Modern Art and Chess-play

Apr 25, 2011, 4:42 PM |

Modern Art and chess always seems to come down to Marcel Duchamp.

While a lot can be said in between the Duchamp lines, the famous original Imagery of Chess show still commands much of the deserved attention. 

On it's very brochure (designed by Duchamp), Duchamp expressed:
          Cannot a new set be designed, that is, without too radical a departure from the
          traditional figures, at once more harmonious and more agreeable to the touch
          and to the sight, and above all, more adequate to the role the figure has to play
          in the struggle?

Max Ernst designed such a board, his Strategic Board, along with a chess set worthy of it.

Midway through the show, January 6, 1945, George Koltanowski gave a simultaneous blindfold demonstration.  A blindfold exhibition fit nicely into Duchamp's conception that the chess board and pieces were a necessary, yet imperfect interface between the mind and the game. His desire to re-design the board and pieces was centered on the idea that the physical elements of chess should interfere as little as possible with the mental elements. A better design would suggest the correct movement by its visual aspects. Blindfold players don't use such a physical interface - a fact not at all lost on Duchamp.



Oddly, there was a lot of mix-ups concerning the participants. The brochure announced a five board simul against:  Alfred Barr, Jr. (the first director of MoMA),  Max Ernst, Fredrick Kiesler, Julien Levy, Dorothea Tanning and Dr. Gregory Zilboorg (a psychiatrist and art collector who contibuted a Bauhaus set from his collection). Notice that it lists six people!   However seven people actually played: Dr. Zibboorg was replaced with Xanti Schawinsky and Vittorio Rieti.  


Dorothea Tanning wrote:
"There, one evening (January 6, 1945) in the Julien Levy Gallery a small invited public watched seven chessboards manned by seven intrepid players: Julien himself; Fredrick Kiesler, avant-garde architect and dreamer; Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Xanti Schawinsky, chess whiz; Vittorio Rieti, composer dear to Balanchine; Max Ernst; and me, Dorothea, all braced to take on blindfolded chess master George Koltanowski, Marcel Duchamp called out the moves. (For the record: everyone lost except Kiesler, who managed a draw.)"
                                                  -Between Lives: An artist and Her World by Dorothea Tanning.  pp. 90-92



George Koltanowski

Koltanowski was also a refugee from the the war in Europe who was in South America when the Nazis invaded Belgium, his home. He and Duchamp had formed the Greenwich Village Chess Club in 1942.
According to The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Vol. 1,  "He [Duchamp] also joined the Greenwich Village Chess Club, which was not really a chess club but simply a meeting ground for five friends, including George Koltanowski, his old acquaintance from Belgium in 1923. The club played only one match, in 1943, against the London Terrace Chess Club, which Duchamp subsequently joined in February 1947."


Frederick Kiesler, George Koltanowski (facing away), Alfred Barr, Jr.
(playing on an Ernst Strategic Board with an Ernst set)




Duchamp, moving for Koltanowski (facing away);
Alfred Barr, Jr. using an Ernst set; Xanti Schawinsky using a Bauhaus set.