Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chess in Art postscript : Game On

Guest post by Martin Smith

The Chess in Art series showed twenty-four or so games, but in only a miserly two was the action on the board both reasonably legible and half-way plausible: Jonson v Shakespeare (Chess in Art XVI) and Gardel v Holmes (Chess in Art XX) both of which have been discussed in Chess in Art collected.

So the balance between Chess and Art has been weighted heavily towards Art. To tilt it back towards Chess what better than some works showing games only; ones that have actually been played, by real people, using proper pieces, with the board the right way round. Surprisingly, a number of artists have made this apparently unrewarding subject their particular métier; which brings us, d'abord, to contemporary French artist Dominique Digeon, and others will follow.

When you first look at these Games of Chess in Art turn off the chess-chip in your brain and see them as works of art pure and simple. Non! Ceci n'est pas un échiquier. It's a composition; an arrangement of elements, with its own meaning attached; an art-work. Let it speak as art. Deal with it on its terms. Then, when you succumb to your craving, and see things in black and white, you may have your chess buzz.

In this work of Digeon's (the title will come later) there's a tiled background decorated with floral emblems sporting white or black centres. Tendrils or vines wriggle and snake across what could now be a trellis, wrestling for a place in the sun, or slinking low to hide from it. They twine into ropes and knots, making a dense thicket in the top right hand sector. It's a lush image of serpentine energy; in a gallery you would stop and look. Mon Dieu! It is Art Nouveau with a Growmore overdose. Horticultural Rococo.

Could it also be a handy journey-planner?

London Underground map 1926
(Note: Brixton didn't get on the map until 1974)

Looking again you can see the lines/vines as the pieces tracking over the board: a Lopez bishop on a familiar odyssey; the a1 rook threading its way along the third rank to g3 (a District line manoeuvre); and there's another Spanish career - the g1 knight to f3, h2, g4, h6 and f5. You can immediately see a lot of the moves, even more when you know it is game 20 of the Kasparov-Karpov World Championship Match, New York/Lyon, 1990. It is a Spanish Zaitsev and a no holds barred pitched battle, which Gazza won with a furious king’s side attack. For Karpov things fell apart, his centre could not hold. Play through the game (it's at the end), check it against the art-work, and see how faithfully the artist has rendered the moves, nearly all of them, into the one image.

Maybe the visual analogy with the Underground map is superficial. The game-picture is not a static snapshot. Even an unchessical viewer armed with the title "Kasparov-Karpov" would see it as more than a mere diagram or map, and as an expressive depiction of the action in a game – though without a chess-chip they wouldn't understand what this particular one is all about.

Dominique Digeon has produced more chess/art works in this manner, and in radically different styles. He obviously knows his chess, and takes his art seriously. Another Frenchman, rather more well-known, was chess master and artistic colossus Marcel Duchamp, who asserted pithily that, while not all artists are chess players, all chess players are artists. Would he have thought, then, that it is chess playing artists who produce the best Chess in Art works? And what would he have made of Dominique Digeon's échecs fleuris?

More moves, and more about the riddle of Duchamp, after an adjournment.


The Chess-Theory Virtual Art Museum: Dominqiue Digeon

Clive Billson: A History of the London Tube Maps

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


Jonathan B said...

That's one of my favourite games.

I spent the best part of a decade waiting to play 17. ... f5 (or indeed 17. ... c4) against somebody. Never got past 12. ... Bf8 in a serious game. I did play 17. ... f5 in a blitz game in a bar in brussels once. I got smashed. (in both senses)

PS: I really like the anatomically correct underground map.

ejh said...

Incidentally it's off-topic, but today's Wikipedia "featured article" is this.

Morgan Daniels said...

Martin, you're brilliant.

Martin S. said...

Blimey. Thanks, Morgan. That earns you a pint, even though it's way over the top.

Jonathan. You should stop playing ....f5; whether as way to start the game, or end it.

Tom Chivers said...

You played 17...f5 v me at my old place in north London!

Jonathan B said...

Really T.C.?

Well if so that's long after I gave the line up in serious play.

Once again I have to say, though, that your claim to have a poor memory seems a little doubtful.

Tom Chivers said...

I have a good memory of that variation, because Kasparov - Karpov 1990 was the first proper chess event I followed! The sequence is burned into my memory as vividly as, say, Morphy v the Duke & the Count.

Btw Martin, I think you're twice as brilliant as Morgan does. (Is that worth two pints?)