Friday, June 19, 2015

Chess in Art Postscript: Flirty Glancing, Another Peep

This is the second post of two analysing that chess-in-art which employs a telling look passing between a lady and a gentleman. Last time we inspected A Game of Chess and A Hopeless Case by George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924), and pondered the relationship between the two players depicted, and the two paintings themselves. Here is an amusing, if anonymous and undated, pendant.

Playing Chess
European School
Cast your mind back to last time, and compare and contrast.

A Hopeless  Case
George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924)
Certain features are remarkably similar; even the simple fact of the placement of the lady to the right; besides  which there is exactly the same unison swing - something akin to the status of a convention in chess-art of this ilk. We'll come back to the chessic aspects of the paintings in a moment, as they are strikingly congruent, too, and are central to these works as sidelong comedies of manners.

Otherwise the most alarming correspondence, and one that suggests we have stumbled on some underlying law of human behaviour, is that in both compositions we are treated to a pretty much full-on crotch-shot (if you'll pardon the rather tasteless expression). However, this phenomenon is not, in these examples, exhibited indelicately by the lady, but by her opponent, and moreover without the least inhibition - as if this disportment is hard-wired into the male of the species. The fellow of the "European School" presents in this way as he annexes the adjacent furniture (here a real item; one is only implied in the Kilburne). Thus our fellow adorns his display in what is an especially extreme case, one that would delight any ethologist making field observations of instinct-driven mating rituals. That gape, and the extension of the left leg, make a most impressive foreplay. The lady however, just like a cany female bird of paradise, affects not to notice - which of course will only goad him into yet more flamboyant ornamentation. Next up: the park bench?

In Kilburne's picture it is the lady who sports the red accoutrement, and her discretion in the deployment of her token of passion is a model of decorum. By contrast, it must be his propensity to exhibitionism that has encouraged the chap of the "European School" to flaunt so much scarlet and to draw attention to himself thus. Some Pantaloon. If he's not careful he will frighten the horses.

The chess game, though, is where the socially-constructed action is focussed. In the two pictures the fellow is clearly discomforted both socially and chessically, and the head-in-hand signals despair as his game goes down the tubes. In each case we can see the artist making a decent fist of showing this on the board. The exponent of the European School first, and apologies for the small size...

...but as you can just see, it has come down to a straight forward ending, for which there is no need to consult the computer. The lady must be playing white and has also what is likely to be a rook. Thus her winning position fits the inter-personal narrative, though you might have expected her to collect his black pieces, rather than her white, in that convenient tray.

This is the position from A Hopeless Case...

...and small and fuzzy though it is (apologies again), you can just make out what might be a rational position in which she has a mating attack with the black pieces - indeed it may even be game over, and they could now adjourn to repair his amour-propre.

Finally a modern example of the genre (with the lady on the right again), but where the artist has contrived a ingenious way of disguising his ignorance the game.

The Greatest Game in the World – His Move  (1903)
Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) 
It is a fashionably stylish piece of turn of the century American graphic art. She, a "Gibson Girl", is no demure nor shrinking Georgian violet. Whatever the position was on the board she is feisty enough to go head to head with her squeeze to settle matters in a final face-off. Although we chessers might tut-tut at their exuberant exaggeration of the post-game niceties (usually a single handshake will suffice), polite society has no cause to be scandalized at their amorous display as, plain to see, she is not restrained by a wedding ring.

There are many other examples of flirty glancing to be discovered. They have a particular charm as we enjoy the inter-play between the games on and off the board. Even if we may lack the criteria for assessing their artistic merit, we can feel confident when awarding marks for chessic plausibility.

But finally, and to repair an omission: as this is a Chess in Art Postscript we should establish our precedent - perhaps we should have done so at the beginning - and refer back to the relevant Chess in Artwork posted by ejh in his Chess in Art series all those years ago. This is the one, not that you'd call it érotique à la Marekwhatever the language.

The Game of Chess (1670)
Cornelis de Man (1621-1701)
[Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest] 
She also is on the right. The reason, incidentally, for this deployment is in the mechanics, or so I think. A right-handed lady placed on the right, with that arm engaged, or extended, turns wily-nily to her left, and obligingly discloses herself to you the viewer, even if ever so slightly. This subtle exposure may be seen at work in the Kilburne and the European job. In de Man she has a bit more swiveling to do to catch up with the other ladies, but if she tried it from the left she would suffer a dislocation.

There are, however, some more obvious contrasts between the loveless de Man and the other examples discussed in these two posts wherein amour may be seen to be burgeoning. Firstly, here, there appears to be no love lost between anyone bar the enraptured cat. Secondly, and maybe consequentially, notice that although the lady is flirty glancing, she is catching no one's eye but yours.

With particular thanks to this excellent chess in art site
Chess in Art Index


David Roberts said...

Hi Martin, I really enjoy these iconographical investigations. I have a feeling, though, that with this latest one the amorous connotation is pretty small. I wish we knew more about the where, when and who of the picture, because various details depicted look very specific as to time, place and social niche. Anyway, here's my reading. I rather think the male figure is wearing uniform. Is he a hussar? That cap looks military, and so do the scarlet trousers. And is that a black dolman he's wearing? However, the white jacket going over the top of it doesn't belong. The foot raised on a cushion looks swollen. So in sum he looks like a rider (maybe a soldier, but anyway someone who takes riding seriously) who's had a fall, busted his leg, and can't go out to do the only thing that much matters to him. While others can trot off into the distance to have a nice horsey day, he has to stay at home to recuperate, protected from draughts by the jacket and screen, and occupy his time by playing chess with his daughter. (He looks a good deal older than her.) And he's even making a hash of that, because now he's losing to a girl. Hence his completely cobbed-off air.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks David for taking the trouble to comment, and for your thoughts: even if you have, ever so gently, put the boot in (as one might say) to my fanciful reading of the pic. I had thought, myself, that his foot looked rather too large, even allowing for perspective; and some kind of military convalescence is entirely plausible, as you propose.
All antidotes to my excesses of interpretation gratefully received!