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Revisiting Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party in the Age of The Da Vinci Code

The Dinner Party, a multimedia work created by Judy Chicago and many volunteers between 1974-1979 and now permanently housed, or perhaps the word is enshrined, inside The Brooklyn Museum, is essential viewing for fans of art. The monumental installation, a triangular dining arrangement with place settings for thirty-nine honored women guests (among them, Amazon, Sappho, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Georgia O'Keeffe) embodies the values of women-centered artwork such as collaboration, the elevation of "craft," and the restored honor of women who have been left out of the history books. More than a million people saw The Dinner Party when the worked toured the country and subsequently the world, but it's good to have the party in Brooklyn.

The Dinner PartyThose familiar with the work through reproductions or slides in art history class (and congratulations for finding such a teacher) but haven't seen The Dinner Party in person may very well be surprised by its power. The textures of the ceramic plates, banners, embroidered places settings, etc., are all of a high quality, and the scale of the piece, a grand banquet that still provides intimacy for each guest, can only be fully appreciated in person. The "core" imagery, those vaginal, flowery centers that are individuated on each plate, represent the commonalities of the female experience, and visiting The Dinner Party feels like entering a high holy place of feminism. The dining room is housed within the museum in something like a core, with preparatory panels explaining its importance. I won't even show you a picture, because it may take away from your personal discovery.

While The Dinner Party possesses a definite aura in its new museum home, with dramatic lowered lighting, hushed atmosphere, and a museum guard, I found it was hard for me to look at this female imagery now without comparing it to the time I first saw images of the work years ago. During the 1970s the research and celebration of the lives of women artists, writers, and influential historical figures took on a missionary zeal, and the discussion of essentialism, a notion that women possessed characteristics fundamentally different from men, seemed fresh and exciting, although wildly controversial even among feminists. Many women artists of the next generation took on different projects and with a new set of values, including those who exploited stereotypical female imagery without articulating the consciousness-raising professed by Chicago and other women artists associated with West Coast feminism of the 1970s.

I almost hesitate to bring this up, because it feels like sacrilege, but in its new place and time, The Dinner Party invites a comparison to the themes of the middle brow blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. Those who have read Dan Brown's 2003 page-turner know that it's about the search for the lost feminine in Christianity. In the book, we learn, if that's the right word, that Leonardo Da Vinci, a keeper of the secret, hides clues of the truth in his paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper (i.e. The Dinner Party). The rose, fleshed out in Brown's book, like the core floral imagery of The Dinner Party, symbolizes the presence of the mother/goddess. Brown spins a tale of groups trying to suppress this knowledge, including members of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic institution that maintains a headquarters deep within the core of our own Big Apple on Lexington Avenue and which has repudiated the book.

The pyramid of the Louvre Museum from The Da Vinci Code finds echoes in the triangular arrangement of this all-female supper housed inside the Brooklyn Museum. Hard-core Christians have denounced both the goddess centered feminist collaboration and the mystery book by the man. But, my guess is that The Da Vinci Code and its spin-offs will fade away, devolving into a fad or a question in a trivia game. The Dinner Party, on the other hand, will be watched over by guards, deep within the solid walls of the Brooklyn Museum, in a low-lit hushed room. Not The Last Supper, but perhaps the Last Laugh.

The Dinner Party is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY. The museum is open Sunday 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Wednesday to Friday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM and Saturday 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Suggested admission is $8.00 for adults and $4.00 for seniors and students with valid identification card. Children under 12 years of age and accompanied by an adult are admitted for free.

Images: Flowers, Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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