Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Back on the 20th January when crowds could still gather, the gardens of Paris’ Musée Rodin became the installation space for an artwork over forty years in the making.
Standing at 225-feet-long and 45-feet-high, the enormous sculpture of a curvaceous anthropomorphic figure brought to life famed feminist artist Judy Chicago’s vision of a female deity. Attendees of the Christian Dior Spring 2020 haute couture show (which, in accordance with Maria Grazia Chiuri’s long-standing collaboration with feminist artists, was being held inside the installation) entered through the figure’s tastefully-designed vulva into the womblike chamber through which the runway snaked. “We walk in the way we came out,” Chicago quipped to reporters on the day. Yet, despite her humor, the significance of the event was not lost on her. Having conceptualised ‘The Female Divine’ back in the 1970s, Chicago, now 81, remarked that she was “glad [to have] lived long enough to see it.” No mean feat given, as she explained, “all the opposition I have faced in my life.”
All the way back to her most famous work, ‘The Dinner Party,’ Chicago’s work as a feminist artist has been the subject of ridicule and, oftentimes, rejection by the male-dominated artworld. Famously, The New York Times’ critic at the time of ‘The Dinner Party,’ Hilton Kramer, condemned the work which sought to resist the erasure of female figures from history as a mere collection of “vaginas on plates.” Conveniently forgetting the fact that the female body, sexualised and viewed through the eyes of male painters, has been a constant subject throughout art history, Kramer’s view of feminist art was not out of line with that of the broader artworld, seeing it as nothing more than gratuitous sexualisation rather than informed and empowered protest. “Nobody called it the history of women in western civilisation,” Chicago neatly points out, “which of course, is what it was.”
Fast forward to over forty years later, and even a feminist artist as established as Chicago herself still faces many of the same challenges. In discussing her career with art historian Katy Hessel on the Dior Talks podcast, Chicago describes how her diaries are filled with incidences of projects getting “stalled” or that they simply “didn’t happen” because she “just couldn’t get support” from major art institutions to create work on the scale that she had always dreamed. Clearly, misogyny and condescension toward feminist artists runs far deeper than Kramer’s 1970s byline.
So how has Chicago’s goddess now come to be? Well, in order to finally produce her, Chicago had to draw the resources the artworld never gave her from the world of fashion, and specifically from Maria Grazia Chiuri’s commitment to championing women’s art at Dior. “I’ve always thought big,” she told Hessel, “but I was never able to get the level of support that I have gotten for this project.”
With the financial and creative backing of the House of Dior, ‘The Female Divine’ represents “the culmination of almost sixty years of work” for Chicago. Not only has she been able to protest the rigid patriarchy of the art establishment by placing a female goddess in the gardens of one of its most hallowed institutions, but has celebrated the creativity of women globally in the process. Chicago describes purposefully drawing on female artisans from around the world to create ‘The Female Divine’ to represent the “global movement” that is feminism today.
With strength in numbers, clearly Judy Chicago understands how women must push together to stand any chance of breaking through the glass ceilings still above our heads, with one of the driving forces behind this being women who are “no longer willing to subject themselves to the male gaze.” What this historic collaboration shows is that, today, women are determined to define themselves in art, fashion and life.