Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chess in Art Postscript: Two's Company

As I think we have remarked before, when you get right down to it, the chess-game-visual is simple: player; board + pieces; player. Meagre; but enough to provide rich pickings for any chess-in-artist. Add another person to the pictorial mix, a third party, and now the artist is in seventh heaven, if only because with the extra distraction (a bemused spectator, an old comrade, a doting youth, an exterminating angel - the cast list is endless) he/she doesn't have to bother too much with what's on the board. After all, it's only chess.

So, this post will look at threesomes where the Royal Game isn't only one in town, where some minds are on other things, where the chess is mere by-play. We had an inkling of this before in Chess in Art XV, where Delacroix's water-bearer got on with a chore more socially useful than the idle work-shy wood-pushers under her feet. By the way, the next Chess in Art Postscript will engage, by contrast, with extras who would rather concentrate on the moves - shirking, but true.

George Whiting Flagg (1816-1897)

The Chess-Players--Check Mate ca.1836

This charming 1830s domestic "genre piece" (as this sort of thing is confusingly called) has a dumb-struck servant as the third party, and she is black. 175 years on, the image unsettles in a way one imagines Flagg, the artist, didn't intend, and maybe wouldn't comprehend. There is a jarring contrast between the confidence of the young lady on the left, who faces down her opponent as if an equal, and the awe-struck deferential gaze of the servant, who steals a look from behind.

Another, more sympathetic, reading is suggested by Yves Marek in "Art, échecs and mat" in his chapter "Érotisme". For him the two women are united in their perception that the young man has lost the game; one maybe haughtily pleased with her victory; the other tenderly solicitous as to his predicament. But to me the interpersonal dynamics are played out on a taken-for-granted hierarchy of a slave-owning society in which we can be sure that the servant was never given the opportunity to learn the moves. The picture would sit better in a chapter on "Chess and Human Rights", which has yet to be written.

Putting such weighty issues aside for the moment, we might enjoy the threesomeness that runs through the picture: in the ensemble, on the tray, on the board (and with that sort of repetition he could escape with a draw).

Warming to the theme of hormone-fuelled dalliances, here is another folie à trois, where, lucky chap, he can take his pick.

Jacques Clément Wagrez (1846-1908)

Jouers d'échecs

Best regard this as another period piece and not get too hot and bothered that it indulges in casual sexism. Like a Flagg it is a sign of its time. Wagrez seems to have been a cross-channel cousin of the Pre-Raphaelites, who did so much to popularise, and seduce, such a flame-haired Syrène as presents her locks to us from the right. But she hasn't caught the fancy of our hero and, chacun à son goût, this gentilhomme prefers brunettes.

But all that cloying colour, and all that beatific loveliness...did they moon around like that all day...looking so pleased with each other...and themselves? Don't you get irritated by the triviality of it all! Give us a picture with some edge! And a composition that doesn't make the third party a mere middle man.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller playing chess (1913)

Hello boys! Here we are again!

Now, this is the business. You don't get many chess paintings where manner grates against content so potently that it generates static: a back exposed in the foreground; a nude lounging along the top; enough assymetry to sink a ship; brush-work that scrapes the skin raw; colour so raucous it hurts. As the sparks fly, who's looking at the chess.

Not her! Yes, the lads are at it while they make the lady wait (poor show, chaps). But she's used to their ways and will make her feelings clear at a moment of her choosing. The Expressionists shed their artistic inhibitions as easily as their kit. Fine, so long as it doesn't strip down to male hegemony.

We can wind the clock back 400 years to find another exciting play with composition:

Marguerite d'Alençon et son frère François D'Angoulême jouant aux échecs.

From the book Échecs Amoureux, 16th Century.

All eyes are on the board, but ours are drawn to the mademoiselle and blinged-up brother François in consultation as she hazards a move. Their opponent, some hapless courtier, is sporting pre-Pre-Raphaelite tresses and, as likely as not, is desperate to lose lest he be banged up in the oubliette for lèse-majesté. The dog does what dogs do. It's a nicely crafted composition, giving the principals pole position, full focus, and plenty to do with their hands, though one wonders if brother and sister will set tongues wagging by sitting quite so close.

But there is some other crafty handiwork here, though not by the parties. It is a stroke of editorial wizardry (for which I wish I could claim credit, but alas that goes to the artist and some other ed.) which puts the whole thing in perspective:

The bigger picture

Feel a frisson, a jolt, as you double-take in the realisation that you weren't the only one spying on the intimate game.

And who is he? Chaperone? Father? Arbiter? Priest? Peeping Tom? And why the black look? Does he suspect a familial infelicity, or merely a blunder on the board? The privileged readers of the C16th Manuscript would have known immediately. At this remove we can only guess, and admire the coup de theâtre (even if it required a fourth party to pull it off).

Now, like François might with his dog, let's explore another neck of the woods prompted by this blog on which our own ejh commented. Whatever their historical specifics, all above works share a straight presumption as to sexual orientation. It is slapped on with the paint. So, to put the record un-straight, as it were, it would be nice to include a gay-inscribed Chess-in-Artwork.

This is contentious ground. There are issues here, not just for art, but for chess. How to deal with gender in the competitive game is hardly concluded; but, how to deal with sexual orientation in chess culture isn't even started. Some will say its an irrelevance; others may say chess is gay-blind only because it has its head in the sand and when was the last time you saw a photo in the chess press of a GM with their civil partner on their arm? Having said that, one could well understand anyone who wishes for a quiet life when visiting/playing in some of the world's more institutionally homophobic nations; it's their business. And some will say it's none of mine.

Now, I know you can't tell a person's sexuality from how they look. I know I could be accused of relying on streotypes, and at the risk of offending the artist, or the models, straights or gays, chessers or non-chessers, or FIDE, or all of them, here is a Chess-in-Artwork where one is not led to an automatic assumption of heterosexuality:

Yoel Teneh-Tannenbaum (1889-1973)

Men Playing Chess (1957)

Or maybe not. And does it matter? Anyway, I thought I'd run it up the Flagg pole of assumption and see if anyone salutes.

Whatever your orientation: straight, L., G., B., T., all, or none; I hope you get your satisfaction on February 14th.

Picture sources:

Flagg is from here.
Wagrez, Kirchner, C16th Anon and Teneh-Tannenbaum are from here.

Chess in Art Index


Jonathan B said...

Another top post Martin.

... she is black. 175 years on, the image unsettles in a way one imagines Flagg, the artist, didn't intend, and maybe wouldn't comprehend ...

Putting such weighty issues aside for the moment, we might enjoy the threesomeness that runs through the picture: in the ensemble, on the tray, on the board ....

And two White pieces on the board and a single Black (red) one. Flagg may not have intended to unsettle but I wonder if he was making a point here. I also wonder if there's scope for a Chess in Art Postcript on the use of chess to illustrate race?

Just a thought.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks and thanks Jonathan.

See "Keeping Two's Company" next Saturday.