Saturday, April 18, 2009

Chess in Art Postscript : Slow Triangulation

Guest post by Martin Smith

ChessinArtoholics will remember this miniature (in chess-problem parlance) Abstractish piece from Paul Klee in Chess in Art XIV and comment at Chess in Art Collected.

Paul Klee (1937)

No players, no moves, just a kind of a board and some cut-out pieces, though so few that the position must have been abandoned as a draw some time ago. Not a lot going on, not much to paint, and seemingly not much to blog about. Absent-minded rather than Abstract. But it sets us off on an exploration of threesomes or, more precisely, threesome-ness (but sorry to disappoint, we are talking only pictorially).

One of three. Übershach has a trio of pieces, obviously, which the conceptually departed players have carelessly left lying about, and the illusion of a third dimension created by the roughed-up board. But there's a more subtle rule of three at work. "Squares" of colour, for which black counts as much as the other three, crimson, vermillion and cobalt blue, are separated by a white and grey pair. They go: white, grey, colour; that's one, two, three; and two, two, three; and three, two, three; counting out a waltz, just as you may have done when learning your ballroom foot-work. But it is more than strict tempo (RIP Victor Silvester). The colours change places, and the squares modulate; it is a pulse; a groove. The three pieces (just so) now appear to precess in a courtly sarabande following the rhythm of the board.

Two of three. In the 20s and 30s Klee taught at the Bauhaus in Germany, that hot-house of modernist design. Another K, Vassily Kandinsky, was there as well (note 1).

Kandinsky (left) and Klee at the Bauhaus in 1926,
not smiling for the camera.

Compare these two K's to their successors: Klee's art is to Karpov’s chess (incremental; cerebral; introvert), as Kandinsky’s is Kasparov's (Sturm und Drang; emotive; extravert) and that in spite of sharing the same taste in hats. In Gazza mode, this is a crash bang wallop Kandinsky from his later years, "Composition VIII" of 1923.

Klee didn't like to be called "Abstract", but Kandinsky did, and here he shows why. His Theoretical Novelty was to insist that shapes and colours have emotional and spiritual potency. His earlier loose wiffly-waffly new-agey (he was a fully paid up Theosophist) expressionistic stuff - not quite my cup of tea - became more organised and geometric after a spell with the no-nonsense cadres of the Soviet cultural avant-garde (1917 and all that). They, certainly, would have tested his analysis to destruction. Perhaps (with a capital P doubling for the start of a sentence and for emphasis) they succeeded in tempting him with the bracing rigours of Dialectical Materialism as a complement to his recent conversion to corners.

Three of three. Hats off, though, to Kandinsky for this aperçu: "The meeting of the pointed angle of a triangle and a circle is not less effective than the finger of God touching Adam's finger in Michelangelo".

So, for example, the kinetic energy in this...

El Lissitsky (1919)
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge "not less effective" than the potential energy in this:

Michelangelo (c. 1511)
The Creation of Adam

Four of three. And now, having triangulated to the point of this Postscript: what are we to make of the composition below?

It is Saveilly Tartakower's "diagram" (that's the translation) of the game Maroczy-Euwe, Scheveningen 1923 (see the game at the end) and comes from his Die Hypermoderne Schachpartie published in 1924.

Compare it with other chess-game artworks discussed in Postscripts Game On, and Games Go On, in which we saw composites of the moves overlaid on a background board, but whatever their qualities there was no narrative of the game, no sense of development, no movement to a conclusion. They were essentially and deliberately superficial, and relied for their effect on decoration or minimalism.

Not so with Tartakower's accidental masterpiece. This picture tells a story. OK, granted that the game it elucidates was pretty much a one–way street, a lot of flow and not much ebb, and so easier to "diagram"; and there are NOTES BY Saveilly Tartakover to help (note 2) but it succeeds with an economy of means to convey its charge of meaning, and show the unfolding of the game.

The "diagram" (can't we do better; "flow chart" maybe; or "story-board" – what a shame they are spoken for) captures the purposeful march of the f pawn around the fulcrum in the centre, the white queen's activity becoming angular and aggressive, the latent, or rather dormant and so never realised, X-ray of the b7 bishop on the white king. The field of action is a vectored triangle with f8 (the f pawn's promotion square) as its focus. While the white king, in its safe haven, is removed from this three-cornered theatre of battle, a thunderbolt strikes its counterpart.

Was Tartakower au fait with art, including the modernism of his time? Did he know Kandinsky or Klee? Had he ever popped in for lunch at the Bauhaus? Good questions, Perhaps (sic); awaiting good answers, Maybe (sic). But consider: Tartakower was by all accounts a cultured European, so surely would have read the Sunday supplements, gone to the exhibitions, and discussed them at length in the café – it's not too fanciful to suggest some kind of influence, is it?

And to cap it all there’s the "all chess-players are artists" remark by Duchamp in 1952. Duchamp (not, on this occasion, Rrose Salévy (see Postscript: My Fair Ladies) was talking about chess players making chess art on the board. But here we have a chess player, Tartakower, cross-checking Duchamp, the artist, and creating chess art on the page.

Look again and savour the triangular force field and its forward propulsion à la Kandinsky, the expressive and elegant asymmetry of the loops and arrows and their progressing dance à la Klee, the triangle piercing the f8 circle after El Lissitsky, and the poise and suspense in the centre after Michelangelo. It has it all and, with economy and élan, delightfully squares the triangle.

Maroczy-Euwe, Scheveningen 1923.


1. There is a work by Kandinsky on the web - for example here - given as "Schach-Theorie" dated 1937, which sounds relevant to this postscript, except that the title and date are wrong. It is in fact "Montée Tendre" of 1934.

2. The bold font is a reference to the sub-head style adopted for annotated games by the excellent and recommended, New In Chess magazine. In Issue 4 of 2008 there is a review article by Hans Ree on Tartakower, which this Postscript is indebted too, but for which NiC bears no responsibility.



Hajo Düchting. Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: A Revolution in Painting. Taschen, 2007. (For the quote from Kandinsky, among other things.)

Hajo Düchting. Paul Klee. Prestel, 2008. (For a helpful annotation to the Klee sketch for Überschach, among other things.)

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an ordinary chessplayer said...

I enjoy this chess'n'art stuff immensely, but it's way over my head. Please interpret my (usual) lack of comment for what it is -- stunned silence.

But for once I have something small to say: Wassily Kandinsky, 1966-1944: A Revolution in Painting. ... seems like a strange title.

ejh said...

Thanks for that - I've corrected our error.

Martin Smith said...

Yep, thanks OCP for pointing that out, and delighted that you enjoy the chess/arty stuff.

Watch out for future errors planted to encourage you to comment!

Morgan Daniels said...

That was a mountweazel was it, Martin?