Review: Marcel Duchamp - The Art of Chess

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The Art of ChessWhat do a game of chess and a nude decending a staircase have in common? To answer such questions, you must be prepared to leave your conventional ways of thinking at home and then fall down Marcel Duchamp's rabbit-hole of chess and art.

A few weeks ago I visited an exhibition in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain. The exhibition featured some very explicit classic Japanese erotic paintings (there was actually a warning sign at the entrance of the exhibition, prohibiting visitors below 18 years of age) which served as a source of inspiration for Picasso and his contemporaries. Though I had seen some of these paintings before, I was amazed how deeply such works from a competely different culture had influenced some of Picasso's works. For me it was yet another proof that what makes a true artist is his ability to be inspired by literally everything around him.

A contemporary of Picasso's, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is without a doubt the most famous chess-playing painter of all time. In fact, apart from being obsessed by it, he was a rather strong chess player, who played in the French Championship (in 1924) and scored real results against some of the world's chess playing sub-top of the 1920s and 1930s. It was Duchamp who famously said that, "while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists." A new book by Francis Naumann, Bradley Bailey and Jennifer Shahade focuses on Duchamp's artistic life as a chess player and his chess life as an artist. Marcel Duchamp - The Art of Chess, published last year by Readymade Press, is an inspiring little book, beautifully illustrated and beautifully printed, which made me realize Duchamp is not only my hero but also an example and a teacher with an important lesson.


The Chess Game (1910)

The three authors focus on different aspects of Duchamp's chess-art life. Francis Naumann, an art scholar and curator in New York, describes the development of Duchamps artistic works as if it were a game of chess, starting with the learning of the rules (1902-1912) and the opening (1912-1918) and so on, until the endgame which ended in Duchamp's death in 1968. My first impression of this method was that it was hardly original, life being described as a game of chess having been tried from medieval storytellers to Garry Kasparov. But when I read on, I found out that this method actually fits Duchamp's life quite well, and there are several others who have noted the parallels.
In 1951, [art collector Walter Arensberg] wrote to Duchamp: "It's curious how I get an impression when I look at our paintings of yours from the point of view of their chronological sequence of the successive moves in a game of chess." Duchamp responded: "Your comparison between the chronological order of the paintings and a game of chess is absolutely right... but when will I administer checkmate or will I be mated?"
Here we already see the way Duchamp looks at things: from a broken angle, taking the common analogy somehow literally to the domain of chess and giving it quite an original twist at the end. Naumann himself drily notes that serious chess games (such as Duchamps played regularly), "rarely progresses to such a dramatic terminal point; the losing player usually resigns first." It shows Naumann's no-nonsense approach to his subject and he goes on to describe in great detail the various aspects of chess as a major influence on Duchamp's work.


Portrait of Chess Players (1911)

From the well-known post-impressionist The Chess Game (1910) and the Cubist Portait of Chess Players (1911), Naumann takes us to the infamous Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912) and he prepares our mind for this work with the following quote from Duchamp:
In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It's the imaginging of the movement or the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It's completely in one's gray matter.
Again, we see how relevant chess is as a metaphor to describe Duchamp's artistic works: what chess player wouldn't recognize what Duchamp is hinting at here? In chess, it's not about the beauty of the wooden pieces but about the potential movement of the pieces. And so it is in Nude Descending a Staircase, which is not a painting of a nude descending a staircase, but rather, as Duchamps put it:
Painted as it was in severe wood colors, the anatomical nude does not exist, or at least cannot be seen, since I discarded completely the naturalistic appearance of a nude, keeping only the abstract lines of some twenty different static positions in the successive action of descending.

Nude descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912)

Naumann coins the possibility that, since The Nude is restricted to wood colorings, "tracing its origin to a chess piece is not entirely implausible, particularly when we consider the fact that the queen is the most mobile piece on the board, a feature reinforced by her rendition in multiple form." Again, to his credit, Naumann is not forcing his ideas upon the reader in order to fit the analogy of chess and art too rigorously, but merely suggesting possibilities and ways of thinking to enhance aesthetic pleasure. Reading Naumann's essay, I increasingly felt drawn into Duchamp's world where one thing can so easily be linked to another that you really feel like you've entered Wonderland or went Through the Looking-Glass, where a slightly puzzled but intrigued Alice remarks:

Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don't exactly know what they are!

An even more ambitious approach is taken by art professor Bradley Bailey, who makes the case for the idea that in Duchamp's huge The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even - also known as The Large Glass - (1915-23), "chess is a critical and largely unrecognized thematic element."


The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923

Bailey, it seems to me, makes more bold assumptions than Naumann. In his description, for instance, of the famous photograph (taken in 1963) of Duchamp and nude model Eve Babitz playing chess, he writes:


Duchamp and Eve Babitz playing chess (taken by Julian Wasser, 1963)

The chess table - complete with a double-faced chess clock for authenticity - was set up in front of [a replica of] the Large Glass, such that the board seems almost a continuation of the Large Glass beyond the frame at its bottom. (...) The brilliance of this photograph lies in the fact that it incorporates three of the major themes of Duchamp's art and life in a single image: art, eroticism, and strategy. Achille Bonita Oliva reads the image as an erotic stalemate, which echoes the theme of sexual frustration in the Large Glass.
Such statements can, of course, be read with rigorous skepticism, but that would be missing the point of art in the first place. Art - and modern art in particular - is associative by definition, and Bailey's essay is one long associative excercise, obviously backed by solid research, references and a vast amount of art experience. I did find his writing slightly more academic than Naumann's, and I suspect readers unfamiliar with the way art conaisseurs tend to talk about their passion will probably be put off a little by all this erudition and huge display of knowledge, ranging from medieval manuscript to World War architecture. All the same, Bailey makes a convincing case that The Large Glass does indeed contain more than a haunting hint of chess and it more or less proves the work is so rich that such a lenghty essay can be written about this work alone.

A final, not unimportant question is how good a chess player Duchamp was, anyway? Edward Lasker (not to be confused with Emanual Lasker) called him a "master among amateurs" and said that "it there were official rankings of United States chess players in the 1920s and 1930s, Duchamp have certainly ranked among the top twenty-five." WGM Jennifer Shahade, who analysed Duchamp's games and picked 15 for the book (chosen for "their quality and their importance to Duchamp himself"), takes a more nuanced position on the question:
In analyzing dozens of his games, I saw flashes of tactical brilliance as well as deep understanding of strategic concepts, such as open files and pawn structure. Duchamp also had weaknesses. He sometimes played too passively against strong players and he occasionally lacked precision, especially towards the end of the game. Yet it was clear to me in annotating the fifteen games to follow that this artist, who excelled in so many styles, also mastered the ultimate in conceptual art: chess.
Shahade's analyses are accurate and easy to follow, with a focus on weaker players. This is perfectly reasonable as it is the only way of presenting Duchamp's chess games to a broad audience. The game layout and diagrams are somewhat tougher to follow, since they are based on Duchamps own Design for Chessmen (Buenos Aires 1918). It's an interesting concept, but still one that doesn't exactly help following the game from the book only. Especially the king is a strange piece in Duchamp's design: it looks more like a pigeon with a crown to me - but then again this probably shows I'm still in Wonderland where Duchamp wants me to be anyway.

Here's an example of Shahade's game comments, combining general statements and concrete analysis:

F. Michel [sic; in my database, his name is listed as 'Edmond Michel' - AWM] - Duchamp Strasbourg 1924
Diagram after 13.Bh613...c5

The American Bobby Fischer famously said, "You gotta give squares to get squares," but in this case Duchamp gives more than he receives. The d5-square is now available to White's knight, which gives White a recurring, simplified motif. The d5-square is a quasi-outpost. Although the pawn on e7 can slide to e6 to force the knight away, the advance would weaken Black's dark squares and his d6-pawn.
Shahade refrains from mentioning the stronger alternative 13...a5! as indicated by D. Primel in the ChessBase MegaBase and prefers to talk about general ideas. As said, this can easily defended, but the chess player in me sometimes wished for just a little more depth. What I found impressive in both Shahade's and Naumann's part of the book, though, is their restraint in hinein-interpreting: they do not indulge in far-fetched and hard-to-prove pseudo-theories of how Duchamp was magically inspired by chess and art respectively; instead, they take the rational approach and describe his efforts in a cool yet sympathizing way. The effect? The focus is on Duchamp's creations themselves and not on their interpretation - or their interpretors.

The beauty of many Duchamp paintings, and indeed in his chess games, for Duchamp the chess player was in some respects quite ahead of his time, the beauty of all this is in the eye the beholder: Duchamp is providing the rough material and the spectactor is invited to let his head "be filled with ideas". I find this to be an important general lesson: art and indeed all creative effort is not about making things accurate or even reasonable - that's the realm of science. It's about generating ideas, now matter how wild or far-fetched, and enabling new associations to be made in one's gray matter. This is also how chess can become art: when it transcends the completely rational.

Reading about Duchamp inspires me to try and do the same, to achieve something more than just chess prose or good journalism. The stuff in The Art of Chess provides an excellent playground for this, both to Duchamp fans and to chess players who had never heard of him. If you're interested in having your chess mind turned upside down in an artistic way (or your artistic mind in a chessy way!), this is the book for you.

Update Feb 10: Jennifer Shahade, incidentally, has also played against a (male) nude as part of her Duchamp research project. You can watch the video here.


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