The Art of Chess

Exhibition of Chess Sets by Major Artists from Fabergé to Hirst, Saturday 28th June – Sunday 28th September 2003.

One of the most compelling exhibitions in Britain this summer, The Art of Chess will feature nineteen chess sets designed by artists in the last hundred years that demonstrate the interaction between chess and modern art. This exhibition will illustrate how this most challenging of games has inspired artists from 1900 to the present day, as it had in earlier centuries.

The Art of Chess will intrigue not only chess enthusiasts but also followers of modern and contemporary art. Each set in the exhibition will illustrate a move in the apocryphal last game played by Napoleon (white) with General Bertrand (black) on St Helena in 1820. Napoleon was a keen chess player and he allegedly won this game by exploiting the bad play of his opponent. The final chess set culminates with Napoleon checkmating General Bertrand.

On public view for the first time will be five recently commissioned chess sets designed by leading contemporary artists Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Paul McCarthy, Yayoi Kusama and Maurizio Cattelan. These new works will be set in context by chess sets designed during the 20th century by such major artists as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Yoko Ono.

The first exhibit will be the only known Fabergé chess set. Made by the workmaster Karl Gustav Hjalmar Armfelt, this exquisite silver-mounted hardstone set has pieces carved from tawny aventurine quartz and grey Kalagan jasper, the board being made of Siberian jade squares alternating with pale apricot serpentine. It was specially made circa 1905 for Tsar Nicolas II’s Commander in Chief of the Russo-Japanese War, General Alexei Kouropatkin.

There is just one set dating from the 19th century: a Kholmogory Russian mammoth ivory set. The village of Kholmogory, near Arkhangel’sk, was a centre of bone and ivory carving, the origins of which go back to the Neolithic period. The Kings are shown as chiefs holding pipes, the Bishops as hunters with rifles and the Knights intricately carved as reindeer heads. Such decorative sets were popular with the Russian aristocracy and this delightful example is laid out as the first move when Napoleon brought out his Knight as did his opponent.

From the Soviet Union of the 1920s will be two remarkable Russian Revolutionary chess sets that reflect the social conflicts of the time, designed by the sisters Natalia and Yelena Danko for the Lomonosov State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad. The rarer of the two is popularly known as The Town and Country design and was produced in a limited number of prototypes. One side features the King and Queen as factory workers, while on the opposing side the King and Queen are farm workers, the Knights water wheels and the Pawns are bottles of milk with open books beside them. In the second propaganda set, Capitalists versus Communists, one of the Kings is modelled as Death holding a human thigh bone.

The second gallery focuses on the work of Marcel Duchamp, the Bauhaus and Meissen. Duchamp was so enamoured of chess that in the 1920s his professional involvement in the game caused many to conclude that he had ceased artistic activities altogether. As a member of the French team, he played in the 1928 chess Olympiad. The exhibition features two sets by Duchamp, the first designed while he was living in Buenos Aires in 1919. The set comes with a travelling foldaway table and a board that has two stopwatches for timed games. From 1943 is a pocket set with a leather wallet, celluloid pieces and ingenious pin attachments, designed by Duchamp as a ‘Rectified Readymade’.

One of the most important influences on the design of chess sets in the 20th century was the Bauhaus school of art and design which flourished in Germany between 1919 and 1928. Josef Hartwig was the Workshop Master in charge of woodcarving and the set on view demonstrates in miniature the Bauhaus design principles. He rejected the traditional idea of figures and based his design on the function of the pieces on the board. The King, for example, is a cube diagonally set on top of a larger cube reflecting the way that the piece can move in a limited fashion in all directions while the Queen, the most mobile piece in the game, is a sphere on top of a large cube, the fluid sphere representing the privileged degree of movement the piece is allowed.

A Meissen stoneware Art Deco ‘futuristic’ chess set was designed by Max Esser, a master craftsman for the celebrated porcelain factory in the 1920s. The terracotta and dark chocolate brown pieces are in the fashionable Art Deco style: the Bishops in the form of Japanese tsunami, or giant crested waves, and the Knights as stylised horses’ heads.

The third gallery is devoted to the chess sets of the Avant-Garde and Fluxus movements. A travelling chess set, designed by the American sculptor Alexander Calder, illustrates the artist’s ability to fashion intensely evocative art from the debris of daily life. Completed over a weekend in 1942, it is made from segments of a broom handle which he then daubed with red and black paint. The resulting pieces are a combination of abstract and figurative design.

In 1944 the Julien Levy Gallery in New York commissioned a number of contemporary artists to design chess sets for an innovative exhibition entitled The Imagery of Chess. Amongst the original exhibits was a boxwood set by Max Ernst. The abstract pieces possess a rhythm that plays out across the board during a game. The powerful curve of the crescent-shaped Knight suggest both a horse’s head and the circuitous character of the moves while the configuration of the Bishop evokes both a mitre as well as its ability to move two ways.

Man Ray’s abstract set of 1946 has pieces of red and silver anodised alloy with a varnished wood board. Man Ray was an avid amateur chess player although his friend Marcel Duchamp jokingly referred to him as little more than ‘a wood pusher’. However Man Ray said that his interest in the game was “directed towards designing new forms for chess pieces, of not much interest to players, but to me a fertile field for invention”.

Yoko Ono, also an avid chess player, was a member of the informal international group of artists from the early 1960s to the late 1970s known as Fluxus. Her painted wood set White on White Chess Set from 1966 was surprisingly classical in design and comes with white chairs, a white inlaid board and white pieces. In this exhibition, the 1997 version of the original entitled Play it by Trust is on show. The concept of an all-white chess set derails any ordinary game as the players lose track of their pieces, ideally leading to a shared understanding of mutual concerns. Takako Saito’s Fluxus Weight Chess Set from 1964 was made to fit into a drawer of a ‘Flux Cabinet’ and comprises a series of identical white boxes – each piece being defined by its weight. The King, for example, has steel ball bearings in the box while the boxes for the Pawns contain sand. George Maciunas, another leading Fluxist artist, is represented by Colour Balls in Bottle-Board-Chess Set of 1966 which is made from glass jam jars glued together to form a square board with coloured balls inside them. To make a move it is necessary to reach inside the relevant jar and move the ball to another jar on the ‘board’.

The final gallery is devoted to the five contemporary sets and boards commissioned in 2001 by RS&A Ltd, a new London-based company dedicated to producing innovative projects with contemporary artists. Each set, made in an edition of seven, is individually crafted in a variety of different materials such as wood, porcelain, glass and silver and packaged to the artist’s specified wishes. Damien Hirst’s Mental Escapology set comprises glass and silver casts of medicine bottles with etched silver labels. The glass and mirrored board displays the biohazard symbol. It is accompanied by its own glass medicine chest.

The set designed by Jake and Dinos Chapman has hand-painted black and white bronze figures and a wood marquetry board inlaid with black and white double-headed skulls and crossbones. The pieces are post-apocalyptic adolescent figures, one side white with Arian haircuts, the opposing side black with Afro hair. The set is packaged in its own handcrafted games box. The Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy is a keen chess player. His Kitchen Chess set is made from random objects found in his own kitchen such as a miniature rubber duck and a ketchup bottle. The board and box have been made from the artist’s kitchen floor that was ripped up during the project as a tribute to Duchamp’s chess board design of 1937.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s porcelain Pumpkin Chess set and board is decorated with her signature spot motif. Made by the German porcelain factory Villeroy & Boch, the white side has red dots while the opposing side bears black dots on a yellow ground. The porcelain board is painted with the same colour combination. The set is presented in a white leather display case. The final exhibit, laid out as Napoleon’s fictional last move, is the creation of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan who is known for his mischievous sense of humour. Made by Bertozzi and Casoni and titled Good versus Evil, the black King is shown as Hitler opposed on the white side by Martin Luther King. Notable figures such as Donatella Versace, Rasputin, General Custer, Superman, Mother Teresa and Sitting Bull appear as Pawns.

The exhibition ends with two classic silent films, Chess Fever and Entr’acte. The former is an early Soviet comedy featuring a number of the world’s greatest chess players, filmed during a tournament in Moscow in 1925. Vladimir Fogel, a leading comic actor of the 1920s, plays a hapless chess fanatic. Entr’acte was made in Paris in 1924 to be shown between two acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche.

The origin of chess is unclear. It is believed to have originated around the 7th century in India or Persia and derived from an earlier Indian game. After reaching Arab countries it had spread all over western Europe by the 10th century. No other game in history has been so widely reflected in art and literature around the world. The Art of Chess will show that in the 20th and 21st centuries chess has lost none of its inspirational power.

‘From my close contact 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.’ — Marcel Duchamp, Cazenovia, 1952

Admission times and booking information is available from the Gilbert Collection site.

To learn more about the artistic side of chess try the British Chess Problem Society website.

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