Exhibitions: The Fertile Goddess

Gallery view of The Fertile Goddess in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center's Herstory Gallery

December 19, 2008–May 31, 2009

Who is she? A goddess, a ritual object, a votive offering, a vehicle for working magic or fulfilling wishes, a talisman for protection, a teaching or initiation device, or simply an ancient woman's embodiment of herself? The oldest sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum represents a woman; it was made by people living in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) or Syria in the late fifth millennium B.C.E. She and other ancient female figurines with exaggerated or highly stylized female forms are small in scale but great in their ineffable power to capture the imagination of those who confront them.

Nine such ancient figurines from the Museum's collection are the focus of this third Herstory Gallery exhibition, which explores them as a source of inspiration for Judy Chicago's depiction of The Fertile Goddess at The Dinner Party. The tenth figurine, on loan from Judy Chicago, is the Ceramic Goddess #3 (1977), a larger version of the female figurine on the place setting runner for The Fertile Goddess at The Dinner Party. This contemporary embodiment also evokes the rare and earliest known female forms of the Paleolithic period, like the iconic Venus of Willendorf, made about 25,000 years ago. Important to Chicago was the feminist re-examination of ancient female figurines from the 1960s on, interpreting them as manifestations of goddess-worshipping societies, which was at the fore of feminist thought at the time.

Feminism and gender theory have influenced archaeology considerably since Chicago created The Dinner Party. Indeed, a new wave of archaeologists who excavate and study these figurines are applying new methods and often challenging earlier interpretations and nomenclature. For this reason, the curators have consciously chosen the currently preferred term "female figurine," as opposed to "idol" or "goddess," in order to acknowledge the many levels of function and meaning that have been ascribed to these objects over time. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that, thirty years after the creation of The Dinner Party, the significance of goddess images to feminist scholars and artists, as well as practicing Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, has not diminished but acquired a life and mythos of its own, apart from the archaeological record.

This exhibition is co-curated by Madeleine E. Cody, Research Associate in Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Maura Reilly, Founding Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Exhibition Highlights

Judy Chicago: Ceramic Goddess #3 Female Figurine Female Figurine

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