Guest post by Martin Smith
You'll remember, for who could forget, the massed ranks of "The Chess Players" that signed off ejh's Chess in Art series (Chess in Art XX). Of the thirty or so players, kibitzers, and random revellers that Justin assembled for us in his farewell gallery of six pictures, two stand out. They appear in Merlyn Evans' febrile, searing image
Encouraged by its date of 1951 I inflicted the hyper-hyphenated description "angst-ridden-cold-war cadavers" on his tortured protagonists (see Chess in Art Collected), because it looks, doesn't it, so much a picture of its time: that anxiety-plagued post-war era. They wrangle at the board as if the world could end any moment in a nuclear cloud of mutual assured destruction; and their game with it. They, and humankind, are in the ultimate time trouble: zeitnot was the zeitgeist.
Except that it isn't, or rather, wasn’t. What you have before you is the artist's later version (with some small details missing), as a print, of a painting created over ten years earlier in 1940. The image was therefore not inspired by the Cold War, which hadn’t yet been invented. What a difference a date makes.
Some fortuitous research has unearthed that Evans' inspiration (though that makes it sound more uplifting than one would wish) for his original picture was the notorious 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact by which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to lay off each other so as to gobble up such small fry of Europe as took their respective fancies – mutually assured annexation, in fact. Evans, a man of the left carrying no party card, railed against this apparent betrayal of the little guys in his violent pictorial denunciation.
In reality it is impossible to read these historical specifics from the picture, and Evans doesn't attempt a caricature of the dramatis personae; though there are obscure clues in the 1940 version, such as HEGEL on the book in the bottom right hand corner (he was, allegedly, the philosopher of totalitarianism). No; these contorted chess players have a more general resonance, though not, I think, as a representation of evil (as suggested by David Fraser Jenkins in 1985, in the Tate exhibition catalogue of Evans' political paintings) for that would be reading too much in retrospect. Rather, armed with the date of the original, we see Evans' flayed and flailing figures (rendered in a now-dated manner of sinewy surrealism) in an orgy of exultation as they grab the spoils of their conspiracy. It is an enduring indictment of cynical superpower self-interest: chess as Realpolitik; not, Mr Jenkins, as Satanic ritual.
Evans’ socialism grew from his childhood in the slums of Glasgow, leavened perhaps from lodging, when a student at the Royal College of Art, for a few years in the 1930s among the comfortable middle class Victorian terraces of Streatham (which tasty titbit of local history endears him forever to this contributor to the Streatham and Brixton Chess Club blog). He was a student, teacher and practitioner of his art, and would maybe have known, therefore, about a worthy antecedent of his image. As ejh pointed out to me, there is a more than passing resemblance to Gillray’s 1805 lampoon The Plum Pudding In Danger...
...in which William Pitt and Napoleon carve up the sea and land as their choice slices of the global sphere of interest; plum pickings all-round. Now this is caricature, good and proper, and no mistaking the target; and as a comic device Boney's manic eye still stares with Messianic vision, but these days from Steve Bell's Tony Blair [who also parodied Gillay - ejh].
Plum confections were served up again in 1872 by Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel (Chess in Art XVIII), this time as cake...
...though in the looking glass world Alice had to "hand it round first, and cut it afterwards". More caricatures, Disraeli and Gladstone this time, but the same motif as in Gillray and Evans: two rivals divvying up the scoff, which is just meat and drink to the political artist.
The Political Paintings of Merlyn Evans 1930-1950. The Tate Gallery, 1985.
[Chess in Art index]