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 Chess often forms a juncture with various disciplines such as literature, poetry, music, painting or films.  The point where they meet can be symbolic, thematic or just a hook meant to reel in the audience.  Certain artists or writers are, in fact, known for the inclusion of chess in their works. 

Man Ray was one of those people.



     Emmanuel Radnitzky was the son of a Philadelphia tailor.  Born in 1890, he moved with his family to Brooklyn around the turn of the century.  Probably in an effort to disguise their Jewish heritage and/or their immigrant status, his family shortened their last name to simply "Ray" in 1905. Manny then shortened his nickname to "Man," inventing the name that would in part embody the approaching Dada/Surrealism revolution in the Arts - Man Ray.

The 1913 Armory Show  (The International Exhibition of Modern Art)
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art

     Ray became a draftman and soon after took up painting and illustrating commercially while attending classes devoted to the fine arts. In 1913 he attended the huge art exposition in New York usually referred to as the Armory Show.  This show introduced many Americans to the unexpected avant garde art forms such a Cubism and Futurism, scandalizing many but intriguing others, such as Man Ray.  Marcel Duchamp's entries, "Portrait of Chess Player," "The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes" and particularly "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" were among the more original and notorious (for their style, not their content) pieces.   Man Ray was absorbed by Duchamp's attempt at 4-D painting - paintings that attempt to portray motion non-cinematically and made his first acquaintance with Duchamp in 1915.  Duchamp and Man Ray became associates and life-long friends, sharing mutual respect, art and chess.

     Cartoonist, Richard Boix sketched the "The New York Dada Group" at the "What is Dada" symposium held by Katherine Dreier on April 1, 1921. Already Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray are depicted at a chessboard.

phpOVPyvP.jpeg "New York Dada" magazine - the repetitive tiny type that comprises the background says "New York Dada April 1921" and the image in the perfume bottle is Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy.

     Although he had aspirations as a painter, Ray is best remembered as a photographer. Ray, in fact, bought his first camera in 1915 for the sole purpose of photographing his artwork.  After the Armory Show, Ray immersed himself in art, joining an art colony, affiliating himself with the New York Dadaist such as Katherine Dreier, Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, Henri-Pierre Roché and Francis Picabia.  Ray painted, photographed and even produced Duchamp-inspired "readymades." In April, 1921 Duchamp and Ray produced the one and only issue of New York Dada magazine.

     In New York, Man Ray used to meet Marcel Duchamp for chess and talk at the Pepper Pot Café.  This wasn't a chess café, but artists (and apparently chess players) did frequent the place.
The Pepper Pot Café in Greenwich Village

     In the summer of 1921 Ray, who had married young and was now separated (his legal divorce wouln't take place until 1937) moved to Paris and set up a studio. He would remain there until 1940 when he returned, along with a slew of Surrealists, to escape the dangers of WWII.   Duchamp was also back in Paris, as was Picabia. Man Ray found a muse in Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) and a protégé in Lee Miller.  He also became acquainted with another chess-playing artist,  Max Ernst,  who lived in Paris for a while. Their friendship must have been intense since, in 1946, Ernst would marry Dorothea Tanning while Ray would marry Juliet Browner in a double ceremony.  Ernst and Ray would both die in 1976, outlived by their respective and much younger spouses.  As Dada was inherently doomed by its own irreverence, Surrealism was easily able to displace it.  Ray aligned himself with the Surrealist movement in the mid 1920s. 

     One theme that found its way into Man Ray's works throughout his career was that of chess.  Again, like Max Ernst, Man Ray would create a revolutionary design for chess pieces - his first design was in 1920 - but Ray wanted to produce numbered sets for sale, and eventually did set up an arrangement with art galleries to sell his sets for $60 out of which he would receive $40. He also sold aluminum versions through California department stores.

     Notice the chess set in Man Ray's 8th St., New York, Studio from 1918-20

One of Man Ray's earliest recognizable chess motifs was this Dada Assemblage
Boardwalk  1917

     This piece has a story:     It was being displayed in a Dada exhibition at the Galerie de l'Institut in Paris along with another piece, entitled "Object to be Destroyed."  Some anti-Dadaist students from the nearby Ecole des Beaux-Arts crashed the exhibition with pistols, shot two holes in "Boardwalk" and stole the other piece.  The police came, as well as the gallery's insurance agent. The agent offered to reimburse Ray for the cost of a metronome (the bulk of the stolen "readymade" piece consisted of a metronome). Ray argued that the value of work of art was more than that of its parts.  The insurance agent capitulated. Ray informed him that he intended to re-do the piece, "Object to be Destroyed," but would rename it "Indestructible Object" (which he did in 1958). The agent offered to have the bullet holes filled in "Boardwalk," but Ray declined, claiming that, as a Dada object, it was now more precious damaged (the damage being part of its evolution).

     In 1921 Man Ray photgraphed his "Self-Portrait" with his chess set.

     Francis Picabia published the longest-lived periodical on Dada, "391" (Picabia quit publishing it when he renounced Dada in 1924).  The final issue in October 1924 featured a photo by Man Ray, entitled "Black and White."  The image is of Africa sculptures but the title evokes chess and figures strongly resemble chess pieces, a pair of Queens -

    That same issue advertised Picabia's Ballet Instantanéisme, "Relâche," to be performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As with anything Dada, the ballet was an attack on the status quo, meaning to shake the applecart of acceptability.  But the most interesting part of the ballet was that it included, integral to the whole affair, a "cinematographic intermission" entitled, appropriately enough, "Entr'acte."  This film, directed by René Clair, was a series of improbable, disassociated, humorous vignettes. One of those vignettes included Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess on a rooftop, as can be seen in the images below. Just a minute or so long, a sudden blast of water wipes out the players and the game.



     Continuing with his African theme (a theme that Ray pioneered and, as with chess, used quite frequently in his work), Ray produced a series of photos, some of which also incorporated a chess motif, called "Mode au Congo" for "Harper’s Bazaar" in 1937.  The model is Adreienne Fidelin. Ray chose the headgear himself as part of his conditions.



Earlier, in the 1920s,  Man Ray did a study called "Alexander Alekhine, Chess Champion" 



Le Chevalier Rouge, Painted in Antibes,1938


     This is part of his 1935 series called "Space Writing," in which Ray pioneered a time-lapse technique called light painting. The seemingly random penlight swirls are actually Man Ray's signature. The chessboard seems incongruous but forms part of the base.

     The 1933-4 collage "l’heure de l’observatoire—Les Amoureux"  incorporates the sky above the Paris Observatory, Lee Miller's lips and a dreaming nude with a chess set at her feet.

Night SunAbandoned Playground   1943
Man Ray, the Surrealist
     As mentioned in various accounts, this painting, created during Ray's decade in Californina working in Hollywood, was deeply personal, perhaps trying to convert personal into univeral.  Here is one explanation:
"Night Sun—Abandoned Playground" (1943) is a disquieting narrative, a fusion of his favorite earlier themes with recent events in his California life, alluding to his difficult passage to the United States from occupied Europe. The painting contains typically western images such as a sun setting over the ocean, a white beach, and a cypress tree, but the tree has toppled against a Spanish-style bungalow, apparently the artist's own home. The molecules floating inside the house no doubt refer to Man Ray's neighbor, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling.  Molecular arrangements also appear in other works from this period, such as the collage Optical Longings and Illusions  - "On the Edge of America" by Paul Karlstrom, 1996.

May Ray's photo of Juliet Browner, his wife-to-be, with his chess set. 1945

Man Ray with his chess set in 1946
The painting behind him is shown below

Knight's Tour 1945

Endgame 1946

     The above two paintings, along with his chess set were featured in the 1944 "Imagery of Chess" show at the Julien Levy Gallery.

Knights of the Square Table   1946

Permanent Attraction  1948
(the first of 12 versions of this "Readymade" assemblage)

Man Ray's Studio at 2 Bis, Rue Ferou, Paris, 1960

     Man Ray and Juliet had moved to Paris (where Ray had lived from 1921-1940) in 1951.  His primary reason for moving was to try to recoup and reclaim all his earlier works he was forced to abandon during his hasty departure brought about by WWII.  Although Juliet wasn't thrilled with the cold Parisian room and longed for their Hollywood comfort, she adapted and they stayed there until Man Ray's death in 1976.  Upon the death of Juliet Browner in 1991, the "New York Times" had something to say about Ray's home and studio: "Evenings at Rue Ferou became synonymous with chess games with Duchamp, dinner parties and gossip about art." and "Rue Ferou became a backdrop for encounters among a great cross section of artists -- from Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau and Max Ernst, who were his early champions, to members of the museum establishment, who increasingly sought his work."

     This shot of actress Catherine Deneuve in 1968 with the familiar chessboard was 78 year old Man Ray's last magazine photo (commissioned by the "Sunday Times") and one of his last portraits.  The session took place in Ray's Rue Ferou studio.  Ms. Deveuve's spiral earrings were created by Ray, as was the large "book" which is really a disguised box for mementos. The folding screen shown in both this photo and the one above is said to have been created by Man for Juliet.

Ray with his chess set in 1935

Silver-plated and oxidized silver-plated brass, MoMa 1920-1926

This aluminum set is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

   Silver sets  


Standard wooden set

Man Ray playing chess with Marcel Duchamp using a version of Ray's chess set.

Man Ray's gravesite at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris
"Unconcerned but not indifferent"

            The thumbnail/cover image is a spec drawing by Man Ray for his chess pieces.

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