Friday, July 31, 2015

The Royal Game At The Royal Academy

It's time to get down to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for the annual hunt for chess-art in the sprawl of the main galleries. There is also a special exhibition upstairs that looks promising. It is a rare show of the eccentric American artist Joseph Cornell. He rubbed shoulders with Duchamp, so there could be some chess there as well (report next time).

After a few lean seasons at the Summer Exhibition (2012 was the last good one) this year we have a result: not a chess painting, but a beautifully elegant chess set on display among the architectural models, and a bit of ancient chess history.

Karl Singporewala,  Franklin's Morals of Chess (Jade)
translucent acrylic (edition of 5 at £1,960)
[Photo courtesy of the artist]
The punters were having fun naming the buildings (though not the opening) - and it was selling well. But, uh-oh! Isn't that a familiar theme: old London buildings versus the new; haven't we seen that before at the RA Summer Expo? It was back in 2010, in fact, when there was another ultra-modern architect's chess set uncompromisingly dubbed "Style Wars: Modernists versus Traditionalists". We blogged about it here and here. But the "Morals of Chess..." sounds more philosophical than martial. To find what it's all about I emailed the artist/architect, Karl Singporewala.

But first a closer look at his buildings/pieces in my not so clear pics below.

Close ups by MS - nb right-hand image has been flipped, thus the black square appears to be in the wrong corner.
On the left, the old familiar landmarks: St. Paul's, The Tower of London, etc. On the right, the new pretenders: The Gherkin, etc., etc. Depending on your point of view, it is either uplifting or depressing to see these recent eruptions on the London skyline. Many were not here even five years ago when Style Wars was exhibited. The Shard, for example, opened in 2013 - there's no sign of that below.

Style Wars at the 2010 RA Summer Expo. © Mobile Studio.
You can find a full list of the buildings in Morals on Karl Singporewala's website, where you will also see his first version, created and auctioned for charity in 2014. In that one the old buildings made up the Black side. But don't read white/black as a signifier for the hero/villain of the piece. It is simply that the first version was commissioned as a one one-off, says Karl, and that necessitated a colour reversal for the subsequent RA "Jade" edition.

The Queen's Gambit, however, is significant. Karl does play chess, but he says, "unfortunately not with much conviction these days"; and is teaching the game to his young son. That particular opening comes from a "seminal moment" in his own chess development, when he was ten. After a quick defeat, Karl "realised that knowing the moves...does not equal knowing how to play chess!".

As to the apparent Style Wars coincidence, it seems to me that the Morals piece is both different, and the same. Style Wars had modern buildings in modern style (left above) opposed by modern buildings in traditional style (right); though one it tempted to say "pastiche-traditional". But Morals is subtly different. It has modern buildings built in our own time (the "black" pieces), which are opposed by buildings built long ago (Tower Bridge - the white knights - first opened in 1894, for example). The latter have now become, by virtue of their age, "traditional". So, Style Wars was about the contest of concepts of design right for our time - and place (London). Morals is about juxtaposition of epochs: shockingly new buildings vis-à-vis pre-existing, and genuinely old, ones.

Of course, you'll notice that Style Wars is all white, and that invites support for the contention (proposed by its creators, the Mobile Studio) that "good architecture arises.....out of discussion, collaboration and game-playing." i.e. it should not really be a "war" at all. So, as with Yoko Ono's all-white chess set, the game, as a contest, is subverted. Morals of Chess (Jade) says a similar thing about employing sensitivity when placing the new cheek by jowl with the old. This is how Karl puts it: 
"When one sets out to design a new building foresight, circumspection and caution should be applied. They are qualities the architect requires in great abundance. Their architecture should observe its surrounding rules and be executed with skill and humbleness."                
...which is not a million miles away from Style Wars and its appeal for consultation and consideration.  

Foresight, circumspection, and caution: these are the prescriptions of Benjamin Franklin (1707-1790). So, finally, that bit of ancient chess history referenced in the title of Karl Singporewala's Franklin's Morals of Chess. 

Franklin, a true Enlightenment man and polymath, was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.  According to this essay by John McCrary (and Frankin's autobiography) he was playing chess already in 1733 - at above average strength -  finding it a useful aid for learning Italian (!). He was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 1999. 
"Benjamin Franklin" by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis
His essay on the Morals of Chess was published in 1786, and from it comes the advice invoked by Karl to take "the philosophies and etiquette described....and apply it to the creation of new buildings in London" viz.: to employ foresight, circumspection and caution. It is the antiquity of the original that accounts, presumably, for the rather outmoded usage of "circumspection" in the sense of "looking around". Nowadays we tend to use it only as another word for "caution".

The complete Morals of Chess, as it was first published in the Columbian Magazine, is available here, in the US National Archives Founders Online series. The extract in the Appendix below gives the main tenets of Franklin's advice recommended by Karl.

However it is worth mentioning some other passages in the complete version of this still relevant text which (though not given in the Appendix) speak to us 230 years later. A good example, with which to finish this post, is the following:
"You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, nor take up a book to read, nor make a tapping with your feet on the floor, or with your fingers on the table, nor do anything that may disturb [your opponent's] attention. For all these things displease. And they do not show your skill in playing, but your craftiness or your rudeness."     
Too right. I'm not involved in teaching chess to kids, but I wonder whether, along with whatever claims are made - rightly or wrongly - for chess as an aid to cognitive function, it is a help (or even a hindrance) in learning the niceties of social interaction.  


Thanks to Karl Singporewala for so obligingly answering my email questions. He has another work in the 2015 RA Summer Exhibition: Ramascapes on Thames I &II  (Cat no 326). It is a pair of absorbing topographical-cum-architectural drawings.
Painting of Franklin:  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Extract from The Morals of Chess, as it was published in the Columbian Magazine in 1786.
"The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it. By playing at chess, then, we may learn:
1. Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action: for it is continually occurring to the player, “If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?
2. Circumspection, which surveys the whole chess-board, or scene of action, the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other; the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or the other piece; and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.
3. Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game, such as, if you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere; if you set it down, you must let it stand. And it is therefore best that these rules should be observed, as the game thereby becomes more the image of human life, and particularly of war; in which, if you have incautiously put yourself into a bad and dangerous position, you cannot obtain your enemy’s leave to withdraw your troops, and place them more securely; but you must abide all the consequences of your rashness.
And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearences in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources."
Chess in Art Index

1 comment:

Martin Smith said...

Karl has been in touch to say that all the Morals sets are sold out...and to add some additional details: all the pieces are in scale (so the Shard really is proportionally so much taller than St.Paul's); and the pawns protecting the historic buildings are the outer walls of the Tower - opposed by pawns from the Thames Barrier.