1970s she formally changed her name from Judy Gerowitz to Judy Chicago, wearing clothing emblazoned with her new name (Image: Chicago in a 1970 Artforum advertisement for an exhibition at California State College)
And so what of her art career? Well she was first and foremost an art teacher, teaching at Fresno College whilst also keeping up her own personal practice, moving on to California Institute for the Arts where she led the Feminist Art Program.
The first large scale piece Chicago created was with fellow teacher & collaborator, Miriam Schapiro, called Womanhouse. A year-long project, they took over a dilapidated building with multiple women artists, all being allowed to create installations exploring experiences of women
The house opened in the Autumn of 1971 and was deemed the first installation of Feminist art in the US.
And so, we come to The Dinner Party. Chicago was very much influenced by Gerda Lerner (pictured), whose writings convinced her that women who did not know women's history would struggle in society. She wanted to educate through her art, leading her to create her most famous work
The entire piece took over 5 years to make, due to Chicago diligently researching every single one of the place settings (all 39!) and it cost over $250,000 to build. The full length of the table setting is over 127 feet across the three sides of the triangle.
Each of the 39 places represents a historical or mythical female, including goddesses, activists, artists and martyrs. There are 13 women on each side of the installation, representing the number of people said to be in a traditional witches coven
The project was assisted by over 400 people, mainly women, who volunteered to assist in needlework, creating sculptures and research. The Dinner Party was first constructed, it was a traveling exhibition and had a fund created to cover all associated costs called The Flower
The piece, however, was not critically acclaimed when it was first debuted in the late 1970s. Critics thought it lacked artistic depth and was just "vaginas on plates." Despite this, it was very popular with the public & travelled through three continents & six countries
The piece was seen by over 15 million people before being retired to storage in the mid-1990s, but has been on constant display at @brooklynmuseum since 2007.
So a final bit of design style spec before I begin - what do the place settings even look like? Well, to see a detailed shot of each place setting I would recommend getting the book that accompanies the piece, but here is a close up of Virginia Woolf's setting for an example...
Each place setting features a table runner embroidered with the woman's name & images or symbols relating to their accomplishments. There is a napkin, fork and knife, a glass or goblet, & a plate. Many of the plates feature a butterfly- or flower-like sculpture as a vulva symbol.
It's also worth pointing out here that it isn't just the 39 women on the table represented, but also the white floor around the piece is made of triangular porcelain tiles, called the Heritage Floor, is inscribed with the names of a further 998 notable women
(and one man, Kresilas, mistakenly included as he was thought to have been a woman called Cresilla)
Back to the table, and the plates undulate from flat to completely sculptural towards the very end of the chronology, a representation of modern woman's gradual independence and equality, though it is still not totally free of societal expectations.
So, finally the table has 3 'wings' - the 1st for pre-history to the Roman Empire, the emergence & decline of the Classical world. The 2nd covers the rise of Christianity & concludes in the 17th century, the time of the Restoration. The 3rd wing represents the Age of Revolution.
And so we begin....

*Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place setting 1: The Primordial Goddess

(Image: A 5th cenutry CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum)
The first setting on the table is dedicated the Primorial Goddesses, deities said to be the first born from the void of Chaos in Greek Mythology. Many believe the setting is most likely representative of Gaia (Earth), who parthenogenetically (asexually) gave birth to Heaven
The ancestral mother of all life, Gaia is the mother of Uranus (the sky), from who she bore the Titans (themselves parents of many of the Olympian gods), the Cyclopes, & the Giants; of Pontus (the sea), from who she also bore the primordial sea gods. (Image: statue of Gaia)
If you are going to represent women's history, then why not start with (essentially) Mother Earth!
*Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place setting 2: The Fertile Goddess

(Image: Lotus-Headed Fertility Goddess Lajja Gauri, circa. 6th century from India (Madhya Pradesh). Credit Line: Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Bequest of Samuel Eilenberg, 1998, Met Museum NYC)
The second place setting on the table is dedicated to 'the fertile goddess', there is no one single fertility goddess depicted, instead it is symbolic of all fertile goddesses throughout cultures and history
Mbaba Mwana Waresa is one such goddess - a fertility goddess of the Zulu religion of Southern Africa who rules over rainbows, agriculture, harvests, rain & beer and has power over water and earth.
another is Atahensic, from the mythology of the Iroquois, who is a goddess associated with marriage & childbirth.
Jiutian Xuannü is the goddess of war, sex, and longevity in Chinese mythology (image - artistic interpretation of Jiutian)
There are 100s of fertility goddesses throughout world mythology and culture, so Chicago's decision to be symbolic in this place setting makes sense, as there would need to be 4-5 Dinner Party installations just to represent all of them!
*Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place setting 3: Inanna/ Ishtar
The 3rd place setting at the table represents Isanna, an ancient Mesopotamian goddess who is associated with love, beauty, sex, war, justice & political power. Originally worshiped in Sumer, she was later worshipped by the Akkadians, Babylonians & Assyrians under the name Ishtar
Inanna, the original iteration of the goddess, was worshiped as early as the Uruk period (c. 4000 BC – c. 3100 BC). During the post-Sargonic era, she became one of the most respected of deities in the Sumerian pantheon, with dedicated temples across Mesopotamia.
The cult of Inanna-Ishtar, which may have been associated with a variety of sexual rites, was continued by all civilisations that conquered the Sumerian regions, including the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
Inanna-Ishtar is briefly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and she greatly influenced the Phoenician goddess Astoreth, who later influenced the development of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting 4: Kali
Kali is the Hindu goddess of death & time, is often associated with sexuality and violence, but also considered a strong mother-figure and a symbol of motherly-love.
Kali also embodies shakti - feminine energy, creativity and fertility - and is an incarnation of Parvati, wife of the great Hindu god Shiva. (Pictured: representation of Shiva)
Kali’s name derives from the Sanskrit meaning ‘she who is death’, but she is also known as Chaturbhuja Kali, Chinnamastā, or Kaushika. As an embodiment of time, she is said to devour all things and is irresistibly attractive to mortals and gods.
*Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place setting 5: The Snake Goddess

(Image: A woman - probably a goddess - holding snakes in both hands, from Gotland, Sweden)
This 5th place setting at the table represents the Snake Goddess - again another symbol of the woman represented throughout a number of cultures and religions across the world. Usually a type of figurine, the goddess is a woman holding a snake in each hand
They have been found all over the world by archaeologists and have represented many things, but the finest examples have been found in Crete (Greece) at sites of Minoan civilisations The first figurines to be found by archaeologists were dated to c. 1700–1450 BCE.
It has been debated if these Minoan figures depicted deities or something else - they were found only in houses & many believed them to be a wider symbol of femininity & domesticity.

(Image: Minoan Snake Goddess figurines, c. 1600 BCE, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete)
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting 6: Sophia (wisdom)
Sophia is a figure within philosophy and religion, particularly Platonism and Christian theology. Originally meaning of "cleverness", the later meaning of the term, her legacy is significantly shaped by the term philosophy ("love of wisdom") as used by Plato.
It's interesting to note that as Chicago is going through the chronology of history in the place settings, it's only now that a female figure or female representation is something more than a symbol of sex, reproduction or (weirdly) violence. Sophia is the first non-sexual symbol
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting 7: Amazon

(Image: Departure of the Amazons, by Claude Deruet, 1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
No this is not an ode to Jeff Bezos - this place setting, the 7th on the table, is dedicated to the Amazons in Greek mythology. The Amazons were believed to be a group of female warriors who originated from ancient Libya.
The Amazons are potentially best known for the queens, the most notable being Penthesilea, who took part in the Trojan Wars and fought on the side of Troy, and also Hippolyta, who is a major figure in the story of Heracles.
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting 8: Hatshepsut

(Image: Statue of Hatshepsut on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Place setting 8 is dedicated to Hatshepsut who was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. She was the second historically-confirmed female pharaoh, the first being Sobekneferu.
Hatshepsut became Pharaoh in 1478 BC and throughout her reign she establish herself as the God's Wife of Amun. Officially, she ruled jointly with Thutmose III, who was a two year old child at the time of coronation.
She is regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, she is also known as "the first great woman in history of whom we are informed."
I missed a day - I'm sorry! Double bill coming right up...
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting : Judith

Image: Judith with the Head of Holophernes, by Cristofano Allori, 1613 (c)Royal Collection, London
The Book of Judith is part of the Old Testament, and tells the story of a Jewish widow, Judith, who used her beauty and charm to overthrow an Assyrian general, saving historic Israel from oppression.
Greek manuscripts of the tale of Judith survive, containing several historic references & individuals known to be real. This makes many historians believe the tale of Judith to be one of the first historic texts, not a parable or theological novel, like other books of the bible.
Judith is said to have annoyed her fellow countrymen by not believing God would deliver them from their enemies, the Assyrian conquerors. Fed up of a lack of action from her people, Judith takes divisive action and decides to befriend Holofernes, the enemy general
She is supposed to have promised him information on the Israelites and in return would be spared and enjoy his company (whatever that means!...) One night, after many weeks of gaining his trust, Judith finds Holofernes drunk and decapitates him in his tent.
She marches back to her people, head in hand, showing them that the enemy has been defeated. The Assyrians without their leader, fled Israel. Judith is said to have remained single for the remainder of her life in spite of many men wooing her and wanting the victor as their wife
The character of Judith has influenced many artists throughout history, including Caravaggio, Vouet and Klimt.

Image: Gustav Klimt, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901
*Wing I: from Prehistory to the Roman Empire*

Place Setting 10: Sappho

Image: One of the earliest surviving images of Sappho, from c. 470 BC. She is shown holding a lyre and plectrum, and turning to listen to Alcaeus.
OOOOOoooh we're getting into the heavy hitters here! Place setting 10 is dedicated to the one, the only, SAPPHO.

A Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, Sappho was a lyrical poet who was regarded as the greatest of her time during her lifetime
She is said to have written over 10,000 lines of poetry in her lifetime, although most is now lost to history. What remains is largely fragment of longer poems, however the "Ode to Aphrodite" is one of the few complete works remaining.
Little is actually known about her life - she was known to be born into a wealthy family, however nothing is really known of her parents. She supposedly had three brothers, two of them being named in a poem discovered in 2014 - Charaxos and Larichos
Sappho's writing is still referenced as influence by contemporary writers today, but perhaps more than her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women, with the English words sapphic & lesbian being derived from her name & the name of her home island
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