Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chess in Art Postscript: Themes Likely

We have been leafing through Yves Marek's splendid survey of chess-art Art échecs et mat (2008), taking his themes one by one. In the first post, Themes Like Only Yesterday, we looked at Orient, Rois de jeux/jeu des rois, Renaissance, and Divertissement. Then, in Themes Like Today Already, we picked over Érotisme, Abîmes, and Mat. This week we continue in contemporary vein with Géométries, and then after a brief dip into Le moment Duchamp, and L'art est jeu, we go on to suggest a couple of modern-day chess-art themes of our own.

But before we begin, let's catch M. Marek at it back in 2003 at a chess event at the Sénat, which he helped organise when he was there as a cultural advisor on artistic matters. The shots below were of him in the adjacent Jardin du Luxembourg, where the locals jouent aux échecs from dawn to dusk and whatever the weather. Bravo, mes amis!

At the Grand Prix de Sénat TV Mag Rapid tournament in Paris September 5th-6th 2003.
pics from chessbase news 
Back to the book and Géométries: after a brief reference to works from the 20th Century, where the subject is the chessboard shown as something upon which you simply play chess, the theme moves on to a different plane viz. last century's advent of modern art, of abstraction, of new ways of making and constructing art that took the geometry of the chess board as an object in itself (p.113). We are talking, to begin with anyway, about the bare black and white quadrillage, or checked pattern, which turns up in Kandinsky, is stripped down to next to nothing in Malevich's Black Square (which must have been chess-art because...Black is OK!), and runs riot in certain Op-art works of Vaserely and Vieira da Silva (below extreme left).

"Op". Oops. We have just lapsed into the language of the "isms", in spite of our best efforts in this mini-series not to. So we might as well go with the flow and follow Yves Marek when he mentions "cubism" - which very name conjures up the squared rectilinearity of the chess board. Personally I've find the hermetic reconfigurations of the early cubist works (the so-called "analytical cubism") fascinating and obscure in equal measure. Along with the usual fractured bottles, deconstructed musical instruments and the like there are, in a handful of cubist works, some chess boards, and bits and pieces, and Marek shows a couple (p. 120). Of the cubist coterie, Juan Gris (p. 121, and below middle left) is maybe more accessible, and is even decoratively easy on the eye. Though whether that's a chess board or draughts board has art commentators scratching their heads.

However, it is less the geometry of the board than of the game that really interests us chessers, and Klee's work (ejh XIV and below middle right) marries a one-two-three riff play on the quadrillage of the board to a hint at the knight's move as the three pieces perform not a quadrille or square dance but a stately foxtrot. That's three steps in the direction of the game-based geometrical complexity depicted by Ugo Dossi (pp 128 & 129, and btw discussed at length with Kramnik here) who Marek showed earlier in Abîmes - and there's also now our own chess-artist Nette Robinson, of course (extreme right).

l to r: O jugo de xadrez (1943),  Maria-Elena Viera da Silva [Centre Georges-Pompidou];  Le damier (?1917) Juan Gris [from here.];  Überschach (1937), Paul Klee [Kunsthaus Zürich]; Capablanca v Spielmann, New York, 1927 (2013) with thanks to © Nette Robinson   
M. Marek's next two themes are as contemporary as they could be: Le moment Duchamp, and L'art est jeu. For readers of our blog these are well-trodden paths (see for example here, here and here) and both have also had considerable exposure elsewhere, so we'll not dwell on them except to give this segue in Marek's book : Marcel Duchamp came: after him art became pure play, thus it plays with the game of chess. Having got rid of the significations and symbols from which contemporary artists liberated themselves, they found the excuse for infinite ludic variety. (p. 151).

The most recent sighting of the "art is play" chess-art circus was at the Saatchi gallery in London, in September 2012 (linked above, and again here). However, Marek casts his net wider than the RS&A project (endlessly running?!), and the inclusion of Germaine Richier's unsettling marionette-style chess set - though more Punch than Judy - pleases me no end, even if she antedated the "art is play" fashion by half a century and is rather more of the "art is deadly serious" tendency (there are currently three of her works on show at Tate Modern, though sadly not her chess set).

So, are there any other themes that we could add to Yves Marek's collection bearing in mind what we said in the first post: that the themes are chess-centred, either hard (i.e. aspects of the game itself) or soft (why, when and by whom it is played), and that a style of chess-art is often a special case of an "ism" in art more generally - as we have occasionally noted.

One development that we can make out, indeed these days is unavoidable, is the computer. It was mentioned in passing by M. Marek when talking about complexity, but we can take a bit further, and in another direction. Its historical antecedents go back to the chess-playing automata of the late 18th and 19th centuries (below left) when the notion of chess without human agency was admittedly more figment than fact, and there was a real ghost in the machine pulling the strings. But subsequently they really were able to do it for themselves and the second half of the twentieth century saw the first fumbles by chess computers. In the art-world there also appeared such electronic embellishments on the game as the Lowell Cross chess/music generator (seen here) and - a more recent example - Barbara Kruger's (p.174 and below middle) conversational chess installation (the latter shown at the Saatchi alongside Gavin Turk's Turk both blogged here).

But of course le moment Deep Blue was the watershed, and the computer is now supreme, so Jacek Palucha's demolition job by human hand (below right) is but a wistful cri de cœur for a lost past. You don't even need a set these days (or a person opposite), just a screen will do, and for many chessers the internet subs as their opponent of choice. Let's call this theme The March of the Machine.

l to r: Illustration used by Gümpel in "Mephisto. Exhibited at the International Theatre Exposition Universell, Paris 1889" (thanks to Batgirl); Untitled ("Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?") (2008) Barbara Kruger. [RS&A] (pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr); Checkmate for a Robot ( 2005) Jacek Palucha (from here)
Is this chess-by-chip mirrored in art itself? Do we see the artist also upstaged by the understudy? Actually we saw a couple of examples of art-by-algorithm as applied to chess-art here, on this blog, last summer. Martin Abrams had two computers play each other and then plotted the footprint of the moves square by square (below left). Tom Hackney, whose work we have looked at in depth, is having his very own grand moment Duchamp. Each piece takes one of Marcel's games and rigorously renders the moves, in black or white, one on top of another, layer by layer, onto the 8x8 grid (below right). You see the final state as a binary mosaic, with the underlay of earlier moves just faintly visible as they overlap. Tom's self-inflicted project is to do all Marcel's games - 27 down, God knows how many to go; if only Tom could get himself a decent humanoid to do the drudgery. His is not art designed by computer, and nor is Martin's, but in the process of making the image human agency is essentially, virtually, redundant.

Left. Chess Computer Program Playing Itself  (2012) Martin Abrams ©;
Right. Chess Painting No. 27 (Gudmundsson vs. Duchamp, Hamburg, 1930) [1-0 in 68] (2013) Tom Hackney © 
Another, altogether more tenuous, trend that might qualify as a chess-art theme is the depiction (perhaps "documentation" is a better word) of the globalisation of the game: a phenomenon of the modern epoch without doubt, even though its diffusion along a narrow corridor had been going on from time immemorial as Marek's Orient demonstrated. He tracked the ancient progress of the game westwards to Europe, but the phenomenon registered by the Globalisation theme is that of the subsequent outward (or even backwards) spread of the game, carried by European adventurers, empire builders, missionaries and perhaps convicts.

Chess historian Olimpiu Urcan (2007) gives a case study of the arrival and development of chess in Singapore and its region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to British and Dutch colonialism, and footnotes an a propos comment that little research has been done on the rise of "chess communities outside the traditional core of what generally is regarded as 'chess civilisation': Europe and the North American continent". With the broadest brush, and unless I've mangled the history : European invasion, commerce, settlement and/or administration took chess out around the globe, to be consolidated - and the geographical gaps in-filled - during the 20th century (especially post WW2) as chess became a universal game with FIDE consecrating this at institutional level.

Back now to Europe where M. Marek plotted the historical percolation of chess vertically through society - from the court, down through the nobility and the professional classes to the street. It may not be mass participation today, but it is pretty much classless. And we can add that in the "traditional core" it is nowadays played by incomers and immigrants (both willing and unwilling) of all stripes. So, the other strand of the Globalisation theme is of chess played in the churn of western multiculturalism. For an example in chess-art look back at Flagg's picture of 1836 (from Marek's Érotisme) which showed a black African, or African-Caribbean, servant in the intimacy of the parlour (see it again below left). But for a real celebration of the chess in the diversity of a western city in modern times see Bill Jacklin's 1986 work below right (it's New York by the way, the melting-pot city; and Flagg was also American, though spent a few years in London - possibly in the 1830s).

Left: Chess Players (1836) George Flagg [New York Historical Society]
Right: The Chess Players (triptych) (1986) Bill Jacklin [Private Collection]
Jacklin's depiction of chess as jeu sans frontières was given by Marek in his chapter on Divertissement (p.51), and obviously his theme intertwines with Globalisation proposed here - but M. Marek looked at chess as sociable downtime whereas I'm inviting you to see it from the angle of its global spread as a kind of ludic lingua franca, especially in the late 20th century when it was driven along also by professionalisation, organised competition and national prestige.

However, it is difficult to establish whether there are many modern-day representations of the play of western chess in other artistic traditions to parallel this Globalisation of the game. Most of the material on the chess-art websites is western in origin (take for example Schacci e Arte: which is comprehensive - though unfortunately without thumbnails - and good on chess in the cinema, too, though Bill Wall's list of film titles is longer). All that I have to offer are the following examples of contemporary chess-art with a non-western origination, although even here the artists in question have, at some time or other, lived or studied in Europe. Perhaps they are straws in the wind.

A picture by Anwar Jalal Shemza (at Tate Britain now, blogged earlier here, and below left) uses the vocabulary of Islamic graphic art. It is chess-art as if in a foreign language, but even if we don't speak it we can get the gist. There is also an unexpected chess set (below right) in the "games room" of Meschac Gaba's "Museum of Contemporary African Art" installation at Tate Modern (but don't touch!). It is a papier-mâché of Euro notes (the white pieces) and dollar bills (the black), although that's an odd choice and he might have used, more pointedly, Chinese yuans to critique Sino-African neocolonial ambitions. But the context of Gaba's installation is its significance and nearby there is a traditional African counter game of skill and calculation (Avelé, a variation of Adji) which you can play; but against a computer (! - cf The March of the Machines) which trounced me, of course. 

Last summer, by the way, there was a chess-art work at the Saatchi by Korean artist Debbie Han using a chess set to make a critique of the practice in her own culture of European-look cosmetic surgery (below bottom). Maybe it is in a western style - she was educated in the USA - but it employs ancient Korean ceramic techniques that she learnt for the purpose.

Clockwise from top left: Chessmen One (1961), Anwar Jalal Shemza [Tate Gallery]; Chess set in the Games Room of The Museum of Contemporary African Art (1996-7), Meschac Gaba [on show at Tate Modern 2013]; The Battle of Conception (nd), Debbie Han.  (Gaba and Han pics by MS)

It would be, I suppose, hardly surprising if there were a dearth of chess-art in many parts of the world, given that chess may be a relative newcomer lacking the popularity of traditional games, and the associations and connotations that it has in the West. Compare it with, for example, depictions of "Go" playing in Japan. But, if the game does embed outside Europe and the USA, then local chess-art may yet develop in those parts, expressed in traditional idioms - not just as a transplant of western styles - and that could be really exciting.

So, as long as the above discussion of globalisation isn't invalidated by some kind of euro-centric mind set, then Globalisation, plus The March of the Machine gives two more themes to add to Yves Marek's dix, to make douze. And there may, of course, be others.

You can get his excellent Art échecs et mat via Amazon in France - but attention, everything except the pictures is in French.

Thanks to Jonathan B for a nudge in the direction of the Globalisation theme in a comment to this post back in 2010

Olimpiu G. Urcan. Surviving Changi. E.E.Colman: A Chess Biography (2007). Singapore Heritage Society. And see his online chess column here. For an S&BCC blog post on E. E. Colman see here.

Themes Like Only Yesterday
Themes Like Today Already

Chess in Art Index
For more chess art see also's thread.

[Coming up in London: a big Klee (Géométries) exhibition at Tate Modern in the autumn, plus Daumier (he of the Abîmes) at the Royal Academy. Will we able to tick off more real live Chess-art?]

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