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The Intersection Of Chess And Art

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On a recent trip to Ojai, California, I visited the Ojai Valley Museum and was pleasantly treated to an installation entitled "Luster vs. Raku" that featured an oversized chess board of sculpted equine pieces finished with Beatrice Wood's famed luster glaze. Wood was known for her shimmering pots and long, extraordinary life as both a ceramicist and theatrical character in the arts. She was also known for her connection to the famous Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp mentored Wood as a young woman and they became life-long friends. Duchamp was also a chess enthusiast who actually sidelined his career as an artist to focus on the game.

Of course, I immediately started bragging to my California friends and told of St. Louis's World Chess Hall of Fame which not only highlights the all-time champions of chess, but has a permanent collection as well as stimulating special exhibitions and an incredible gift shop. One of the public relations slogans for the museum states that it's a place where chess and art collide.

Shannon Bailey, the chief curator of the museum says, "Chess is over 1500 years old and art has been a constant companion to the game. While simple chess sets were used for everyday play, beautiful, complex, and elegant sets have been created by artists and artisans for centuries to reflect each culture's history and aesthetic tastes. In modern times, artists continue to make sets and many have shown creative license by reinterpreting the game and its pieces. The World Chess Hall of Fame has shown many chess sets including the only two Faberge sets ever made and sets by Yoko Ono, Tom Friedman, and Barbara Kruger.

Susan Barrett, Director of the museum, says, "Chess boards have been highly collectable works of art throughout history and that artists often use chess as a sign of intelligence." She went on to tell me of the exhibition featuring Bill Smith's works entitled "Beyond the Humanities" which will remain in the museum until September 15. Bill is a regional artist with an international reputation. He is a sculptor, innovator, and tinkerer whose pieces employ both a wide range of innovative media and techniques as well as influences from the natural environment. His work has been exhibited in respected institutions throughout the United States and Canada. She also talked enthusiastically of the exhibition coming in October entitled "A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, Fashion, and Chess." In the game of chess, the queen is considered the most powerful and, many times, the most unpredictable piece. This exhibition focuses on the archetype of the queen. Designs from Alexander McQueen among other experimental designers will be used to highlight the queen archetype in fashion and identify relationships with the cultural collective unconscious and traditions of storytelling.

Bradley Bailey is assistant professor of art history at Saint Louis University. His doctoral dissertation, "Duchamp's Chess Identity," was completed at Case Western Reserve University in 2004. Bailey and Francis M. Naumann recently published, "Marcel Duchamp, The Art of Chess,” the first major study in the English language devoted to exploring how Duchamp's activities as a chess player affected his art.

Bailey also recently curated an exhibition at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art entitled, "Marcel Duchamp Chess Master." It was the first exhibition dedicated entirely to the artist's extensive association with chess. It was conceived as an opportunity to experience Duchamp's brilliant and influential career through the lens of his intense involvement with the royal game. Among the works by Duchamp featured in this exhibition were his celebrated ready-made Trebuchet (Trap), a coat rack the artist ironically nailed to the floor of his studio in reference to a critical chess position, as well as his portable retrospective museum, La Boite-en-valise(The Box in a Valise), a suitcase filled with miniature reproductions of his most recognizable work. In addition to a career-spanning selection of works by Duchamp, the exhibition also featured chess-related items by artists associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements, many of whom shared Duchamp's enthusiasm for the game and its cultural significance. The rare opportunity to see examples of the unique and inventive chess-set designs by Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali together in one exhibition captivated and delighted enthusiasts of both art and chess.

Chess has been the theme of numerous well known paintings, poems, novels, plays, films, etc. Some examples are Lewis Carroll's, "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There" written in 1871 in which most of the main characters are represented as chess pieces, with the main protaganist, Alice, being a pawn; "Chess,” a poem by Jan Kochanowski, an epos parody which portrays a game of chess as a battle between two armies written in 1565; the 1984 film entitled "Dangerous Moves” about two men competing in the World Chess Championship Games; and a painting by American artist Thomas Eakins entitled "The Chess Players” (1876).

So if all of this information has stimulated your appetite to learn or play a game of chess, walk across the street from the World Chess Hall of Fame to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St Louis and get involved in this incredible game.

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