But before we begin, let's catch M. Marek at it back in 2003 at a chess event at the Sénat, which he helped organise when he was there as a cultural advisor on artistic matters. The shots below were of him in the adjacent Jardin du Luxembourg, where the locals jouent aux échecs from dawn to dusk and whatever the weather. Bravo, mes amis!
|At the Grand Prix de Sénat TV Mag Rapid tournament in Paris September 5th-6th 2003.|
pics from chessbase news
"Op". Oops. We have just lapsed into the language of the "isms", in spite of our best efforts in this mini-series not to. So we might as well go with the flow and follow Yves Marek when he mentions "cubism" - which very name conjures up the squared rectilinearity of the chess board. Personally I've find the hermetic reconfigurations of the early cubist works (the so-called "analytical cubism") fascinating and obscure in equal measure. Along with the usual fractured bottles, deconstructed musical instruments and the like there are, in a handful of cubist works, some chess boards, and bits and pieces, and Marek shows a couple (p. 120). Of the cubist coterie, Juan Gris (p. 121, and below middle left) is maybe more accessible, and is even decoratively easy on the eye. Though whether that's a chess board or draughts board has art commentators scratching their heads.
However, it is less the geometry of the board than of the game that really interests us chessers, and Klee's work (ejh XIV and below middle right) marries a one-two-three riff play on the quadrillage of the board to a hint at the knight's move as the three pieces perform not a quadrille or square dance but a stately foxtrot. That's three steps in the direction of the game-based geometrical complexity depicted by Ugo Dossi (pp 128 & 129, and btw discussed at length with Kramnik here) who Marek showed earlier in Abîmes - and there's also now our own chess-artist Nette Robinson, of course (extreme right).
|l to r: O jugo de xadrez (1943), Maria-Elena Viera da Silva [Centre Georges-Pompidou]; Le damier (?1917) Juan Gris [from here.]; Überschach (1937), Paul Klee [Kunsthaus Zürich]; Capablanca v Spielmann, New York, 1927 (2013) with thanks to © Nette Robinson.|
The most recent sighting of the "art is play" chess-art circus was at the Saatchi gallery in London, in September 2012 (linked above, and again here). However, Marek casts his net wider than the RS&A project (endlessly running?!), and the inclusion of Germaine Richier's unsettling marionette-style chess set - though more Punch than Judy - pleases me no end, even if she antedated the "art is play" fashion by half a century and is rather more of the "art is deadly serious" tendency (there are currently three of her works on show at Tate Modern, though sadly not her chess set).
So, are there any other themes that we could add to Yves Marek's collection bearing in mind what we said in the first post: that the themes are chess-centred, either hard (i.e. aspects of the game itself) or soft (why, when and by whom it is played), and that a style of chess-art is often a special case of an "ism" in art more generally - as we have occasionally noted.
One development that we can make out, indeed these days is unavoidable, is the computer. It was mentioned in passing by M. Marek when talking about complexity, but we can take a bit further, and in another direction. Its historical antecedents go back to the chess-playing automata of the late 18th and 19th centuries (below left) when the notion of chess without human agency was admittedly more figment than fact, and there was a real ghost in the machine pulling the strings. But subsequently they really were able to do it for themselves and the second half of the twentieth century saw the first fumbles by chess computers. In the art-world there also appeared such electronic embellishments on the game as the Lowell Cross chess/music generator (seen here) and - a more recent example - Barbara Kruger's (p.174 and below middle) conversational chess installation (the latter shown at the Saatchi alongside Gavin Turk's Turk both blogged here).
But of course le moment Deep Blue was the watershed, and the computer is now supreme, so Jacek Palucha's demolition job by human hand (below right) is but a wistful cri de cœur for a lost past. You don't even need a set these days (or a person opposite), just a screen will do, and for many chessers the internet subs as their opponent of choice. Let's call this theme The March of the Machine.
|l to r: Illustration used by Gümpel in "Mephisto. Exhibited at the International Theatre Exposition Universell, Paris 1889" (thanks to Batgirl); Untitled ("Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?") (2008) Barbara Kruger. [RS&A] (pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr); Checkmate for a Robot ( 2005) Jacek Palucha (from here)|
|Left. Chess Computer Program Playing Itself (2012) Martin Abrams ©;|
Right. Chess Painting No. 27 (Gudmundsson vs. Duchamp, Hamburg, 1930) [1-0 in 68] (2013) Tom Hackney ©
Chess historian Olimpiu Urcan (2007) gives a case study of the arrival and development of chess in Singapore and its region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to British and Dutch colonialism, and footnotes an a propos comment that little research has been done on the rise of "chess communities outside the traditional core of what generally is regarded as 'chess civilisation': Europe and the North American continent". With the broadest brush, and unless I've mangled the history : European invasion, commerce, settlement and/or administration took chess out around the globe, to be consolidated - and the geographical gaps in-filled - during the 20th century (especially post WW2) as chess became a universal game with FIDE consecrating this at institutional level.
Back now to Europe where M. Marek plotted the historical percolation of chess vertically through society - from the court, down through the nobility and the professional classes to the street. It may not be mass participation today, but it is pretty much classless. And we can add that in the "traditional core" it is nowadays played by incomers and immigrants (both willing and unwilling) of all stripes. So, the other strand of the Globalisation theme is of chess played in the churn of western multiculturalism. For an example in chess-art look back at Flagg's picture of 1836 (from Marek's Érotisme) which showed a black African, or African-Caribbean, servant in the intimacy of the parlour (see it again below left). But for a real celebration of the chess in the diversity of a western city in modern times see Bill Jacklin's 1986 work below right (it's New York by the way, the melting-pot city; and Flagg was also American, though spent a few years in London - possibly in the 1830s).
|Left: Chess Players (1836) George Flagg [New York Historical Society]|
Right: The Chess Players (triptych) (1986) Bill Jacklin [Private Collection]
However, it is difficult to establish whether there are many modern-day representations of the play of western chess in other artistic traditions to parallel this Globalisation of the game. Most of the material on the chess-art websites is western in origin (take for example Schacci e Arte: which is comprehensive - though unfortunately without thumbnails - and good on chess in the cinema, too, though Bill Wall's list of film titles is longer). All that I have to offer are the following examples of contemporary chess-art with a non-western origination, although even here the artists in question have, at some time or other, lived or studied in Europe. Perhaps they are straws in the wind.
A picture by Anwar Jalal Shemza (at Tate Britain now, blogged earlier here, and below left) uses the vocabulary of Islamic graphic art. It is chess-art as if in a foreign language, but even if we don't speak it we can get the gist. There is also an unexpected chess set (below right) in the "games room" of Meschac Gaba's "Museum of Contemporary African Art" installation at Tate Modern (but don't touch!). It is a papier-mâché of Euro notes (the white pieces) and dollar bills (the black), although that's an odd choice and he might have used, more pointedly, Chinese yuans to critique Sino-African neocolonial ambitions. But the context of Gaba's installation is its significance and nearby there is a traditional African counter game of skill and calculation (Avelé, a variation of Adji) which you can play; but against a computer (! - cf The March of the Machines) which trounced me, of course.
Last summer, by the way, there was a chess-art work at the Saatchi by Korean artist Debbie Han using a chess set to make a critique of the practice in her own culture of European-look cosmetic surgery (below bottom). Maybe it is in a western style - she was educated in the USA - but it employs ancient Korean ceramic techniques that she learnt for the purpose.
Clockwise from top left: Chessmen One (1961), Anwar Jalal Shemza [Tate Gallery]; Chess set in the Games Room of The Museum of Contemporary African Art (1996-7), Meschac Gaba [on show at Tate Modern 2013]; The Battle of Conception (nd), Debbie Han. (Gaba and Han pics by MS)
It would be, I suppose, hardly surprising if there were a dearth of chess-art in many parts of the world, given that chess may be a relative newcomer lacking the popularity of traditional games, and the associations and connotations that it has in the West. Compare it with, for example, depictions of "Go" playing in Japan. But, if the game does embed outside Europe and the USA, then local chess-art may yet develop in those parts, expressed in traditional idioms - not just as a transplant of western styles - and that could be really exciting.
So, as long as the above discussion of globalisation isn't invalidated by some kind of euro-centric mind set, then Globalisation, plus The March of the Machine gives two more themes to add to Yves Marek's dix, to make douze. And there may, of course, be others.
You can get his excellent Art échecs et mat via Amazon in France - but attention, everything except the pictures is in French.
Thanks to Jonathan B for a nudge in the direction of the Globalisation theme in a comment to this post back in 2010
Olimpiu G. Urcan. Surviving Changi. E.E.Colman: A Chess Biography (2007). Singapore Heritage Society. And see his online chess column here. For an S&BCC blog post on E. E. Colman see here.
Themes Like Only Yesterday
Themes Like Today Already
Chess in Art Index
For more chess art see also chess.com's thread.
[Coming up in London: a big Klee (Géométries) exhibition at Tate Modern in the autumn, plus Daumier (he of the Abîmes) at the Royal Academy. Will we able to tick off more real live Chess-art?]
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