Apparently all periods and schools of art have found inspiration in the game. For figurative artists it has offered a vehicle for any number of narratives: courtly dalliance, flagrant flirtation, existential gloom, apocalyptic warfare, geopolitical intrigue, political lampoon, and more. Non-figurative artists have looked to the motivation behind the moves, the geometry in the play, the rolling thought beneath, all of which make the game amenable to more conceptual or abstract expression - and a medium for those artists who, from the early decades of the last century, have been leaving representation behind.
This post will explore one such early twentieth century artistic "ism" at the outer limit of representation, whose label suggests a rectilinear affinity with a game played on squares: Cubism. It flourished and dissipated more or less a hundred years ago; although it still casts a long shadow. "Cubism" has always intrigued me, especially as artists of this stripe created a good number of chess-themed works, almost since day one. Please see below.
Picasso (1881-1973) and George Braque (1882-1963) were the co-inventors, in about 1907/8, of the distinctive Cubist way of doing things, though the label itself was not of their coinage. In its first years they likened themselves to two climbers roped together. Cubism was then to evolve and spawn rapidly as many other artists adopted its vocabulary, often with a different accent, sometimes speaking almost another tongue.
We start with a bit of hard-core early Cubism - though it is not a chess-piece as such: at the inception there seemed not to be any, though matters were quickly put right. The work gives us a reference point for later developments, and it is representative of what we all think of as the classic Cubist work: monochrome and fragmented, multi-dimensional and composed apparently of little cubes. It is also "difficult" - as much now as it was then. We have always known that the artist must suffer for their art. With "Analytic" Cubism (as this early uncompromising manner came to be called) the viewer may feel that they have to suffer as well.
|Picasso Accordionist (1911)|
Guggenheim, New York
This is typical of the first phase of Cubism (already by 1911 a few years old) in representing a single figure, here playing an accordion, which was one of Braque's accomplishments, though mandolins and guitars were also popular. You can see hints of the instrument (and perhaps it is a mandolin, maybe played upright) among references to hands, arms and elbows; a head makes an appearance at the top. In fact everything is more or less where you would expect it to be, though only after the form has been seemingly deconstructed and reassembled from various viewpoints (so much easier to pull off with a solitary figure). In spite of, or even because of, these transformations you may feel that the work has an austere beauty. The "Cubisme" epithet, incidentally, is credited mainly to the artist/ctitic Max Jacob (1876-1944) (see e.g here).
Compare the above with one of the only two chess paintings that Picasso did in his prodigious career:
|Picasso Chess (1911)|
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
With this, caveman cubism begins to come in from the cold. There's a touch of colour to soften the blow, and now a subtle shift spreads the play across the park, no longer to hog the centre spot. However, the references to its subject (players and pieces) are still oblique, with but a suggestive sign here, or an ambiguous cipher there. An underpinning triangle holding it all together is again evident, supplemented now by a disc. According to the Met's interpretation, the right-hand edge of the triangle represents a drape pulled back to reveal the game, so we are now dealing with planes of recession - a foretaste of things to come.
To my eye, in Picasso's Chess we get a game played by two. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) - chess playing artist par excellence - got in on the Cubist act as you might expect, and did the same - though he was already "extend[ing] the language of Cubism" (Cooper The Cubist Epoch (1971)), as would many others.
|Duchamp Portrait of chess players (1911)|
Here there are fewer cubes and more curves, the figures are more obvious, too, and Duchamp uses undisguised chess symbols to suggest the interaction of the game: something is most definitely going on - it's not just an analytical portrait, or an ultra-sophisticated still life: there's some real chess happening, seen as a mental engagement, not simply as the physical shuffling of bits.
But we are jumping a little ahead, or to the side, of the story, and should get back to mainstream Cubism in its next "official" phase: "Synthetic" Cubism - the term widely adopted by the art establishment. It emerged in 1912. Some critics, by the way, don't accept the utility of these labels and go for the chronological "early, high, and late Cubism" - for example the above-mentioned Douglas Cooper. The Tate notes that Synthetic Cubism adds "textures and patterns...experiment[s] with collage using newspaper print and paper...flattening out the image and sweeping away the last traces of allusion to three-dimensional space." (from here).
The next work, by an artist less well-known this side of the Channel, seems to heading in that direction...
|Louis Marcoussis (1883-1941)|
Still Life with chess board (1912)
Pompidou Centre, Paris
...though unfortunately it is not clear from this reproduction whether those are real playing cards stuck on (i.e. collaged), or painted representations. A hall-mark of Synthetic Cubism was this tricksiness, with bits of real stuff standing-in for paint (a reversal of what art usually does). The artist thereby makes a little joke, "this is not a pipe"-style, well before Magritte in 1948. Or does he?
The Marcoussis above is a good example of "Chess Board Cubism" (as we could dub the sub-genre we are now discussing) where the board is employed as a pictorial device: for its busy, animated, "black" and "white" squares contrasting with other, plainer, surfaces. In fact that griddy squareness repeats throughout the composition. The motif harks back, incidentally, to another chequered pattern employed in particular by Picasso: the harlequin's costume. In this decorative role, a chess board could just as well be a draughts/checker board, and in this the Spaniard Juan Gris (1887-1927), the Grand Master of Chess-board Cubism, reigns supreme. You can find at least six damier/echiquier paintings of his between 1914 and 1924, plus five more incorporating a check motif in another guise. Here is just one. It is a case of what those in the know refer to as "Crystal Cubism".
|Juan Gris (1887-1927)|
Draughts Board and Playing Cards (1915)
National Gallery of Australia
It's pretty much the same as the Marcoussis in terms of content - gaming gear on a table, drinks, smokes, and a snippet of newspaper - but it's much cleaner, neater, more colourful, and accessible. It's very elegant and tasteful, and full of repose, there's none of your anxious Analytical stuff here. Perhaps there's also a foretaste of Art-Deco. "Crystal Cubism"? Because it speaks in a cut-glass accent? It sits easy on the eye, and ones like it hang in many a blue-chip foyer or boardroom: "Corporate Cubism", then.
In contrast to the earlier phases of Cubism, Juan Gris has more or less done away with depth (i.e near versus far; solidity, recession). Everything is flattened out in a pattern coming up close to the picture-plane. You also can see this simplification at work below, in another Crystal work, though here at least the soldier is playing an actual game, and the chess board does its proper job.
|Jean Metzinger (1883-1956)|
Soldat jouant aux échecs (1914-15)
Smart Museum, Chicago
Henri Hayden (1883-1970) was another less well-known artist who cut his teeth on the cube. On the left below is what could be his effort at the de rigueur Cubist test-piece: cards etc on a table. For that reason I've included it - even though unfortunately, and maybe suspiciously, the source for the image on the internet - here - doesn't give the title, date or location of the work (though it is apparently signed lower right), and I've not yet found it elsewhere. Incidentally the Tate has a Hayden chess piece from 1961, "Chess Board in Ochre", but won't put it on-line, and they say he did another as early as 1913. The Hayden below makes an interesting comparison with the Marcoussis and Gris, above, for its play with surface texture, and its unstable recession - it is a half-way house between them.
Now, before we come to some examples closer to home, an hommage to the great George Braque, one of the founding fathers, who - in contrast to the gadfly Picasso - pursued a resolute and single-minded path. He includes an incidental chess board in his late "Patience", where it fills an awkward gap. But, noting once again the cards etc on a table, you are drawn to the solitaire and her doubled full face/profile in a late refinement of the cubist multi-view. Otherwise Braque didn't do any chess pictures (as far as I'm aware), but did produce a number of billiard pieces - also in the 1940s.
|Left: Henri Hayden (?)|
Right Georges Braque La Patience (1942) Private Collection
Thanks to a suggestion from Justin the next example shows how Cubism adapted to the English climate, and how it was diluted and tamed. It became less a radical way of seeing the world and more a mere mannerism. William Roberts (1895-1980) was known as "the English Cubist", but he was a country mile from cubes, planes and collage of the Continentals. As you can see from his inter-war piece below, all that remains of Cubism is an angularity - albeit softened - bouncing around the composition, a quirky way with form, and a shallow picture space, The chess game does its duty as the axis around which the picture spins - in the same way as Gris above.
|William Roberts (1895-1980)|
The Chess Players (1929-1930)
The scene depicted is said to be Roberts (a "dogged player" according to his son here) hanging-out with his student mates, including his friend Paul de Zoysa, who, I think, is the one holding the white piece in the painting. The focus on the camaraderie of the group (but did that include the ladies?), as distinct from the one-on-one of a game, is reinforced by the shift of title for the final work. Before eventually settling on "The Chess Players", earlier studies were titled "Checkmate". You rather see the point when comparing it to a later effort that was indeed so-called:
|William Roberts. Checkmate (1975)|
In this vaguely cubist inflected work, full-frontally presented, we find yet again the evergreen play on "checkmate". Typically of Roberts, the reverberating rhythm and the contrapuntal composition are a delight, and he has done away with depth. And cop the eye-popping, tell-tale, detail: the painted toe-nails, the abandoned shoes, the lampshade askew (and add a knowing etcetera). Once again the chess game is the turning point of the design, and the talking point in the scene. At age 80 is this jolly picture a wistful reminiscence of the artist's youthful "dogged play"? Better not ask.
Yes, William Roberts, in saucy Beryl Cook style, was a very English Cubist - if, by then, a Cubist at all - one for whom the genie of abstraction remained firmly corked in the bottle. As for Chess Board Cubism in general, its day had come, and now - sadly - has gone.
Acknowledgment: "The rolling thought" notion comes from Tom Hackney - about whom we really should do another post.
Lost in Art
And see here