About Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is an important American artist best known for The Dinner Party (1974 - 79), a feminist installation that is included in most standard texts about the development of 20th Century art. She was a leading member of the 1970s Feminist Art Movement, which focused on establishing the value of women’s experiences within fine art practices. She often uses a combination of media, geometric forms, and spectral colours in her work to communicate a sense of pride in the female body and spirit.
Voices from the Song of Songs 
Heliorelief and lithograph with hand colouring, 61 x 51 cm
Donated by the artist, 2004
O For Your Scent
My Dove in the Clefts of the Rock
Yes, I am Black and Radiant
There You Stand Like a Palm
Come Let Us Go Out into the Open Fields
How Fine You Are, My Love
Voices from the Song of Songs offers a good introduction to Chicago’s recent practice. It is a suite of twelve prints illustrating verses from the Old Testament book the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a collection of love poems in which different voices speak: a female, a male, and a group or collective voice. The poems celebrate love and union. T hey date from about the 10th century B.C.E. and as Edward Lucie-Smith describes, they have been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries: ‘Among Jews, they are interpreted allegorically, as an expression of God’s love for the Israelites. Christians read them differently, but also allegorically, as a series of images expressing Christ’s love for his church, or else (an interpretation much favoured in the Middle Ages) as an expression of the love between Christ and the human soul. Modern secular scholarship reads the collection of lyrics as secular love poems, which do not necessarily have any religious implications’.
Chicago based her illustrations on a recent translation by Marcia Falk, which she says attracted her because it ‘emphasises mutuality of desire, something that is sorely lacking in the history of erotic art which is traditionally from a male point of view’. Her intention is to create images that challenge conventional art historical iconography. Throughout her career, she has asserted female agency and female sexuality in her work (although covertly in her earliest pieces). Falk’s translation provided a basis for her to broaden this interest, to include both male and female perspectives.
In Chicago’s view, ‘there are some essential differences between men and women’ and by acknowledging and respecting these differences, society can move towards genuine equality. Her upbringing was secular, shaped by the ideals of equality and social justice, and infused with Jewish values such as ‘tikkun olam’ (to heal or repair the world). It is for this reason that the verses she employs in Voices from the Song of Songs alternate between the female and male voice only, reflecting the mutuality of the text whilst inviting the comparison between male and female. Her beliefs can also be seen in the individual prints: the couple in How Fine You Are, My Love appear to be androgynous, whereas the woman in Yes, I am Black and Radiant, depicted vibrantly with spectral colours, celebrates female sexuality and identity.
During this period in her career, Chicago was interested in exploring ways of integrating imagery and text. It was her intention in Voices from the Song of Songs to offer visual analogues to the lyrics. There you Stand Like a Palm and Come Let Us Go Out to the Open Fields, for example, explicitly translate the Song’s descriptions of flora and fauna – metaphorical representations of the body.
Her response to Falk’s translation, like all her work, is the result of meticulous preparation. As Lucie-Smith describes, her methods are traditional: from a period of intense research she developed sketches and photographs from the model as well as near Eastern decorative motifs featuring trees, flowers, and plants. This was followed by compositional studies and an analysis of the most appropriate techniques and materials for the subject. Her concern at this stage was ‘how to translate the images through a particular technique’ and how to ‘produce work that could only have been created with those techniques’.
She worked in collaboration with printmakers at Graphicstudio in Tampa, Florida over a number of years to develop fitting techniques. (Since The Dinner Party, collaborative projects that involve input from artists and skilled technicians have been a characteristic feature of her work). The final prints combine heliorelief, a modern form of woodcut printing, with lithography, both of which she chose for their expressive potential. The pattern of the wood grain created by Heliorelief (which is normally filled to produce a smooth surface) is used for evocative purposes: in How Fine You Are, My Love it suggests contours in the landscape. However, Chicago found the contained forms created by Heliorelief a limitation as they ‘went against the spirit of the text’. Tom Pruitt, a printer and the project manager, suggested combining Heliorelief with lithography to allow blending of the shapes and colours. ‘Combining texture (Heliorelief) with a lack of texture (lithography) was no small feat technically. What we did was to fill the wood grain selectively so that the grain appears only where I wanted it’. The suite also involved blending a spectrum of colours in multiple print runs. ‘If you look closely at the prints, you will see that there are subtle changes in colour at various points’. After which Chicago hand coloured the text block for the His Voice / Her Voice pages. One challenge she says was ‘getting a typeface for the Hebrew that matched the English in visual weight. We eventually had to go to Tel Aviv to find it; it is called Miriam font which seemed incredibly appropriate’.
Chicago strives for perfect technical results that appear effortless, though the effects are often complex to achieve. The final prints for Voices from the the Song of Songs have an elegant simplicity that express the poem’s gentle eroticism and celebrate equality and identity.