Endgame: Duchamp, chess and the avant-garde
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is possibly one of the most controversial figures of 20th century art. Possibly best known for his “fountain” piece, an upturned urinal submitted (and rejected) for the exhibition of the Society of
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is possibly one of the most controversial figures of 20th century art. Possibly best known for his “fountain” piece, an upturned urinal submitted (and rejected) for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Duchamp is an artist whom many art historians praise (or blame) for the birth of contemporary art as we know it. Regardless of your opinion on the man and the work, a conversation was started, and Duchamp’s work was undoubtedly a catalyst.
Duchamp’s work was rooted deep in the avant-garde of the time; relevant commentary adding to the other voices of his contemporaries. The exhibition at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona (runs until 21st January 2017) looks at the work of Duchamp, but all within the context of chess. An unusual approach, yet one that thoroughly inspects the layers of interpretation brought about by this board game.
Entr’acte. René Clair. 1924. Marcel Duchamp plays chess with Man Ray. Surrealism wins the game.
The exhibition is split into 6 rooms, each taking the visitor through different aspects of chess and how the subject matter was interpreted by artists from the beginning of the 20th century, through to World War 2 and beyond. A video from 1903 in the first room by Robert W. Paul stands out. Two men play a game of chess which spirals out of control, ending with the men quarreling and getting arrested. This short film, although comical, contains more subtle allusions. Chess had become the game of the people, after initially being sold to the higher and middle classes of society. The video also refers to the notion that chess has repercussions beyond the small confinement of the pieces and the board designated to house them. This concept is explored throughout the exhibition and is eloquently presented to visitors through a quote by the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure which likens the pieces of the chess game to language, the importance of each one deriving from its the context.
The following section of the exhibition looks at two main frameworks within which chess was used beyond its original function; one is within Soviet Russia and the adoption of chess by Russian Constructivism, and the other is its use by the Bauhaus art school which focused on simplicity and design. The sense of the total work of art, a concept that involves the adoption of the same aesthetic in all aspects of an artwork and beyond in everyday life, is clearly expressed here. A beautiful set by Josef Hartwig shows the pawns as wooden squares, whilst the other pieces show little variation.
Chess consequently morphs into a structure symbolic of so much more than a trivial game. This is perhaps best expressed in the room titled The Game of War, which looks at chess as a propaganda tool. A German chess set from1938 renamed Tak-Tik no longer features the pieces we all know and are familiar with, but is instead made up by pieces that relate to the German army.
The exhibition features some of the best-known figures of modern art, skillfully pointing out the influence chess had on so many artists, and beyond. Duchamp is joined by Magritte, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Paul Klee, and there are plenty of references to Freud and psychology. Often recognised as a game of the mind, chess was very much loved for its depth of meaning, something focused upon by the Surrealists, a group driven by creative inquiry into the subconscious mind. Duchamp’s obsession with chess is revealed room by room, with pictures of the artist competing at chess competitions often popping up in the space.
A significant feature of this exhibition is Manuel Segade’s inclusion of artwork by women. At a time when the contribution of women was widely ignored, it is refreshing to see works by female artists included in this show. Muriel Streeter’s Chess Queens depicting the artist and a fellow painter expresses a feeling of alienation felt by women in the male dominated group of Surrealists.
An eye opening exhibition which covers numerous art movements and artistic approaches, this takes the subject of chess and reveals the multiple facets of the game and its influence on culture.