Saturday, August 17, 2013

Chess in Art Postscript: Themes Like Only Yesterday

I stumbled on the magnificent Art échecs et mat by Yves Marek a few years back in a Paris bookshop, and mentioned it on the blog at the time.

Imprimerie national Éditions, Paris, 2008
It must be the only book of its kind - solely about chess in art - and it's worth a closer look; which is what this post, and a couple subsequently, are going to do.

Monsieur Marek's is an inside job. He is both a proper chesser, sometime in the top echelon of chess in francophone Tunisia, now with an Elo of 2045 (he was 200 points higher in 2009; see this game of his, in which he goes for it with an exchange sac, but loses; and this draw with Kramnik - it was a simul), and was for nearly 15 years a conseiller culturel du Président de France, serving on the management team of the Musée du Luxembourg (according to his Linkedin page) organising art exhibitions and the like - so we could call him a connaisseur (which is the way les Français spell "connoisseur", bizarre as it may seem).

The book is an insightful guide to the recurrent themes in chess-art, in a roughly chronological exposition. The themes he identifies each emerge at a particular historical period, but may evolve and adapt as the years, the centuries, roll by, and some ancient ones may still have currency today. Art échecs et mat was published around the same time as ejh posted his Chess in Art series five years ago (though it seems like only...geddit?), and it is an interesting exercise to see how his CiA selections fit into M. Marek's themes - for which the chapter headings provide a convenient shorthand. As we go through the book we'll also correlate sundry other artworks from our occasional chess-art blogging, and a few from elsewhere in the genre. It goes without saying, of course, that an artwork may exhibit more than one theme, and that these days "artwork" encompasses photography, and anything else that calls itself such.

Something else that will have to go without saying is M. Marek's français. Instead, here and there I'll give my attempts at translations of his impeccable writing. These, and the other rather free glosses on his exposition are my responsibility bien sûr, and there are many subtleties to which these short posts do scant justice.

And another general comment before we begin: Marek's themes derive organically from the game itself, its play, its evolution and its cultural context; and thus we get much more than a pigeon-holing of chess-artworks into the standard "isms" of art styles and schools. This chessic underpinning makes the art all the more accessible to us woodpushers, not forgetting that the book also makes chess more explicable and accessible to non-chess art-lovers, which is a truly a public service.

Yves Marek starts his analysis at the beginning: in the Orient, where the game sprang into life. There has come down to us a good number of contemporaneous representations of play in the ancient manuscripts - although, as we see things, deficient in pictorial perspective, as a consequence of which the chessboard seems parallel to the picture plane (and so looks vertical in the pictorial space). His examples (identified by page number below) go back to the 12th century; ejh gave us one from the 15th in CiA VIII  and below left), telling in its depiction of a Sultan playing a "un jeune chrétien", and this confrontation of East and West and the latter's construction of an image of, and a narrative about, the former (aka the "Orient") is revealed in chess-art up into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Edward Said's magisterial book Orientalism (which I've started...and really must finish - this is my aside; Said is not mentioned by Marek) deconstructs this ideology, which art, including chess-art, served and reinforced, especially in the 19th century. Admittedly Delacroix (CiA XV, and p.12) appears to paint an almost ethnographic observation, and Gérôme (p.13, and below centre) too; though surely the latter must be insinuating chess into an ideological confabulation about noble warriors who yet obstructed the imperial projects of HMG, and the French, and scorned their pretentious values. Those wily Orientals may have fought hand-to-hand in the manner of gentlemen, but they could deploy other weapons to sap our chaps' moral fibre and wilt their stiff upper lip: they could slip their sultry ladies in under the radar. As Marek puts it (I think) on page 10: the lethargy and langour of the Orient encourages us to imagine licentious abandon in a subtle game of seduction where their women will entrap our men as their senses dulled. Chess would have been the innocent bait in the snare as Matisse, master of luxe et volupté (below right), rather suggestively suggests.

l to r. Le sheykh Shams ud-Din Tabrizi joue aux échecs avec un jeune chrétien (c.1500), Artist unknown  [BNP, Paris];  Arnauts playing draughts (or chess!) (1859), Jean-Léon Gérôme  [Wallace Collection, London]; Odelisque au fauteuil turc (1927-28),  Henri Matisse  [Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris]. 
Roi des jeux, jeu des rois (exploiting the transpositional possibilities, as it were) is a reminder that chess was the preserve of royalty, despite, Marek says, attempts by the Church in the 13th century to prohibit the game. In the game of kings scenario the King is often depicted engrossed in a partie with his Queen (Marek has many examples, with medieval subversive Jacob de Cessolis - "pawns are people!" - getting a mention), and it would have been de rigueur, and judicious, for the court hangers-on to be in attendance, as Meulich in CiA X (and Marek p.23 and below left) illustrates. Better for them though that they should try and look interested.

This display of regal prowess at the board slides over to become the cultural sign for puissance, still resonant aujourd'hui. Here's Marek once more (p.22): You don't play chess innocently; even today the representation of an important person at the chessboard calls up the suggestion of their total command, profound judgement, and complete superiority. Mastery of the game denotes mastery tout à fait, whether, coming into the 20th century, you are Lenin (p.26 and below centre), Che Guevara or General Tito - all illustrated by Marek, now with photographs - though looking back from where we are today Lenin's aura of invincibility is rather undermined by his Chaplinesque bowler. Perhaps, anyway, the general association of chess these days is with, at best, an other worldly intellect, at worst, school-boy braininess - rather than command and authority (or so it seems to me).

Marek uses Max Ernst's 20th century sculpture (CiA XIII, p.147 and below right) to illustrate another theme later in the book, though it sits happily here. It may have been created just 70 years ago, but its formal inspiration is far older: the Minotaur of classical mythology, or the totems of pre-Colombian America - even if the local indigènes didn't do chess.

l to r. Albert, Duc de Bavière affronte son épouse aux Echecs (frontispiece to The Book of Jewels etc) (1552); Lenin playing with Bogdanov at Capri in 1908 when visiting Gorky. © Roger-Viollet. From here; The king playing with the queen (1944), Max Ernst. [Museum of Modern Art, New York].
Renaissance is for Marek a portmanteau into which he packs various motifs to do with the flowering of the arts in the 14th to 17th centuries in Italy and beyond. In painting he gives a handy list of works featuring chess and shows examples in which, thanks to the discovery (or invention) of perspective, the board now lies flat on the table (p.32, and below left). Socially (his thesis runs) chess was now enjoyed more widely by the clergy and nobility, and the game saw its first expository treatises (Lucena "..the Art of Chess.."; Ruy Lopez): i.e. attempts to analyse and understand its inherent laws - all attendant on the innovation of the mobile and all-powerful Queen enragée; and she is the centre piece of the chapter.

Accordingly, Marek illustrates his theme with paintings in which women, even young ones, have a strong presence: Meulich again; our old friend Cornelis de Man (CiA IX, p.37 and below centre) - where the lady of the house invites us to witness her besting of her husband - and the Anguissola sisters (CiA X, p.38 and below right). Marek comments on what he sees as the strangeness of this composition: the three sisters are playing outdoors (though a generous view of the campagna was commonplace as the left hand pic shows); they are all standing; and with, among other things, the bishop on h1 trapped by the pawn on g2 (yep, black square wrong), the position is a nonsense. Fair enough; though for me the oddest feature by far is the looming presence of the lady (servante, says Marek - or governess?) shoehorned in top-right. Maybe the artist was, as an afterthought, wedging her in to pre-empt a 21st century charge of ageism.

l to r.  Les jouers d'échecs (1540) Paris Bordone, [Germäldegalerie Berlin]; The chess players (1670) Cornelis de Man, [Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest] NB pic cropped, see full view herePartita a scacchi (1555) Sofonisba Anguissola, [Muzeum Narodowe, Poznan]
Painters who themselves probably never played chess, who show no passion for it nor accord it any special significance, soon discovered the decorative possibilities of nameless players lost in a recreational game; they saw there a simple commonplace scene such as may be found today in adverts or in film. This is the beginning (p.45) of the chapter Divertissement, rendered thus by your blogger in a ham-fisted attempt to wrestle down Marek's elegantly serpentine sentence without dislocating his vocabulary (jolly painful). As if to emphasise the informal, quotidian nature of their obsession the players are invariably shown in a social context (a café, a picnic, a parlour) of which they are naturally, and rudely, oblivious. Even when the artist chooses to omit any other company whatsoever the protagonists duly insist on ignoring each other so that they may concentrate solely, and independently, on the game. The common feature (bystanders or not) is, as Marek says in le splendid mot juste, for which no translation is necessary or desirable, the huis clos of the mental world of the chessers.

Examples are legion, and many are now familiar, but although Marek overlooks Eakins' famous work (CiA XX and commentary here), he includes Sorbi (CiA XX, and below left), and also Duchamp's (p.48 and below right) study of board-side boredom (which we have noted before). For contrast - the excitable camaraderie in Sorbi, the frozen ennui of Duchamp - you couldn't get two any more extreme. The latter is a divertissement depicted by a proper chess player so it is acutely observed: the players' neglect of their long-suffering ladies has the ring of truth (and I bet there was hell to pay later).

l to r. The chess players (1886) Raffaello Sorbi, [private collection]; Jouers d'échecs (1910) Marcel Duchamp, [Pennsylvania Museum of Art].
Now to round this post off with something up to the minute, even though the painting in question is now over 100 years old: pop in to Tate Britain and see this charming domestic divertissement sans spectateurs that has appeared in the new hang.  
Children at chess c.1903
Mary Sargant Florence (1857‑1954)
As with the Anguissola sisters above, these children have yet to work out a conventional relationship with furniture, but for a study in conjoined concentration and compositional rhythm the picture is a delight. There is a lot more to be said about it, but we'll save that for another post.

Next week we follow Yves Marek's other themes into the 21st century. Btw, Susan Polgar now has a copy!

With thanks to ejh's Chess in Art series.
Orientalism (1979). Edward Said. Vintage Books, New York.  
Chess in Art Index


Anonymous said...

An enjoyable article: I look forward to the follow-up.

Commentators are much too ready to assume that there are chess mistakes in the Anguissola portrait. Since she's painting her own sisters Lucia, Europa and Minerva playing chess, we should begin with the assumption that she really knew the game herself. She's gone to incredible trouble rendering the dress fabrics and the Turkey carpet on the table; it's hard to believe that she wouldn't have gone to the same trouble to get the chessboard right.

The orientation of the board may be wrong to our 21st-century eyes, but things were different in the 16th century. See, for example, the early 16th-century board illustrated in Murray's History of Chess, plate opposite p.757, where the standing figures in the elaborate border indicate that h1 is a dark square.

Nor would I be quite so confident that the position on the board is nonsense. I doubt whether it's a bishop on h1; it's far more likely that it's a rook: it has the same shape as the piece on h8 (and probably the one on c8 too). Acorn-shaped rooks aren't unknown. Of the other pieces we can actually see, it looks to me as if the bishops are the pieces on c6, f8 and g4. There are knights on h3, g8 and f7, pawns on a7, g2, h4, h6 and h7, and a king on e7. The black queen has been captured, and Lucia holds it in her left hand. Very likely she's just taken it, which accounts for her smug expression and Minerva's surprise. From what I can see, this makes the position entirely legal.

The lady on the right has to be a servant of some kind, from her very plain clothing (contrasted with that of the girls). Some commentators call her a duenna or chaperone, which seems about right. The family was minor nobility, so the presence of a chaperone indicates that the girls were being properly looked after, and not allowed to roam about unsupervised.

David Roberts

Martin Smith said...

Thanks David, for your informative comment; very helpful!

I do hope you enjoy the posts on the next two Saturdays.

David Roberts said...

I've been looking a bit more carefully at the Anguissola picture, and finally made out the lettering along the edge of the chessboard, which explains who the older woman is: SOPHONISBA ANGUISSOLA VIRGO AMILCARIS FILIA EX VERA EFIGIE TRES SUAS SORORES ET ANCILAM PINXIT MDLV (Sofonisba Anguissola, virgin daughter of Amilcare, painted from life three of her sisters and their maid in 1555). Vasari wrote about the picture in his Lives of the Artists in 1566: "I must relate that I saw this year in the house of her father at Cremona, in a picture executed with great diligence by her hand, portraits of her three sisters in the act of playing chess, and with them an old woman of the household, all done with such care and such spirit, that they have all the appearance of life, and are wanting in nothing save speech."

Martin Smith said...

Wonderful. Thanks, David.

...still feel that "the maid" looks squeezed in, as if an afterthought; maybe being "only" the maid she couldn't have expected to be accorded the same status within the picture as the sisters.

David Roberts said...

Yes, I agree. She does look like an afterthought. But her simple, kindly face is a wonderful piece of work. She reminds me of the ordinary folk that Velasquez painted in his wonderful bodegones - on a completely different level from the starchy court portraits (very brilliant in their own way) that he was employed to do.