First let's go to one of our favourite public galleries, Tate Britain, which excels with three concurrent and absorbing exhibitions, two of which feature visitors to these shores. Picasso & Modern British Art demonstrates how, on his many trips to England, the great style-vaulting iconoclast influenced so many local artists; right up to and including David Hockney, who, following his recent Royal Academy blockbuster show has been elevated to the status of National Treasure. But, alas, there’s no chess here, even though Picasso did a chess painting in 1911 in his cubist phase. Dommage, but we’ll look at Les Échecs another time.
There’s no chess either in the psychogeographic collation, Patrick Keiller's The Robinson Institute installed with droll humour in the Duveen Gallery upstairs. There you may undertake your very own Debordian dérive, if you will. Self must be disengaged so that you may ruminate, dream-like, on the exhibits selected, cross-referenced and annotated by Keiller’s alter-ego, Robinson. Cruise so, in your reverie, and you'll eventually discover yourself again at Migrations, an exhibition that features work by artists who have found their way to our shores over the past four or five hundred years.
From the four corners they came to this green and pleasant land, and for all manner of reasons: patronage, fortune, asylum, study, survival, and occasionally to paint the scenery; and Migrations documents the consequential enrichment of this country’s culture - a by-product of our Imperialist past and post-colonial present.
The artist who produced Chessmen One (1961) is a case in point.
Chessmen One (1961)
Anwar Jalal Shemza (1929-1985)
His cultural heritage, infused with the Islamic tradition of decorative (which is not, in this context trivial, or superfluous) calligraphy, is brought to bear on an array of ornate chessmen: “pieces” mostly, with maybe one pawn. They have a rhythmic and cumulative quality, as if the artist is exploring, register by register, musical chords, pushing to see how far he can press before complexity drowns out clarity.
Unfortunately, no other works from Shemza’s Chessmen series seem to be available on-line, but this work from 1959 looks like a precursor, starting with the white pieces on the black notes.
An essay (linked here) by Iftikhar Dadi (to which my comments on Shemza's biography are indebted), explores the term “calligraphic abstraction” applied to Shemza's style, and explains that in the late 50s he studied, and was influenced by, the work of Paul Klee; which connection provides a more substantial justification for this Postscript than we were able to offer at the top of this blog, namely that two Chess in Art works by Klee were featured in number XIV in ejh's series. They are worth looking at again and comparing with Anwar Jalal Shemza’s work. We have in fact reprised them before, and here is one of them again, waltzing before our eyes:
More than one chess set, in fact. This is Josef Hartwig’s 1922 creation – on show at the Barbican - though we are almost over-familiar with it by now.
It's easy to see that the design of each piece embodies its move. This early version does so with squat economy, all the more to facilitate convenient storage. A later edition, below, asserts its functional form with sturdy hauteur – it stands proud, on a sympathetically crafted inlaid wooden board.
Bauhaus-Schachspiel (Modell XVI), 1924
As photography is verboten at the Barbican I found the picture above on the web. It looks the same as the set in the exhibition, although it appears to be labelled slightly differently. In truth the Bauhaus chess set has gone through many variations, both at the time, and subsequently in what should more accurately be called "Bauhaus-style" - enough to alert Trading Standards I'd have thought. In a way it's a tribute to the design's success: its Euclidean rigour makes it eternal, if rather straightforward to imitate. The version above, an original, looks simply beautiful and, compared with those fiddly Stauntons must be so much easier to clean.Acknowledgments.
The Green Cardamom Gallery seems to be A. J. Shemza's principal representative.
Pic of Hartwig 1922 chess set comes from here
Pic of Bauhaus Modell XVI 1924 comes from here
Chess in Art Index