The Chess Player Stripped Bare: Marcel Duchamp (Even)

Chess players are madmen of a certain quality, the way the artist is supposed to be, and isn’t, in general.

~ Marcel Duchamp

The artist Marcel Duchamp was virtually unmatched in his role in changing the course of art history in the 20th Century. I’m inclined to believe he was even more important, in the long run, than Picasso. Duchamp was brilliant, innovative, avant-garde, challenging, and extremely witty. And yet, at the peak of his art career he decided to walk away from the life of the artist and dedicate his life to playing chess. He was on the French team for the chess Olympiads of 1928-1933. He designed the poster for the French Chess Championship of 1925 (below). He was gaga over chess.

I find it no wonder that Duchamp’s art had such an analytical and intellectual bent. Much of the art that preceded him, like the Fauves and Blaue Rider group, or the French post-impressionists, or even, to some degree, the Futurists, relied on a more visceral and emotional response. Duchamp’s work was emotional, certainly, but he also was a challenger to received ideas, including the very idea of Art itself. He expected the viewer to use her brain as well as her heart as she engaged with the work. Those who took up the challenge were never quiet the same. I find it no wonder that his art was such because I now know of his passion for chess, a game that obviously places demands on the brain, and yet is also an art. Art is an idea, and chess is an art.

The earliest of Duchamp’s famous works, Nude Descending a Staircase, one sees the intellectual tendency in full. In the same vein as the cubists, Nude Descending calls on the viewer immediately to analysis, and not just of the work as a work, but to what it is doing in the larger context of art.

Later Duchamp to this thrust further with his readymades. With his readymades Duchamp moved art into the almost entirely conceptual. He was moving away from the visual, or “retinal” kind of art, to the mental. “…it was always the idea that came first, not the visual example”, he said, “…a form of denying the possibility of defining art.” (from Wikipedia)

I would argue that Duchamp’s love of chess fueled his interest in the mental aspect of art for two reasons. One: Chess is very much a challenge of the brain, and yet chess has a broad cultural and historical pedigree, like art. Two: I see Duchamp looking at the art world, at the machinations of style and theory and money and self-satisfaction, and he saw all the pieces interlocking like a chess board. I imagine he was looking for that move that puts his opponent back on his heels through cleverness and surprise. Art, even it all its seriousness, is a game. We are still living in the aftermath of how Duchamp envisioned and played that game.

Duchamp, in his later years, smug and happy with his chess set.

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