Dinner in the City is a series of 27 collages based on two women 500 years apart. The first is Christine de Pisan, who is often called the first female Western novelist. She lived in the 15th century, an Italian in the court of France. Widowed at a young age, she decided to support herself by writing, and actively courted patrons to buy her work (this in an age when most widows must remarry or enter a cloister for survival). She became highly respected and was a sought-after authority on a number of subjects. She was also a skilled and prolific writer on a number of subjects in a variety of genres.
Christine also lived during a time when women were generally considered to be defective males, objects of sin, vessels of vice. This bothered her greatly, as she knew this to be untrue. Therefore, she set out to refute the misogynist writings of the times by penning her own rebuttals. One of these is a book called “The Book of the City of Ladies”, in which Christine is visited by three Graces, Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who proceed to instruct Christine in writing about illustrious women of great accomplishment and good moral character. In the book, these illustrious women of whom Christine writes, build a city of refuge for women, to be inhabited only by those women who are of good character and great accomplishment.
In writing about these women of history, Christine attempts to insert them into the canon of history, and put to rest the negative propaganda.
500 years later, along comes the artist Judy Chicago, who has spent her life calling attention to women’s accomplishments. She too, saw that women were neglected in the history books. She envisioned a large dinner party, in which accomplished women were the invited guests rather than the servers, as traditional history would have them. The result of her studies was the art installation we know as “The Dinner Party”. Thirty-nine china place settings representing illustrious women from Primordial Goddess to the Present sit at the large triangular Dinner Party table. The table sits on a white porcelain floor etched with the names of 999 other accomplished women of history.
As you can see, Judy Chicago was also seeking to insert women into the canon of history – 500 years after Christine de Pisan! I was shocked by the irony. Here were two women from vastly distant centuries, one of them contemporary, and they were struggling with the same issue!
It has now become my issue too. And it started here. I set to work on my collage series. It is a retelling of the two stories through my eyes, and it imagines the meeting of Judy Chicago and Christine de Pisan across the centuries. In the creation of the series I made two trips to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the first to photograph the Christine de Pisan place setting – yes, she is included at the table, another connection to Ms. Chicago – where the folks at the Brooklyn Museum actually took it out of storage for me, as its exhibition space was not yet ready. The second trip was for the grand opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where the Dinner Party is the headliner, and where I was able to meet Judy Chicago.
My collages travel in a kind of circular fashion, beginning with 9 small collages retelling major elements from “The Book of the City of Ladies” followed by an iconic image of Christine de Pisan. On the opposite side of the “gallery” would hang nine small collages about the “Dinner Party”, followed by the icon of Judy Chicago. The final collages lead up to the story of their meeting and look to the future. Enjoy.
This series of collages made their debut at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio and were later exhibited at the Unversity of Tiffin in Ohio. They are available for future exhibitions, so please contact me if you are interested in showing them at your gallery.
I will continue to add more information about the exhibit and its major characters.
“Je Christine”, 9″w by 12″h, Private Collection
This is the first collage in the group of 9 x 12″ pieces that hang together in a grid or checkerboard configuration. Christine presents herself in “The Book of the City of Ladies” as both the writer and a character in the story. Because she is a representative of all women, I left her face without specific features. In the background you can see a profile of Christine reading, accompanied by the pages of a book. On the pages appear the titles of two anti-female writings along with the names of several misogynist writers of the time.
As you look at this exhibit you will notice a repeating motif of the checkerboard. Much of my inspiration for the collages came from medieval illuminated manuscripts, which often contain patterned backgrounds, the checkerboard being a common one. I chose to use the repeating checkerboard as a unifying element within the group of collages.
“All seem to speak … the female nature … as vessel of vice …”
9″w by 12″h, $225
Medieval writers, poets, orators, and philosophers considered women to be “vice-filled vessels”, full of sin and evil. I was fascinated by this metaphor of women as vice-filled vessels, especially in relationship to ancient theories of woman serving merely as a vessel for the seed of the man in reproduction. I combined this “vessel of vice” with the archetype of ancient “Venus” goddess images and Minoan snake goddesses. My goddess observes the world from one eye in the goblet cup. She holds an embryo in her hand; another women looks out from the background; and a despairing face is trapped within the cathedral window between her breasts.
The Waking Dream, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Reading and contemplating on the despicable qualities of her gender as written by men, Christine de Pisan (in The Book of the City of Ladies), cries out in despair to God. Slumped in a chair, she falls into a trance-like sleep, a “waking dream”, surrounded by clouds of despair and confusion.
” … saw before me three ladies …”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Christine awakes from her trance-like state to find before her three ladies, crowned and majestic in appearance. Their faces shine with bright light. These are the three Virtues: Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Here they appear as indistinct figures of yellow, moving down a path that breaks through clouds and earth. These three graces identify themselves as the daughters of God.
“I am called Lady Reason …”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Lady Reason is the first Virtue to address Christine de Pisan in the story. She normally carries a mirror to take the measure of mankind. I have placed the mirror to her right, and instead of the mirror, Lady Reason holds a basket of misogynist dirt! Lady Reason explains to Christine that whoever looks in the mirror will see him or herself as he or she really is. Behind Lady Reason are rocks that will be cleared from the Field of Letters (misogynist writings) so that the City of Ladies can be built.
“My name is Rectitude … this splendid rule … is the yardstick of truth …”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
The second Virtue, Lady Rectitude, holds a rule, a rod of peace and truth. It separates right from wrong and good from evil. Because it is a measuring tool it will help Christine build the City of Ladies. In my collage Lady Rectitude actually holds two rules; one is like a scepter.
“I am Justice … this vessel is like a measuring cup …”, 9″w by 12″h,
Lady Justice explains that she dwells in heaven, on earth, and in hell; she is the most beloved of God’s daughters. As the keeper of order, her duty is to judge. She and God are essentially one and the same; she is the feminine half of God. The goblet she carries measures out to each person exactly what he or she deserves. Lady Justice will help Christine put the finishing touches on the City of Ladies.
“You are to construct … a walled city”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Christine now knows the role she is to play in the construction of the walled city of refuge, this safe haven for women of good moral character and great accomplishment. The City of Ladies will begin with the foundation and the walls.
“Only ladies … of good reputation … worthy of praise … will be admitted”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
This image, another foundation, creates the illusion of stacked stones while maintaining the imagined landscape of the City of Ladies. Some of the stones are real.
THIS ENDS THE FIRST GRID OF IMAGES DEVOTED TO CHRISTINE DE PISAN AND THE CITY OF LADIES.
The second grid of collages considers subjects from The Dinner Party, the art installation by the contemporary artist Judy Chicago. I chose to interpret some of the women figurally, while representing others in terms of the plates, runners, and goblets that delineate them on Chicago’s table. Like the images from The Book of the City of Ladies they progress in chronological order from Pre-History to Rome, Christianity to the Reformation, and the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution. This follows the same timeline Chicago chose for The Dinner Party.
“In the beginning … the Goddess”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
This goddess image is based on the Venus of Willendorf and other female figures from ancient history. While the specific use of these figures is not known, it is thought that they might be fertility icons or images of the Creator Mother. They all share some common elements: large hips and breasts and an emphasis on the reproductive areas. Women were crucial for the survival of early societies, so female images were revered.
“Sophia … Wisdom”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom, is a soft, abstract portrait. She is a goddess archetype, a female deity personified in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. As cultures shifted from matriarchies to patriarchies Sophia was deemphasized to the point where today she is virtually unknown. This is why her image is less distinct than many of the other collages.
“Judith at the Table … “, 9″w by 12″h, $225
In the Bible, Judith rescued her people from the Assyrian general Holofernes by offering herself to him, drugging him, and chopping off his head! She returned to her people with his head as proof that he was no longer a threat. Here Judith is represented by the plate, runner, and goblet from The Dinner Party table.
“Empress Theodora … Advocate for Women … “, 9″w by 12″h,
Theodora was a Byzantine Empress married to the Emperor Justinian. She was a controversial ruler and opinion about her is mixed. However, she was a great advocate for women, and because of her influence, a number of laws were passed during her reign that protected women from a number of abuses.
I emulated the iconic nature of Byzantine art, along with jewels and jewel tones.
“Hildegarde of Bingen … Visionary … at the Table”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Twelfth century Hildegarde truly was a visionary. A scholar, writer, composer, scientist, and religious figure, Hildegarde described her many visions in journals and texts. She founded two women’s religious communities and spent most of her life in convents. The Hildegarde plate image is designed to resemble stained glass.
“Judith … with Holofernes … after Artemisia”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Judith with the head of Holofernes was inspired by a similarly titled painting by the 17th century Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi was a follower of Caravaggio and a rare woman of her time, a successful and sought-after painter of large-scale historical and religious subjects.
The story of Judith and Holofernes is told by Christine in The Book of the City of Ladies as well as by Chicago in The Dinner Party.
“Freedom/Rights … Sojourner Truth … at the Table …”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth became an ardent Abolitionist and Women’s Rights advocate. The tribal designs call attention to the sorrowful face weeping for those who have suffered the indignities of slavery.
“Virginia Woolf … A Room of One’s Own”, 9″w by 12″h, $225
The title of this collage comes from a story written by Woolf in which she speaks of the need for woman to have a “room of one’s own” in which to work and create. Here the woman gazes out the window; the room while a refuge, might also be a place of confinement.
“Georgia O’Keeffe … Series I, no. 8 … After Georgia”, 9’w by 12″h, $225
The painter Georgia O’Keeffe followed her own instincts in painting through harmony of color, line, shape, and rhythm. I deviated from Judy Chicago’s design for her Georgia O’Keeffe plate, which is muted in color and based on an O’Keeffe painting called Black Iris. I chose as inspiration a photo of O’Keeffe as a young woman, taken by her future husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1918. I combined that image with colors and shapes similar to O’Keeffe’s 1919 oil painting, Series I, no. 8.
This ends the two sets of 9 x 12 inch collages and introduces the group of larger paintings in the series. The first two collages in the following group are meant to mirror one another and are meant as iconic images of the two women, Christine de Pisan and Judy Chicago.
“Christine de Pisan … icon”, 30″w by 48″h, $1500
Just as Christine presents herself in the introduction to The Book of the City of Ladies, she is shown here before a window, reading. Her head covering alludes to those seen on medieval women in illuminated manuscripts. Her blue gown associates her with the Virgin Mary, in keeping with traditional illuminations of Christine from the Middle Ages.
“Judy Chicago … icon”, 30″w by 48″h, $1500
My goal with the Judy Chicago icon was to present her as a strong woman representative of all women. Therefore, I gave her a solid, slightly shortened body, and a very frontal, direct stance. This frontal view also refers to the frontal postures of traditional Byzantine icons. The background colors and swirls interpret the Christine de Pisan plate and runner designs on The Dinner Party table. Pieces of butterfly wing lay in the open hand, a reference to Chicago’s metaphor for liberty, the butterfly rising up.
Chicago is well-known for her use of vaginal imagery to legitimize female forms in art. She is noted for her use of the term “through the flower” which comes from one of her early paintings. By going “through the flower” women can move beyond the traditional confines of their gender (Chicago, Through the Flower 206). Therefore the main focus of my Judy Chicago icon is the rainbow of colors in her central core. It is a complex arrangement of many small pieces of paper.
The final seven pieces of this series are larger than the icon collages, measuring 36 x 48 inches. Christine de Pisan and Judy Chicago begin to infiltrate each other’s collages as their stories come together.
“All of a sudden, I saw a beam of light …”, 36″w by 48″h, $1500
This collage is composed as an annunciation scene. Christine comes out of her “waking dream” as she is struck by a beam of light. Christine de Pisan deliberately aligns herself with the Virgin Mary here. Here she sits at her desk with Matheolus’ book in front of her, reaching for the light. The shadow of Judy Chicago looks on from the background.
“The City of Ladies … the Field of Letters …” , 48″w by 36″h, $1500
A gilt-like checkerboard frames The City of Ladies, where women of great deeds, impeccable virtue, and courage reside in safety from misogynist attack. This is the very city told to Christine by Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Virtue. Unparalleled in splendor, it is meant to last for eternity.
First, however, the debris or Field of Letters must be cleared. The debris is a metaphor for the writings of anti-feminists; clearing the ground of this “misogynist dirt” undermines the authority of misogyny, in essence, “sweeping” it away. In its place will be the stones of the city, each stone representative of a celebrated woman of learned or military achievement.
“The Meeting …”, 36″w by 48″h, $1500
This collage shows the meeting of Christine de Pisan and Judy Chicago across the centuries. The two touch hands in a metaphorical gesture that unites all women who have overcome misogynist obstacles to achieve great deeds. Christine wears the traditional virgin blue gown; Chicago is vibrantly multicolored, representing strong women everywhere. The City of Ladies appears in the distance.
“No longer a Vessel of Vice …” , 48″w by 36″h, $1500
The goddess figure called Vessel of Vice dances in celebration, for with the building of The City of Ladies and the creation of The Dinner Party, women’s value to history is proven and she can take her place within the city, at the table, and in the canon of history. The interior of the goblet is derived from the Christine de Pisan table runner on The Dinner Party table. The goddess herself stands before the triangular dinner party table while the shadows of notable women observe from the background.
“Dinner in the City” , 48″w by 36″h, $1500
Christine de Pisan takes her place at The Dinner Party, table of history. Judy Chicago stands behind in shadow. Christine holds her goblet and plate from the Dinner Party table; only the faintest design appears on the plate, to indicate that women’s history is not complete. Christine’s table runner, based on a bargello, or flamestitch pattern, appears in the foreground. Through the arched doorways is the City of Ladies.
We now come to the last two collages in “Dinner in the City: A Narrative Exhibition”. They are the centerpieces, or culminating images in which woman realizes her power and moves into the future with the support of all those who have come before her.
“Beauty in Power” , 48″w by 36″h, $1500
Christine looks on from afar as modern woman expresses her power at The Dinner Party table. My main goal in this collage was to capture the gesture of wholehearted strength and celebration of women’s power in the world. This called for rich, bold colors and a strong female figure with arms uplifted. The checkerboard motif continues to tie the past to the present.
“Looking forward …” , 36″w by 48″h, $1500
The past, present, and future of women and their achievements come together. The border design, composed of many small cut and torn pieces of paper, echoes the design of the Christine de Pisan table runner on The Dinner Party table. Christine, representing the past, stands in the background; Judy Chicago, in the middle ground, stands for the struggles of contemporary women; the foreground woman stands for women to come. All three look forward together, united across the centuries by their struggles and their accomplishments. All are ready to take their place in the canon of history.
This completes the collage series “Dinner in the City: A Narrative Exhibition”.