On Chess: Art, Chess, And The Concept Of War
Chess challenges the mind’s abilities, as well as the body’s stamina. Chess is mental and physical, but can it be conceptual? If you’ve ever taken a modern art course, your professor likely talked about conceptualism. Art historians credit Marcel Duchamp as the father of conceptual art. Eccentric, rebellious and a lover of chess, Duchamp was a revolutionary artist. In Duchamp’s quest for artistic freedom, he also became extremely interested in chess. Duchamp, along with Julien Levy and Max Ernst, staged an exhibition entitled "The Imagery of Chess" in 1944. They challenged over 30 artists to create chess sets that were rebellious and unique, completely independent of the traditional Staunton chess set.
One such chess set was called "Wine Glass Chess Set and Board." André Breton and Nicolas Calas were the masterminds behind this artwork, an elegant yet severe set of wine glasses and mirrored squares. World War II was a time of exponential growth in the art world, as seen in "The Imagery of Chess." The exhibition took place during the height of the war, a time when people all over the world were desperate for diversions and distractions. Breton himself said that “whenever humanity suffers a catastrophe, like World War II, games must be played.” Most artists in the exhibition took this to heart, creating lighthearted, whimsical works. Instead of creating a charming game, however, Breton and Calas imparted their hatred of war and bloodshed into their artwork.
"Wine Glass Chess Set and Board" is brutal and potent. The white pieces are filled with white wine, and the black pieces are filled with red wine. The opponent drinks from the pieces that they capture, celebrating victory by symbolically drinking the “blood” of their victim. The more powerful pieces contain more alcohol, so the better the “kill,” the more inebriated the winner becomes. The mirrored chess board symbolized the narcissism of war. As they play, the opponents see themselves reflected in the board, and thus reflected in the game. "Wine Glass Chess Set and Board" is an excellent example of the intersection of chess, art and history. Breton and Calas’s exhibition submission was a physical chess set, an emotionally stimulating work of art and a conceptual representation of war.
On our 5th anniversary in September 2016, the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis opened an exhibition titled, "Designing Chessmen: A Taste of the Imagery of Chess." The WCHOF re-created some of the lost chess sets from the original "The Imagery of Chess," including André Breton and Nicolas Calas’s
"Wine Glass Chess Set and Board." Many WCHOF employees have shared their memories of the troublesome chess set. Every week, the wine glasses had to be cleaned and refilled. It also constantly let off a strong scent of alcohol. In short, the chess set was a nuisance. It was a dramatic and beautiful nuisance, though, and by including it in the exhibition, the WCHOF paid homage to the vision of creativity in "The Imagery of Chess." Through creating his exhibition, Marcel Duchamp supported art that is individually unique, yet unified by a common theme: chess. Chess is a uniting force; it’s powerful and has the ability to create change. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the WCHOF, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we continue to honor the past, embrace the present, and promote the future of art and chess.
Chloë Olliff is a student at St. Louis University, studying English and German. She works as an intern at the World Chess Hall of Fame, assisting in researching exhibitions and cataloging the museum collection.