Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chess in Art XV

Arabes jouant aux échecs

Eugène Delacroix (1847)

[National Gallery, Edinburgh]


Ludwig Deutsch (1896)

[private collection]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]


Martin S. said...

Two pictures painted half a century apart, both by Frenchmen (the first by birth, the other by adoption) who were seduced by North Africa and the Middle East. Both had impeccable credentials in French artistic circles and brought a touch of class to their work.

Delacroix works here in a loose Romantic style, with an eye for composition. There are various versions of this picture on the web. This one may have the best colouring, but unfortunately it is not complete. A slice has been removed from the right hand edge which shows the end of a wall running from top to bottom. This element is important to the overall effect because the two players are, in the complete picture, surrounded with a frame within a frame which focuses our attention on the players.* The inner frame has the woman’s shawl plus shadows as the left-hand edge, the untidy vegetation across the top, the abovementioned wall makes the right-hand edge and the kerb makes the bottom. Within this the game is fought with vigorous cut and thrust.

Deutsch specialized in highly detailed and brilliantly coloured studies of the Orient. He has the same framing device: from the column on the left go over the top edge of the tiles, down the screen by the coffee pot, and back along the bottom rung of the bench. Within it his two players play their game with delicacy and grace. Deutsch has his third party hiding on the right. With this picture it would be quite reasonable to slice off the right side and edit out the arch and the shadowy character. You’d still be left with a decent composition. The artist could have left him out, so he must included him for a reason. We’ll find out why below.

Both pictures also show a bit of class in another sense. Put side by side, they expose the inequalities of economic and social status endemic in the Orient. Delacroix’s peasants are bare-footed and bare-headed. They crouch with animal power. A pre-game shake from them would crush your hand. Their clothes are as coarse as their surroundings. The female spectator pauses from her labour while the men lose themselves in their game. Though she is ignored, she is tolerated in the same pictorial space, although the artist may be idealising a bit about gender issues. True to his Romantic inspiration Delacroix respects these honest people. He puts her in a classical pose, and he puts the players on the ground as if to say they are the salt of the earth.

Deutsch’s players are poised and elegant as they contemplate their moves; they would never come to blows over them as might the peasants. Their garments are the best the souk has to offer, and their wearers are as decorous as their surroundings are decorated. They perch clear from the ground as if to say they couldn’t bear it to soil them. Their servant, for surely that is what he is, is banished to do his chores. Now we see why he is there: his pictorial role is to emphasize, by contrast, the refinement and social standing of his masters. And we feel that Deutsch, in his way, wants to flatter them too.

One would like to think that Delacroix’s 1847 robust style in the service of the toiling masses would consign the obsequious stance of Deutsch to the dustbin of history along with his privileged poseurs to boot. “Workers of the World Unite!” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels said in the Communist Manifesto a year later. Same rubbish fate for the self-interested financial spivs and speculators of today, say I. “Chess in Art”, with a dash of Politics, too.

*I’ll give a live link to the whole image in “Chess in Art Collected”. In the meantime the reference is

ejh said...

Some notes on the choice of image. As Martin's observed, the image I've used is incomplete: despite being the version appearing almost everywhere on the internet, it is in fact a truncated version, missing important detail on the righthand side. Unfortunately, however, I have been unable to locate a version which is :

(a) complete ;
(b) easily saved ;
(c) reproduces adequately the colour of the original work.

This being so, for the while I've gone with a version that is truncated but otherwise well-reproduced, in preference to one that is complete but ill-produced. It's fair to say that neither Martin nor I am delighted about this.

It's surprising that no good image of the Delacroix is available: it is on display at the National Gallery of Scotland but the image does not appear on their website. It's not just that I can't find it: I've exchanged emails with the Gallery to confirm this. I've not asked them why it doesn't - perhaps I should.

While hunting fruitlessly for a better version, by the way, I came across several other paintings which would have suited our theme.

These include:

Chess Players, Cairo (von Chlebowski, attr)

Egyptian Chess Players (Alma-Tadema)

Almehs Playing Chess In A Café (Gerome)

Arnauts playing chess (Gerome again)

and also two other Geromes, both entitled The Chess Players, though in neither case can I find a really good image.

Jonathan B said...

Fans of Justin & Martin's Chess in Art series may have noticed the post on Chess Vibes for last Wednesday...

Speedy Malc gets everywhere