Arts & Culture

Fields of force: Marcel Duchamp and chess

  • May 23, 2022
  • 3 min read
Fields of force: Marcel Duchamp and chess

In The Article online, Raymond Keene OBE, has recently published Fields of Force, Marcel Duchamp and Chess, an article, which investigates ‘the life and works of that master of chess and artistic genius, Marcel Duchamp’. Keene, an English chess grandmaster, and long time chess correspondent to The Times (1985 – 2019), explores how Duchamp’s ‘artistic forces’ were channelled through the ‘medium’ of chess’, and how the game influenced several of his early paintings in 1910 and 1911, The Chessplayers and The Portrait of Chessplayers. Art and Chess were Duchamp’s two great loves, and in a brief examination of these two paintings, Keene celebrates how the artist was able to use one medium to extol the qualities of the other, and vice versa. Quoting Mark Kremer, from the New in Chess International Magazine Keene writes, ‘The emphasis in these pictures is not on the delicate nature of a game of chess, as seen by a possible observer (compare Duchamp’s The Chess Game, 1910, on which the two later works are a huge advance), but on its insular quality, its isolation vis-à-vis the outside world.

As the years progressed it was clear that Duchamp had chosen chess as a second profession, declaring that the painting he was working on in 1923, at the age of 36, The Painted Glass, as ‘permanently unfinished’. In the following years, Duchamp went on to play chess for France, wrote one book on chess, and translated another. In addition, he covered the subject for Ce Soir, and among many other chess related achievements, became an official for the French Chess Federation.

When it came to the game itself, Keene suggests that Duchamp’s style was heavily influenced by Aron Nimzowitsch, author of My System and its sequel Chess Praxis, annotated by the artist. Explaining how he came to this conclusion, Keene writes he discovered Duchamp’s copy of Chess Praxis, hidden away in a cupboard, on a visit to Fontainebleau to see Marcel Duchamp’s widow, Teeny. Duchamp’s widow, was a friend of Keen’s companion that day, the Enquirer chess correspondent, Barry Martin, then Vice Chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club. ‘One can also detect philosophical resonances between Duchamp and Nimzowitsch in their attitude to chess (in Nimzowitsch’s case) and to chess and art with Duchamp’, To further support his claims, Keene continues, ‘Take for example the following statement by Duchamp: “Chess is a sport – a violent sport. This detract from its most artistic connextions…if anything it is like a struggle. And Nimzowitsch, à propos the International Tournament at San Remo in 1930: “In its fascination and its rich variety, chess is a mirror of the life struggle itself, but to a similar degree it is exhausting and full of pain.”

Perhaps what stands out most in Keene’s article, is the way that for Duchamp, chess offers a visual artistry that could go unnoticed without some knowledge of how the two can be seen as inextricably bound: a philosophical calling to the deeper imagination and intellectual consideration, in which a different kind of visual beauty can be achieved.

Raymond Keene’s full version of Fields of Force: Marcel Duchamp and Chess can be found at, The Article.

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  • It is good to see yet another platform covering Chess as part of the cultural firmament. Might I correct one small detail in that Duchamp’s short career as a chess correspondent,was for the journal, ‘Ce Soir’, and not as stated, ‘Le Soir’.
    Despite many of Duchamp’s peers playing chess, his accomplishments are entirely unparalleled. Formal competitive participation in over-the-board play began in 1921 when he was 34; a quite senior age to have started.
    He was awarded the Master title in 1925, playing until 1933. Between 1931 and 1939, he competed in the first correspondence competitions, later winning a Master title in this domain, eventually retiring undefeated from this mode of play.

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