Friday 13 January 2017

Chess in Art: Again, With A Footnote

Without wanting to bang on too much about the chess-art, last week's post did suggest that there was a lot of it about. Take Barcelona, for example, right now:

We've seen that Dorothea Tanning photo-montage before, in London just a few years ago (and see here). But that Delauney is a new one - and it helpfully exemplifies a point made in last week's post about the board's chequered pattern serving as a contrast to plainer passages; and is a reminder that it is a motif from theatrical costume. This art website helpfully thumbnails some of the works in the Barcelona show in case it's not convenient for you to hop over there to catch it (by the 22nd January). You'll recognize a few more of them, including Metzinger's Soldier playing Chess from 1915/6, which we showed last week when discussing Chess Board Cubism (and I'd quite forgotten that you can also see it here).

In view of the passing of the great and influential Marxist art critic, writer, and occasional artist, John Berger (1926 - 2017), it was quite remiss of me not to have mentioned last time his particular perspective on Cubism. So I'd like to add a brief footnote about his views - and note a reference he made to chess.

Berger wrote profoundly about Cubism in The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965). He then recycled - and toned down - his analysis as an essay: The Moment of Cubism (1967). We can't go into great detail here on what is, after all, a chess blog: save to say that the "moment" epithet says a lot - or rather, encapsulates a lot - about Berger's views on nature and endurance of Cubism.

For Berger, Cubism wasn't a style or a movement but a revolution in art at a particular historical conjuncture: when, in a few optimistic years before the cataclysm of World War One, changing the world for the better seemed possible. Cubism, he argued, introduced an entirely novel use of space, treatment of form, and relation of the artist to their subject matter. He comes close to saying that it was as if the insights of dialectical materialism (the philosophical system proposed to underpin the Marxist historical materialist understanding of society) had been applied in art. Strong stuff, even if one feels that in The Success..., for all his astute observations, he sometimes over-reaches himself. However, he was writing fifty years ago - in 1967 - when there was perhaps more hope of social progress than now, and when the Cubist "moment" was a mere sixty years before that...

Maggi Hambling's magnificent portrait of John Berger (2000),
currently on display in the British Museum.
From the National Portrait Gallery.

As for chess, Berger was too engagé to play, if at all; but, as we noted some time ago, he did have something to say about the fascination many find in the game. He commented (for the British Library) on this early, posed, photograph by Claudet of two chess players.

A game of Chess  (1844-45)
by Antoine Claudet (on the right).
From the
British Library here
 "A game of chess, like a game of cards, begins anew, offering pristine open choices. Thus, such games differ from life, where the continuity of cause and effect is endless, and no-one can ever return to start again at a beginning. This partly explains the deep and universal appeal of these games. The camera, conceived to interrupt endless lived time at "a decisive moment", is unequipped to enter the discrete time of games. It can take pictures of the players but it can't enter the time-field of their game. Claudet's photograph shows a camera placed at a frontier beyond which the camera cannot go." (no date)
Whatever Berger says about the limits of photography, it is amusing to note that when it comes to comparing the vicissitudes of chess, life, and cards - all mentioned in the same breath - he is in unexpected company: with the Bloomsbury novelist E.M. Forster, as we discovered here. It comes as no surprise that they draw different conclusions.  

John Berger: RIP.

The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965) Penguin.
The Moment of Cubism reproduced in: New Left Review (1967); The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays, Weidenfeld (1969); The White Bird, Hogarth Press (1988).


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