Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chess in Art Postscript: Themes Like Today Already

This post continues the examination of Yves Marek's book Art échecs et mat (2008) begun last week. We have now got to those themes with a more contemporary genesis and resonance. As last time, as we go along we will cross-reference some of ejh's Chess in Art sequence of 2008, while adding a few (quite a few) observations of our own.

But first let's meet the man himself on YouTube, in an interview with the French online chess magazine Chess and Strategy in 2009. 

Although it is in French, and there is considerable background hubbub, you can get the gist of it. For example he talks about learning chess from his father, and playing it competitively, in Tunisia (where he was sometime co-national champion) at around 0.25; then at 1.11 he mentions Tal with whom he drew in a simul - at which the interviewer sounds both surprised and impressed; at 3.38 Marek mentions Kramnik coming to play at the Sénat, and goes on to refer to Bacrot, Fressinet and Shirov; and at 4.15 the interviewer says "vous avez écrit un super livre" as the front cover appears top right.

(This clip may not show. If not go ) 

M. Marek seems to be saying that in art publishing there have only been chess-art books about the design of chess sets, with precious little about the different ways in which artists have represented the game itself (an omission his book remedies superbly). At 5.01 he mentions "des thématiques" and we're into a brief résumé; at 5.07 we hear "l'Orient et lascivité" (see last week), and he outlines his major proposition, viz that the themes in chess art adapt according to "différentes périodes". This he demonstrates, at 5.19, by helpfully unpacking the theme of "Érotisme", and by coincidence that is where we were going next in our discussion of his book.

In the 18/19th centuries (which is where he starts in the interview, though the book traces the theme further back) the erotic charge - chastely expressed by the standards of today - typically came from the flirtatious play of a young woman and her suitor (either or both possibly in the plural). Flagg (p.65, below left, also commented on here; he was American, but also painted in London) is one among many, and exemplifies Marek's further point that it is often the artful young woman who has the upper hand in the chess and is thus cast in the role of femme fatale - a little frisson for the Victorian male. To show, as Flagg does, two young women in thrall to a young man would, one supposes, have set the pulse racing en plus. Clark's cheeky piece from 1860 (CiA XX, not in the book) is yet more of a tease: a single unchaperoned demoiselle in the company of two chaps; the younger one stealing a clandestine press against her person; she, not as innocent as she would have us believe, more than likely complicit in the manoeuvre.   

Come the 20th century and not only do we have explicit frankness and nudity (usually female) but, as in Kirchner (p. 68, below centre, also here), women are now side-lined by souped-up chess-males hogging the limelight. This encodes the all-consuming psycho-sexual drama of the era, the Oedipal conflict, as diagnosed by Dr. Freud and expressed in quasi-chessic terms as kill the all-powerful King and possess his Queen, visited upon the hapless male of the species. Marek points out, though, that this doesn't quite fit chess where the Queen is the strongest piece and the game is about hunting down the King; and he, the King, is ranked as the weaker sex in this domain.

Duchamp got in on the act by displaying himself as the masterful hero-chesser in his all too familiar face off with the naked Eve Babitz (pp.74 & 75, see it here) in 1963. We could add that it is confirmation of Marek's point about changing times that now, 50 years later, we see this as tasteless, even if the "liberated" Ms Babitz (herself an artist) was a willing party to those art-shoot shenanigans. A 20 year-old naked female vis a vis 75 year-old male in full chess fatigues reads as pretty tacky, even if Duchamp enjoyed (as it is said) his moment (as he almost certainly did), and even if it was (as claimed by one art institution, for better or for worse) "among the key documentary images of American modern art". The boot is on the other foot in Jennifer Shahade's role reversal (below right) which, without any such fanfare, implicitly asks how Marcel, with his kit on, could have let himself be such a dick. Perhaps I should add here an all-embracing "IMHO". 

l to r: The Chess Players (1836) George Flagg [New York Historical Society]; Erich Heckel and Otto Meuller Play Chess (1913) [Brucke Museum]; Naked Chess (2009) [With thanks to Jennifer Shahade].

"Abîmes" - the next theme/chapter - was rendered by Susan Polgar as "depth of calculation" which, while getting Marek's drift, is maybe a touch too literal - simply "The Depths" would do. This might also be more subtle, retaining its chessic allusion, than my melodramatic "The Abyss" (as in this post of 2009 soon after M. Marek's book was published). Anyway, you get the picture; and if not, a change of metaphor may do it: in the swamp of complexity you can easily go under - in life as in chess. Marek pinpoints Daumier's picture of the 1860s (p.80 and below left, also CiA XX) as the first to depict the game as psychological drama which hints (warning: metaphor revert) at the vertigo on the edge of the bottomless pit of possibilities.

But it was in the 20th century, with the advent of machines and computers that the genie escaped the bottle - precipitating a panic attack à la existentialisme, with madness but a step away. Dossi (p85, and below middle), who we have shown before (e.g. here), is the example given by Marek of chess-art trying to map the labyrinth; and he gives (p.91, and below right) the, now haunting, photograph of a fixated Bobby Fischer as a reminder (to me anyway) of the consequences of losing one's way therein. A reminder, too, that a fall into the abyss may, sadly, also be a fall from grace.
l to r. Les jouers d'échecs (1863-67), Honoré Daumier,  [Musée du Petit Palais, Paris] from here; Kasparov - Karpov,  Leningrad 1986, Ugo Dossi, from here; Bobby Fischer (1967), Photo originally by Phillipe Halsman, from here
But we are not done yet with the gothick horrors as in the next Chapter "Mat" Marek dwells on mate and death, and their chessic equivalence and interconnectedness. There are a number of sub-plots to untangle here, starting with Marek's quote from the author Friedrich Dürrenmat likening the human condition to suffering as if pieces on a chessboard in some kind of meta-game toyed with by ineffable powers.  M. Marek uses the word "anthropomorphism" in this context, which puts me in mind of the work of Samuel Bak (see this post) who turns all this on its head and has the chess pieces act out, as if they were human, an apocalyptic drama (below left). Strangely, Bak doesn't feature in Marek's discussion.

And there is more mortification yet, with its chessic associations and its metaphoricking. The Egyptian Pharaohs had a game installed in their tombs to pass the time before their trip to the other side (as Marek shows us on p.102). There is the game with Mephistopheles, undertaken in the foreknowledge of the result but as a way of "playing for time" to delay the inevitable (The Seventh Seal scenario; p. 109 and below middle). Then there is the obsessional condition in which chess takes over a human mind so that reality and the game are indistinguishable: self-defenestration is the only escape - out of the window into the abyss (yes, down there again) and...onto the pavement slabs below, squared "clairs et sombres" like a chess board (the Luzhin Defence scenario, according to Marek, p.105). By the way, you'll have noticed above that M. Marek has spread the reach of his analysis to include film - admissible, as the French consider it to be the seventh art.

Because we are dealing here with the play of allusion in the chess/life/death theme, the Irving picture (below right), where the unlucky loser is skewered by the winner (or the other way round), is too obvious by half, doesn't cut the metaphorical mustard, and isn't in the book. I suppose ejh's princely clones (CiA III) fail on the same count. They had been fiddling with their game while their fate was sealed elsewhere, but the chess (an endgame, obviously) had a bit-part only, and was not the principal in the death row drama. 
l to r:  Second Revolution in the Middle Game (1998), Samuel Bak [Pucker Gallery via here]. The Seventh Seal (1957) [Scene from the film by Ingmar Bergman]. Photogravure of The End of the Game (1872) J. B. Irving.  
Anyway, I think that's quite enough thanatos to be getting on with. Next week we will round off Marek's themes and I'll offer some of my own.                        

Yves Marek (2008), Art échecs et mat. Imprimerie national Éditions, Paris.
Chess in Art Index  

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