Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chess in Art postscript : Evans' Gambit

Guest post by Martin Smith

You'll remember, for who could forget, the massed ranks of "The Chess Players" that signed off ejh's Chess in Art series (Chess in Art XX). Of the thirty or so players, kibitzers, and random revellers that Justin assembled for us in his farewell gallery of six pictures, two stand out. They appear in Merlyn Evans' febrile, searing image

Encouraged by its date of 1951 I inflicted the hyper-hyphenated description "angst-ridden-cold-war cadavers" on his tortured protagonists (see Chess in Art Collected), because it looks, doesn't it, so much a picture of its time: that anxiety-plagued post-war era. They wrangle at the board as if the world could end any moment in a nuclear cloud of mutual assured destruction; and their game with it. They, and humankind, are in the ultimate time trouble: zeitnot was the zeitgeist.

Except that it isn't, or rather, wasn’t. What you have before you is the artist's later version (with some small details missing), as a print, of a painting created over ten years earlier in 1940. The image was therefore not inspired by the Cold War, which hadn’t yet been invented. What a difference a date makes.

Some fortuitous research has unearthed that Evans' inspiration (though that makes it sound more uplifting than one would wish) for his original picture was the notorious 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact by which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to lay off each other so as to gobble up such small fry of Europe as took their respective fancies – mutually assured annexation, in fact. Evans, a man of the left carrying no party card, railed against this apparent betrayal of the little guys in his violent pictorial denunciation.

In reality it is impossible to read these historical specifics from the picture, and Evans doesn't attempt a caricature of the dramatis personae; though there are obscure clues in the 1940 version, such as HEGEL on the book in the bottom right hand corner (he was, allegedly, the philosopher of totalitarianism). No; these contorted chess players have a more general resonance, though not, I think, as a representation of evil (as suggested by David Fraser Jenkins in 1985, in the Tate exhibition catalogue of Evans' political paintings) for that would be reading too much in retrospect. Rather, armed with the date of the original, we see Evans' flayed and flailing figures (rendered in a now-dated manner of sinewy surrealism) in an orgy of exultation as they grab the spoils of their conspiracy. It is an enduring indictment of cynical superpower self-interest: chess as Realpolitik; not, Mr Jenkins, as Satanic ritual.

Evans’ socialism grew from his childhood in the slums of Glasgow, leavened perhaps from lodging, when a student at the Royal College of Art, for a few years in the 1930s among the comfortable middle class Victorian terraces of Streatham (which tasty titbit of local history endears him forever to this contributor to the Streatham and Brixton Chess Club blog). He was a student, teacher and practitioner of his art, and would maybe have known, therefore, about a worthy antecedent of his image. As ejh pointed out to me, there is a more than passing resemblance to Gillray’s 1805 lampoon The Plum Pudding In Danger... which William Pitt and Napoleon carve up the sea and land as their choice slices of the global sphere of interest; plum pickings all-round. Now this is caricature, good and proper, and no mistaking the target; and as a comic device Boney's manic eye still stares with Messianic vision, but these days from Steve Bell's Tony Blair [who also parodied Gillay - ejh].

Plum confections were served up again in 1872 by Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel (Chess in Art XVIII), this time as cake...

...though in the looking glass world Alice had to "hand it round first, and cut it afterwards". More caricatures, Disraeli and Gladstone this time, but the same motif as in Gillray and Evans: two rivals divvying up the scoff, which is just meat and drink to the political artist.


The Political Paintings of Merlyn Evans 1930-1950. The Tate Gallery, 1985.

[Chess in Art index]


Jonathan B said...

I've always been impressed with Young Martin's knowlege of art given his tender years.

bat020 said...

I doubt if the Hegel reference works quite as you think it does - the notion of Hegel as a "philosopher of totalitarianism" was cooked up by Karl Popper in the late 1940s and is very much part of the Cold War ideology that, as you note, comes to prominence a few years after this painting.

See Walter Kaufmann's 1951 essay "The Hegel Myth and its Method" for more details.

Morgan Daniels said...

The article to which bat020 refers:

bat020 said...

Ooh, ta, I didn't realise that essay was online!

Martin Smith said...

Thanks for your comment; it is all very intriguing.
If Popper's slant on Hegel hadn't yet been published in 1940, and wasn't the reason for Evans' inclusion of his name, what was?
The catalogue, written by David Fraser Jenkins, suggests it was "presumably with reference to the philosopher's acceptance of war as a policy of vigorous nations". Would that be right, do you think?
btw one of Evans' drawings of/for the picture includes the "faintly visible", "probably BERNSTEIN" (so says Mr Jenkins) "referring to Eduard Bernstein's advocacy of a negotiated solution to Germany's territorial claims". Could anyone out there corroborate this by explaining where Bernstein stood on the political spectrum and thus whether he would have Evans' political sympathies.

Time to explain the in-joke, Jonathan B.
Some weeks back in a league match I sat down, at the board next to JB, to play a venerable seventy-seven year old (a much better player than I shall ever be, I should add) and was greeted with proverbially open arms and the comment that is was so nice "to play someone in my own age bracket".
Grey hair I might have, but he was still old enough to be my father.

ejh said...

I was selling books on a stall with my fiancée a couple of years ago when somebody approached and asked whether we were mother and son. There were, subsequently, conflicting opinions as to how amusing this was.

[Our age difference is fifteen months, and I'm the older one.]

ejh said...

Bernstein was, I believe, the original revisionist but the discussion where he actually stands on the spectrum tends to be affected by where the discussers (dicussionists?) stand on aforesaid spectrum. His book on Cromwell used to be well thought of.