Still a Victim of Chess

Still a Victim of Chess

Jun 7, 2008, 12:36 PM |
French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, having an impact on Dada, Surrealism, and Cubism, among others. He invented the genre of Readymades.  He was also excellent at chess and played professionally for a time.  Among other tournaments, Duchamp played in the Belgian chess championship, four French championships, and four Olympiads in the 20’s and 30’s.  He designed the poster for the 1925 French championships in Nice, and the French Chess Federation awarded him the title of chess master.

Chess was the subject of several of his works of art, including his well-known “Portrait of Chess Players” (below) in the Cubist style from 1911.  Duchamp said of this work that the two players were his brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, with whom he played chess as a boy. 

Portrait of Chess Players, 1911

One of his artworks was recently selected by British artists and art historians as the most influential work of the 20th century.  The piece in question was an actual urinal, entitled “Fountain”.  Needless to say, Duchamp was iconoclastic and enjoyed shocking people.  This is a characteristic that carried over into his chess art.  In 1963 at the Pasadena Museum of Art, Duchamp played a game of chess with Eve Babitz, who sat in her chair completely nude.

While identified as an artist, it is probably fair to say that chess was as much a passion for Duchamp as was art.  Beginning around 1919, he virtually abandoned art for the board and in the same year wrote in a letter, “My attention is so completely absorbed by chess. I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move... I like painting less and less.”

This obsession was not necessarily positive.  In 1927 he married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor.  Duchamp’s close friend Man Ray wrote of this marriage, “Duchamp spent most of the one week they lived together studying chess problems, and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.  They were divorced three months later.”

Duchamp was aware of this downside to chess obsession. (See my blog Chess is Bad for Your Mind).  When asked about it, Duchamp said,  “It does tend to act a bit like a drug.  Drugs are not symbolic, but the addiction is similar.  If you start playing chess when you’re young, you’ll grow old and die playing chess.  It’s a passion.”

Having grown up in a decidedly intellectual family, Duchamp was not only intellectual, but also scholarly, receiving an honorary doctorate in Humanities from Wayne State University, which is across Woodward Avenue (the first paved road in America) from the Detroit Institute of Arts.  In 1932 he co-authored a treatise on chess with Vitaly Halberstadt entitled L'opposition et cases conjuguées sont réconciliées (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled) which was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies.  He also wrote a weekly chess column for the Parisian daily Çe Soir.

Duchamp made several fascinating comments regarding chess, some of which I believe illuminate his career as an artist.  “I am still a victim of chess,” he said.  “It has all the beauty of art and much more.”

When asked about chess being a constant in his life, he answered, “It’s a logical, or if you prefer, a Cartesian constant.”  Duchamp studied mathematics for pleasure, hence his reference to Descartes.  “[The chess pieces] are in constant motion and that’s what attracts me.  Chess pieces placed in a passive position have no visual or aesthetic appeal.  It’s the possible movements that can be played from that position that make it more or less beautiful.”

Notice his references to motion, which he found beautiful.  Much of his art employs motion, as is implied by the repetition of forms in his Cubist work and which is explicit in some of his Readymades, one of which was a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a stool. 

And then we have the following beautiful thought at a banquet speech at the New York State Chess Association’s annual meeting in the month and year that I was born. “The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem … From my close contacts with artists and chess players I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”  The final sentence here is often quoted, but it is the first that I find more intriguing.

Notice the similarity of the next statements, one on art and the other on chess, but both regarding the role of the spectator.
“I believe that the artist doesn’t know what he does.  I attach even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” 
“When artist and spectator play a game of chess it is like designing something or constructing a mechanism of some kind. The competitive side of it has no importance.”

These thoughts are brought together when he wrote, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

I related above how chess led to his divorce.  But Duchamp liked the institution of marriage and was remarried in 1954 to a woman who also enjoyed chess.  This was Alexina (Teeny) Sattler, who herself was divorced from Pierre Matisse, the son of the famous artist Henri Matisse (who also employed chess as a theme). 

In 1968 Teeny appeared on stage in Toronto with Duchamp as he played a game of chess against friend and musical composer John Cage.  The chessboard was wired to sense the movement of the pieces.  As they played, the sensors caused electronic music to play for the audience. 

Musical performance chess.

I suspect that Duchamp became bored easily. “Repetition is always dangerous,” he once said and went on to explain that all the time he spent on chess prevented him from being repetitious in his art.  The implication was that he couldn’t waste the remainder of his time being repetitive.  He hated repetition, which he described as “… the opposite of renewal, so it’s a form of death.”  He seems to have reinvented himself several times as Dadaist, Cubist, Impressionist, Fauvist, Readymade artist, and performance artist.

As I noted, Duchamp’s skill at chess was not trivial.  Here he is defeating the famed Grandmaster Georges Koltanowski, with whom he founded the Greenwich Village Chess Club in 1942.  I have written about Koltanowski in two previous blogs, Blindfold Chess and A Tour of the Knight’s Tour.

You may view several photos of Marcel Duchamp as well as his chess-related artwork in my album Marcel Duchamp.

“You’ll ask me what I have achieved.  I wouldn’t know.  The future will judge.  It really doesn’t matter to me.  I’ve lived what I wanted and how I wanted.” 

     -- Marcel Duchamp