Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Chess in Art postscript : My Fair Ladies

Guest post by Martin Smith

The Chess in Art series was a creature of its time, so we shouldn't be surprised if it dealt a poor hand to they whom some refer patronisingly as the fairer sex (note "patronisingly" – even our language is masculinised). There was only one female artist, Sofonisba Anguissola, (Chess in Art X) in the whole series, unless "Anon" of Chess in Art VIII link was also, but in the patriarchal structure of society in 15th Century Iran, surely it is unlikely that a woman would have been trusted with something as dangerous as a paint brush. The same goes for the players. If we pre-empt charges of child exploitation, and leave Alice (Chess in Art XVIII) and other minors out of the reckoning, then you could count the ladies on the fingers of less that one hand. Though, to be fair, there is one winning a game in Cornelis de Man's masterpiece (there we go again...); see Chess in Art IX.

Sofonisba Anguissola and her chess playing sisters remind us of Lazlo Polgar and the product of his pedagogic experiment: his daughters Susan, Sofia and Judit (see Chess in Art Collected). Not only is Sofia a Woman Grandmaster (...and again...) but she is also an artist and so gets special mention here.

Sofia Polgar

I suppose one risks a charge of lèse-majesté if one dares to wonder about the wisdom of inflicting a chess-rich diet on one's children. But my, fair ladies, you seem to have emerged as regular people! We rejoice that one of you can also wield a paint brush with flair and a distinctly feminine sensibility, as witness the above.

Sofia Polgar is a modern example of the female chessplaying artist. We have to go back to the first half of the last century for another, Rose Sélavy, a largely forgotten name, who came to prominence between the wars in France and America.

Rose Sélavy
Photo by Man Ray 1921

Her chess prowess is demonstrated a 1929 miniature against blindfold maestro Koltanowski, who for the occasion paid his adversary due respect and looked. Not that it helped much in the game as he was routed with white in just 15 moves, but the better, one suspects, to ogle his beguiling opponent between moves. In those patriarchal times she wasn’t afraid to flaunt her femininity, when necessary, to gain advantage. The visible/invisible polarity is, in a way, eerily reminiscent of her major opus of 1923, which we discuss, eventually, below.

Rose Sélavy in 1929

She was also given to thirties demi-monde-style cross-dressing, perhaps to intimidate opponents of a nervous disposition. But a role model, such as the diminutive Vera Menchick, might have encouraged her, in the male dominated world of chess, to nail her female colours to the mast, rather than sail under a flag of convenience, so to speak. But alas no, and in the chess, as in the art world, her male nom de guerre, Marcel Duchamp, by which she may be better known, definitely opened doors for a fair wind to blow her through

This early work of 1910 shows how she was exploring issues of gender and role, using chess as the mise en scène.

Partie d'echecs

The female figures wait patiently, and step visually aside to give their male alter egos the viewer's attention as the focus of the composition. The men's gazes are reciprocal and reinforcing, they share each other's world. The women look elsewhere, at nothing in particular; they are dislocated and alone. Even their tea has gone cold. The grass arena has been organised around a polarity of male/female domains, in a way eerily prescient of her major opus of 1923. The locus of power in the picture is more or less unambiguous. To get a decent game of chess, better be a man.

Sélavy's major work, which confirmed her development into conceptual abstraction from her realist post-impressionism of 1910, was evocatively, pregnantly, and perhaps, or perhaps not, autobiographically titled "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Batchelors, Even". It was declared "definitively unfinished" in 1923, after an incubation of eight years.

The Bride Stripped Bare
by Her Batchelors, Even

"The Bride..." is constructed on glass panels and stands nine feet tall and six feet wide, so Salévy is obviously trying to say something big. It is divided into two domains: the bride's above; the bachelors below; in a way eerily reminiscent... etc etc. The work comes with copious explanatory notes by its creator, (dis)organised in loose leaf form so they may be tossed in the air, carried on the fair wind now blowing, and read in the order in which they choose to fall.

Like the artist herself, the work is usually known by another name, "The Large Glass", possibly a reference to a favoured form of relaxation. Rrose Salévy (to give her preferred spelling) also coined for herself another "nom de pinceau", female this time, Belle Haleine, which translates as Beautiful Breath. This must be another tipple reference.

But my favourite is Avril Duper.

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]


Richard James said...


A quick check on the calendar and google search reveals that Rrose Sélavy was a pseudonym of Marcel Duchamp. (I guess I should really have known this anyway.)

Avril Duper indeed. Don't you mean Poisson d'Avril?

Martin Smith said...

"Poisson d'Avril" as a pseudonym?
I don't think so.
"Red Herring"?

Jonathan B said...

Guardian's effort today was rather lame I thought.

Polly said...

LOL! I must say you had me going there, but then I checked the date on the post. I suspected something was amiss, especially as I was looking through various blogs to come up with my April Fools post for 2009.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Good work. You actually had me thinking: "Marcel Duchamp was a woman? Best kept secret of all time!"