Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of Chess Players, 1911


Unlike a piece of writing or a piece of art, it is easy enough to get started with a game of chess. The game of kings offers a limited number of openings. You might never use more than a couple.

For this reason, and several others, most creative people should envy Marcel Duchamp. He turned up, changed the course of art history, and well earned his retirement in the finite maze of chess*.

What might surprise many to his current exhibition at Barbican is the casually mentioned fact that Duchamp was so good at playing chess, he represented France on the international stage.

But the rumour that he gave up art turns out to be an exaggeration. As you can see from the painting above, chess could not completely satisfy even the most cerebral and conceptual of artists.

Having said that, unless we be grandmasters ourselves, it is no easy matter to explain Duchamp’s fascination for the game, beyond such vague notions of strategy, lack of chance, competition.

One of the exhibits is a travel chess board which he made himself so it might after all be fair to say he loved the game as a means of passing time, perhaps of killing it altogether.

Musician and artist John Cage was not much of a chess player. He asked Duchamp for lessons and the older man humoured him by playing him off against his wife Teeny. Nice move.

There is little room for creativity in chess. Even the longest or strangest games are little more than an all-consuming puzzle. Why then does this engagement of Duchamp capture the imagination?

Perhaps, because the artist draws you or me into a dizzying world of gambits, forks, sacrifices and checks. The beauty lies in the patterns of endless play, not in the appearance of the board.

Other artists have dabbled in chess: Yoko Ono, Alighiero Boetti. During the cold war it was perhaps the perfect expression of geopolitical realities which are now more various.

But in rising to the top of two chosen fields, Duchamp outplays everyone. We emerge from the show in London, like Cage et al, as satisfied as any defeated opponent.

Portrait of Chess Players can be seen in The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns showing at Barbican, London, until 9 June 2013.

*I have a conversation with friend Simon Kirkham to thank for this observation.

One thought on “Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of Chess Players, 1911

  1. There is little room for creativity in chess? I beg to differ. After just a few opening moves, creativity takes over. It is truly an art to outplan one’s opponent, to know in advance what they will expect and do and surprise them!

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