Friday 23 December 2016

Chess in Art: Tickling the Ivories

Seasonal Greetings, and a question: have you seen this before?

Mirror Case with a Couple Playing Chess, 1325-1350.
France, Paris, C14th. Ivory 10.20cm diam.
The Cleveland Museum of Art 

If you think you have, think again...

...maybe you really saw this...

A Game of Chess (Mirror Case)
France, Paris, ca 1300. Elephant Ivory. 10.5 x 10.4 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum

...with embellishments on the rim, and a more incisive cut over-all.

Note the other subtle differences that enhance the suggestiveness in the design - if that's how you want to see it, and surely that is what was intended (blatantly, some would say). In the V&A version on the right the lady now unveils herself, and rather than refer to a tactic on the board she raises her hand in (mock) alarm. She brushes her partner's wrist, "accidentally-on-purpose" as we used to say, and by this means the two players are artfully conjoined. That marsupial fold in her gown appears even more inviting. Come on in.

Courtly dalliance, amorous games, discreet couplings - all a bit steamy, and based on the ancient legend of Tristan and Isolde. It was a tale well told. Often. Here they are again. Twice.

Left: Mirror Case Paris c1300. Ivory. Diam 11.50cms. Louvre.
Right: Mirror Cover with a Couple Playing Chess Origin Germany (?). Mid C14th. Ivory and Bone. 9.5 x 10 cms.
Walter Museum. 
The famous one from the Louvre on the left was used by Yves Marek in his wonderful Art √©checs et mat (2008) for his chapter on √Črotisme - though he (or his publishers) don't waste too much space on text, just three sides, preferring to present the reader another 15 sides of pictures (that's 23 most enjoyable illustrations) to make his point. The Louvre's is remarkable for the additional kibitzers who offer advice of one sort or the other (what is he pointing at?) to the players. Marilyn Yalom in Birth of a Chess Queen (2004) says the characters "carry signs that leave no doubt as to the game's sexual meaning" - and I think we get her drift: the engraver/artist has wasted no opportunity to double, and then re-double, the entendre.

So, it is with a sense of relief, perhaps, that we get to the rather more chaste German version on the right, where the two young people seem to enjoy their chess as a non-contact sport - or maybe it's just that the chill of the sylvan glade has cooled their ardour which they will rekindle under canvas. But note that some familiar motifs (his upright, her crease) are still in play, if less obviously in your face.

Now: another format re-cycling the same theme.

Left: Leaf of a Writing Tablet  French, Made in Paris. C14th. Ivory. 11.7 x 7.8cm. Met. Museum of Art.
Right: Side of Casket  Made in France. C14th. Ivory. Overall 8.1 x 18.3 x 10.5 Met. Museum of Art. 
There's no stopping them. In three of the four scenes on the left they have dropped all pretence, the chess gear is nowhere to be seen, and they are getting on with the real business, no holds barred. But at least they have kept their kit on - so far. Which is more than can be said for the right-hand panel, where the prodigal son (as reported by Yalom) is - roles and places reversed - taking a beating. On the extreme right: literally. Apparently that's a prostitute he is playing, so perhaps he let his mind wander.  
Without attempting an intimate antiquarian analysis of all this (which you get anyway on the excellent Victoria and Albert page) observe the remarkable similarity of style, and the re-cycled motifs, suggesting a common source of manufacture. But, getting now to the point of this post, a friend of mine from way back when, and now living in Italy, has come across yet another variation on the theme - in Perugia. So, here we show it: to an unsuspecting chess audience for maybe for the first time.        

Ivory mirror case. French. First half C14th.  Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria.
Clearly out of the same stable: and now that you've got your eye in I'll leave it to you to decode the tell-tale signs in the upper half and, who knows, maybe it's all about to kick-off down below as well.

With thanks to Peter Mason for the tip and the last pic.

Lost in Art

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