Sarah's Chess Journal

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         The History and The Culture of Chess

The Imagery of Chess -Surrealism and Chess
June 2007

The main focus of my Chess interest lies in the 19th century. While there's more than enough there to keep me busy the rest of my life,  occasionally I peek into the 20th century for a bit of diversity. One of the problems with the 20th century is that with so much happening in so many places, it gets overwhelming and seeing it as a whole is virtually impossible. Rather than tilting at windmills, when I do explore the 20th century, it's generally on very specific topics. Even these very specific topics tend to be quite complex.

When I was assisting Lawrence Totaro in presenting documentations of Chess references for various literary, artistic and cultural icons, one of which was John Cage, I was reminded of someone whom I consider possibly the most fascinating figure in 20th century Chess - Henri Robert Marcel Duchamp. Although the highest level Duchamp ever reached was to almost become the French champion, he effectively neglected his art career in favor of Chess.  I'm not an student of art history and I don't claim to understand anything about Duchamp's art, or the art produced by the Dadaists or Surrealists, but in exploring these movements and the artists involved, I find myself affected, shocked or inspired at times by their conceptions.

In researching John Cage, I came across, of course, the 1944 art show called Imagery of Chess. Because of a 2003 art show called Imagery of Chess Revisited, based upon the 1944 show, much had been written about the original. I wasn't enthralled with the idea of replicating what has already been documented - but I noticed that everything I read was, individually, very limited in scope. I researched deeper and deeper still, looking into the interconnections between the different artists, and their relationships to Chess. It occurred to me that the 1944 show was in a sense an inevitable, yet absurd  culmination of this relationship between Chess and the avant-garde artists of the first half of the 20th century. This existential connection - as well as a more complete documentation of the Imagery of Chess - is the basis of this article.

I limited myself to the participants in the 1944-5 Imagery of Chess show although this omits some obvious Surrealists, such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.  And I'm not sure every participant in the show could be strictly called a Surrealist. But the show did feature many of the most prominent Surrealists of the time. There are several things that seem to connect almost all these Surrealists. Things such as sexuality, chess and Marcel Duchamp. 

Marcel  Duchamp


                                           the story                                               the show



some acknowledgements:

Between Lives: An artist and Her World  by Dorothea Tanning. W. W. Norton & Company Publishers. 2001

Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim by Anton Gill

Plaster-Filled Eggshell Gambit by Blake Eskin
New York Times - October 16, 2005

THE TALK; Art of the Game By Robert Hughes
New York Times - October 9, 2005

Julien Levy, Art Dealer by Lewis Kachur

Imagery of Chess Checklist

The Imagery of Chess Revisited - edited by Larry List; published by George Braziller, Inc.
Reviewed by Doug Bandow

about Imagery of Chess Revisited

Oldest Living Surrealist Tells All by John Glassie

Their Artistic Field of Dreams - Newsday article by Ariella Budick, May 21, 2007

Marcel Duchamp edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine

Man Ray, American Artist by Neil Baldwin

most of all, I want to acknowledge my dear friend, Deb, whose help was utterly immeasurable.

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