Friday 2 September 2016

Chess in Art: Miss Tanning's Appendix

[This post by Martin Smith]

In this appendix to last week's post you are requested to take another look at the ensemble photograph of Germaine Richier's L'Echiquier (Grand) of 1959 (currently on display at Tate Modern), and observe how the Queen (second on the right) is stealing a sideways glance up at the wall. She is flapping her arms to signal her excitement. The Knight takes evasive action.

She must have noticed something.

What has apparently caught her attention is this work by Dorothea Tanning.

A Mi-Voix (1958) Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)
© Dorothea Tanning - From here

A Mi-Voix,  i.e. with a whisper; or more literally "at half voice" (though I've seen it rendered with painterly delicacy as "in an undertone"), was created a few years after the artist had relocated from the States to Paris with her husband, the surrealist Max Ernst. It depicts three figures, maybe all female, sitting around a cafĂ©-style table. It has many resonances, but we won't explore them here as this is only an Appendix, and anyway the Tate has an excellent commentary on the painting here.

Except to say they are clearly not playing chess, even though Tanning herself was a bit of a chesser, something we have already explored at length in several posts including on the occasion of her 100th Birthday in 2010. She sadly passed away just a couple of years later: the 25th August (a date just gone) was the anniversary.

One famous chess event that she graced was a "blindfold" simul by Koltanowski in 1945: captured in a photograph with Ernst et al, and turned by her into an artwork. It appeared in the Alison Jacques Gallery in London a few years ago (we flagged it up at the time here).

June 5th 1945 at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York. Ernst at the end, right; Tanning next to him.
Kolty is by the window turned away from us; Duchamp makes his moves. With thanks to the Estate of Dorothea Tanning  

She had played another game - or, rather, several - with Ernst in her studio. It provided the lubricious catalyst for the start of their relationship. "There is something voluptuous...about chess" she then observed, unlikely as it sounds.

Enter Peggy Guggenheim (born August 26th 1898 - died 1979) - the subject of a recent docu-film, and a pretty decent biography by Francine Prose. In 1941 she had helped Ernst escape occupied France (he was German, thus an enemy alien to the French, already a "degenerate" artist to the Nazis) to the US, after she had hoovered up, at bargain basement prices (Duchamp told her what to buy), a fabled collection of modern art, now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Max, incidentally, had been besotted with the otherworldly Leonora Carrington - young enough to be his daughter. She had to get out of France as well and - after a breakdown - eventually escaped to Mexico (by means of a convenient marriage to a Mexican diplomat) - she died there not so long ago. In the States Max married Peggy (after further dalliances with Leonora) and then, as marriage broke down sought a divorce so he could marry Dorothea, who was also married as it happens. Peggy was not best pleased, but eventually consented (following sound advice from the next big man in her life) bedding any number of gents (including, natch, Marcel Duchamp) en passant. As her life staggered on she married several others (also accumulating a menagerie of dogs). Dorothea and Max hitched in 1945 and were together for 30 years.

Leonora and Max (in c.1939); Dorothea (in 1948); Peggy (in 1925)

The two ladies refer to each other in their respective biographies. Dorothea writes, in Between Lives (2001 p134), generously, if primly, of Peggy as "the gentle collector of paintings." Prose, in her Guggenheim biog., complains that Tanning "fails to note that [Max] was married" to Peggy, as if such niceties ever bothered Miss Guggenheim. In Out of This Century (1983 p280), Peggy ("wild with jealousy" as she admits) lets "Miss Tanning" have it from both barrels with typical, but unbecoming, bitchiness:
"There was...Dorothea Tanning, a pretty girl from the Middle West. She was pretentious, boring, stupid, vulgar and dressed in the worst possible taste but was quite talented and imitated Max's paintings, which flattered him immensely. She was so much on the make and pushed so hard it was embarrassing....She also played chess with him, which was something I could not do. He took a great interest in her painting but I was surprised that she gave him so much thought since she was vastly inferior to Leonora, who was really a creature of genius. I couldn't understand his infatuation. Max protested and said in the most pathetic manner that she was not the fille de rien which I accused her of being." 
In my paperback edition of 1983 of Peggy Guggenheim's "Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict" there is a comprehensive Index on pages 386 to 396. Max Ernst is there. Leonora Carrington and Marcel Duchamp are there. The dogs are there. Even Chuto, a pig, is there. Should we be surprised that Dorothea Tanning, although mentioned - that is to say, savaged - in the text, is not.

There is currently one of Dorothea Tanning's soft-sculptures on show in an exhibition at the Camden Art Centre in London. An exhibition of her late flower paintings has just opened at Alison Jaques Gallery.

Peggy Guggenheim Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. First published 1979, and in paperback in 1983, by AndrĂ© Deutsch, London.
Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (2001). Northwestern UP, Illinois.
Francine Prose, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the New (2015). Yale UP, New Haven.

Chess in Art Index at another place  

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