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How The Beauty Of Chess As Art Takes Many Forms
A chess set by artist Barbara Kruger offered in the sale known as "Checkmate." Image by Christie's.

How The Beauty Of Chess As Art Takes Many Forms

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A beautiful pin. An artistic sacrifice. A creative gambit. A surprising gamble. An unusual trap. These examples explain why we consider chess to be art as the following quotations by famous grandmasters exemplify.

Chess is one of the few arts where composition takes place simultaneously with performance.

—Garry Kasparov

Beauty of Chess

However, GMs are not alone in appreciating the beauty of chess. The renowned artist Marcel Duchamp, enthralled with chess as much as he was other forms of art, proclaimed, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

For me art and chess are closely related, both are forms in which the self finds beauty and expression.

—Vladimir Kramnik

Italian Chess Pieces at Centennial Exhibition in 1876
Chess pieces on display as art in the Italian Section of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 (as a double image to be viewed with a pair of 3D glasses to make it appear as three-dimensional). Source: New York Public Library.

A successful player clearly displays artistic talent, but how often do you consider a chess set itself to be a form of art? Some of the greatest artists in the 20th century do, as illustrated by the recent sale of sets that they designed. The sale in London this month by Christie’s, a British auction house founded in 1766, attracted worldwide attention. With annual sales exceeding £4.8 billion (U.S. $5.92 billion or 5.42 billion euros), the company obviously understands the value of art.

I consider chess an art and accept all those responsibilities which art places upon its devotees.

—Alexander Alekhine

What may be surprising is the value of the chess sets in the sale known as “Checkmate.” At the King Street galleries in London, Christie’s curated a special collection of 14 sets. Their estimated values before the sale ranged from £3,000 to £150,000 (U.S. $3,700-$184,930 or 3,390-169,370 euros). The creators included Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whitehead as well as Josef Hartwig, a master sculptor associated with the Bauhaus style of Germany who created works in stone and wood.

Smell Chess Set

Smell Chess Set
The Smell Chess Set by the avant-garde artist Takako Saito. Image by Christie's.

Perhaps the most unusual chess set is the aromatic one designed by Takako Saito (born 1929). A Japanese artist who now lives in Germany, she is well-known for her sets with pieces that players cannot rely only on their sight to identify. In a homage to Duchamp’s claim that all chess players are artists, Saito created a series of artworks based on chess in the 1960s that require senses (taste, smell, etc.) other than sight to play. (Her sound and weight chess sets require aural and tactile perceptive skills.)

It has always been recognized that chess is an art, and its best practitioners have been described as artists.

—Alexander Kotov

Labeled as the Smell Chess Set, the pieces were made from blonde and dark wood with cork stoppers. Each identically-shaped piece contains a spice, and only the scents distinguish one piece from another. To start a game, both players first become familiar with each of the 12 smells (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cumin, etc.) involved. The set includes a blonde wood box and inlaid chessboard lid. Although it brought only £3,000 (U.S. $3,700 or 3,390 euros) at the sale, victory with this set must really smell sweet.

Glass and Silver

Mental Escapology by Damien Hirst
Mental Escapology, a chess set designed by Damien Hirst. Image by Christie's.

What caught the attention of many observers was the set by Damien Hirst (born 1965) that sold for £112,500 (U.S. $138,700 or 127,020 euros). The works of Hirst, the United Kingdom’s richest living artist—with a wealth estimated at £215 million (U.S. $265.2 million or 242.8 million euros)—explore the relationships among art, religion, science, life and death.

For me, chess is at the same time a game, a sport, a science, and an art. And perhaps more than that…. One must first learn to play it correctly to in order to savor its richness.

—Bent Larsen

Consisting of 32 pieces in cast glass and hallmarked English silver, the set also includes two steel and leather chairs, a wood and steel cabinet with glass doors, as well as a mirrored glass chessboard with black enamel screen-print mounted on a stainless-steel wheeled cart. The pieces are larger than those in other sets of the collection (the king measures 190 mm or 7.5 in). 

Bauhaus Chess Set 

Bauhaus Chess Set by Josef Hartwig
Bauhaus Chess Set by the sculptor Josef Hartwig. Image by Christie's.

With an estimated value as high as £20,000 before the sale, the set made by Josef Hartwig (1880-1955) in 1924 reduces each wooden piece to its most elemental form. Its shape is determined by the direction that it moves on the chessboard, and the size suggests its rank or power. For example, the bishop is simply a cross outline to represent diagonal moves.

Chess is an art which expresses the science of logic.

—Mikhail Botvinnik

The most ingenious design belongs to the knight, which is formed by three double-cubes joined so that each face shows two cubes, one above the other, and a third on the side to embody this piece’s move. Hartwig’s design illustrates the criteria—practical, durable, inexpensive, and beautiful—of Bauhaus architecture and design.

Anodized Aluminum

Chess Set by Man Ray
Chess Set by the artist Man Ray. Image by Christie's.

The set by Man Ray (1890-1976, born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was sold for £15,000 (U.S. $18,500 or 16,940 euros). An American visual artist who spent most of his career in Paris, Ray designed the set in 1945. It consists of 32 pieces of red and gold anodized aluminum, and each piece has its original black felted bottom. Each king is stamped with the initial “R” on the finial. The set had been estimated to sell for £12,000-£18,000.

Chess is an art and not a spectator sport.

—Garry Kasparov

Modern Chess Set of Home Objects

Modern Chess Set by Rachel Whiteread
Modern Chess Set by Rachel Whiteread, a Young British Artist. Image by Christie's.

The modern chess set, which sold for £10,000 (U.S. $12,330 or 11,290 euros), by Rachel Whiteread (born 1963) was designed to critique gender stereotypes and associated objects in a home. She created the set from replicas of vintage dollhouse furniture and chose the objects—ironing boards, sinks, washtubs, trash cans, armchairs, televisions--to frame the home setting as a place of work for women and leisure for men. The board itself is a patchwork of floral carpet squares and colored linoleum.

Chess is everything: art, science, and sport.

—Anatoly Karpov

Bronze Pieces by Chapman Brothers

Chess Set by Jake and Dinos Chapman
Chess Set by visual artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Image by Christie's.

Jake and Dinos Chapman (born 1966 and 1962) designed a chess set of 32 pieces in bronze with hand-painting, real hair wigs and lead crystal bases. Known as the Chapman Brothers, they are British visual artists who often select subjects that are deliberately shocking. (Use your creative imagination to evaluate the design of their pieces.) An ebony and rosewood chessboard accompanied the set, which sold for £27,500 (U.S. $33,920 or 31,050 euros).

The beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.

—Aron Nimzowitsch

Lewis Chessman

Similar in aesthetic value but not part of the sale at Christie’s is the Lewis chessman that was more likely intended to be a functional piece than an object of art when it was carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century. Sold earlier this year at auction for £735,000 (more than U.S. $900,000 or 829,000 euros), it had been bought in 1964 for only £5 by an antiques dealer.

Lewis Chessman
The long-lost standing warder of the Lewis Chessmen collection. Photo by Tristan Fewings of Sotheby’s.

The piece is an important part of a collection known as the Lewis Chessmen, which were found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis. For more information on this collection, please see my earlier post, “Medieval Chess Piece Sells For Unbelievable Price.”

Duchamp, the chess-playing artist, would agree with how grandmasters characterize chess as art.

Chess has all the beauty of art—and much more.

—Marcel Duchamp

Thanks for reading. (If you like this article, please click above to follow my blog.) What are your views? Do you think that chess sets themselves can be works of art and should be valued accordingly? Are you a collector?