Saturday, December 14, 2013

Chess in Art Postscript: Don't

Last week, in Now You See It, Now You we failed to find Daumier's Chess Players at the RA's current exhibition of his work. This week we go to elsewhere to see what other chess paintings we don't find.

But first another of Nette Robinson's in yer face-offs.

© Nette Robinson
Unlike Magnus last time, Nakamura stares back. It is a nice example of you see what you don't get - he has fixed you with his bead, you just know it - even though he has put up the shutters on his peepers. You sit there behind the white pieces as they break through the picture frame and you might just catch your reflection.  

There is a stunning art-historical antecedent to this spectacle. I don't mean Easy Rider Peter Fonda, but Dame Elisabeth Frink's Goggle Man goon of 1969.

From here
Frink (1930-1993) got the idea from newspaper photos of the Moroccan Interior Minister, and all round charmer, the notorious General Mohammed Oufkir: definitely someone else you wouldn't want to meet over the chess board, especially if he treated you the same as his unfortunate political opponents (though he got his comeuppance, I'm pleased to say). Naka is obviously a much nicer chap than that - in spite of what he'd like do to you with his pieces.

But we digress. We're off to Tate Modern in search of the two Paul Klee (1879-1940) chess paintings that ejh show-cased in Chess in Art XIV. They have an exhibition Paul Klee: Making Visible. Will it live up to its billing chess-painting-wise? Will it be making visible his chess?

No. Unfortunately.

Here's what you won't see, as you may in CiA XIV.
Schachbrett (1931)  i.e Chess board                                       Überschach (1937) [Kunsthaus Zürich] i.e. Super chess
Nevertheless, it is a very fine exhibition that does full justice to an engrossing artist and his fertile mind. It is one of those exhibitions where you can see a great intelligence at work, exploring and mining ideas, developing themes and theories, painting not with his hand, nor even his eye, but with his brain; and thereby enriching our lives. He raises a smile here and there as well. It is incomprehensible that the Nazis could have considered him (or indeed anyone) a "degenerate" artist for their detestable Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937 - happily Klee had already left Germany in 1933 for Switzerland, which is where he spent the final years of his life.

Klee visible at Tate Modern maybe; but chess invisible. However, as with the Daumier last week, there are some other works on show that illuminate the absent chess paintings - the object of our interest today. Let's start with Schachbrett of 1931 (left above) from his "pointillist" period, and look at a couple of related works from the exhibition.    
Hovering (1930) [Zentrum Paul Klee] from here                                        Clarification (1932) [MOMA] from here
In Hovering on the left Klee has joined the dots of the disjointed rectangles in an Escher-like impossible object - inspired apparently from box-kites he'd seen (love that up and away arrow, a typical Klee device - a symbol dropping in from a parallel discourse). He moved on to explore many different configurations and inter-relations of line, ground, and spots - sometimes bounded, sometimes free-form, or colour-contrasted (or not), etc. One example is "Clarification" (right) which seems to celebrate the successful union of boundary and content. The griddy lines and the tinted points (grounded, lighter or darker, like field patterns) chug past each other as if speed-dating. There's a warm glow in the centre where, as if pre-destined, the perfect match is made - and at this ectasy of fulfillment the green moon sign tips a knowing wink.

In his chess picture Shachbrett he had imposed a stricter discipline; it was not about happy accidents. The dots line up in an 8x8 four-square grid, which the vertical lines (incisions maybe?) do their best to ignore other than by adopting the same north-south orientation. They have their own logic in their spacing and extension - as we discovered five years ago with the help of an analysis by Italian mathematician Roberto Giunti. He revealed that they obey an obscure and complicated perspectival rationale. It looks like they are supported in this by the three sides of a receding shadow box, which, on closer inspection, maybe an echo of those demented kites in Hovering.

The idea of several voices orchestrated together - a musical analogy - is explicit in Polyphony a glorious crescendo in Klee's pointillist period - though don't trust the brash colour in this reproduction from Wiki Commons (they had it upside down as well). By Klee's standards this is quite big at 66.5 cms by 106 cms.
Polyphony (1932) [Kunstmuseum Basel] from here (orientation corrected)
The chords, the counterpoint, the interplay of pitch are all there to be seen, but not heard, in a mellifluous visual chorale. It actually looks (vaguely) like a landscape: green hills, blue sky (muted in the original). But if you are a looking for a dotted crotchet, or a jazzy waltz then Übershach (back up, on the right; or below) could be your thing. To see Klee get on down and shake his booty check out this combo where he makes his moves in waltz time. Hit me. Hit me. Hit me with your rhythm brush.

Rhythmical (1930) not in show. From here; Factory Town (1933) [Private Collection] From here; Uberschach (1937).
As you go round the exhibition you may get interested in the titles Klee gave his paintings. Some are didactic (he taught at the Bauhaus) and no nonsense, for example Schachbrett, which seems to say "Chess board. Scratched surface. Get under it." Nor do Übershach, Clarification, and Polyphony hang about waiting for you to catch up: they are all matter of fact and to the point. But some titles are as whimsical and as discursive as their paintings. They might provoke a chuckle even if you couldn't see the picture. Let's see: The Twittering Machine (my favourite); Analysis of Diverse Perversities (might turn you on); They're Biting (not midges; fish). Ha, ha! - it's the way he paints them. For all his ruminative cogitation, Klee seemed not to have taken himself too seriously.  

So, to conclude this two part sequence: we have looked at two exhibitions that tantalised us with the promise of some Chess in Art, but which - on that score - disappointed; though only on that score. But, hey, Tate Britain has just unveiled its new refurb and, as we have reported before, they have two chess pics on show. See here and here.

More postscripts whenever more chess-art is made visible.

Chess in Art Postscript: Now You See It, Now You
Chess in Art Index

No comments: