The game of chess has been a source of inspiration for countless artists over the centuries. Not only have swathes of paintings and sculptures on the theme of chess been produced, but many artists have also created physical chess sets. Some of these chess sets were created to delight and amaze people with their beauty or luxuriousness. Some were to exemplify cutting-edge design. Yet more chess sets were made in order to comment on the times or convey a particular message.
Yoko Ono famously created “White Chess Set” (1966). This entirely white chess set, complete with white table, white chairs, white board and white pieces, challenges the concept of opposition and of fighting an adversary. As a game progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify each side’s chessmen. Ono’s desire is for the players to recognise and appreciate the sense of futility shared by both of them, which she hopes will result in the cessation of the battle and reconciliation. After all, how can one continue to fight when one realises they are no different than their enemy? Ono has continued to produce variations of her original work, such as “Play it By Trust” (2009), which is on permanent display at the Reykjavik Art Museum.
In complete contrast to the peaceful sets by Yoko Ono, artist Tony Raymonzrek created his set “Chemical Warfare” exclusively for Purling London, which is currently on display at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand.
“With this innovative and highly original chess set, Raymonzrek echoes the ceaseless conflict in the world over scarce, precious resources such as oil and gold”.
The chess pieces are painted to represent these commodities of wealth and fuel. The chess board is encased within a glass unit, with arm holes in the sides in order for each player to penetrate the battle field and move his or her pieces. The players are invited to wear gas masks to add a sense of realism and danger to the conflict in which they are engaged. “Chemical Warfare” also features a button, which if pressed, releases smoke over the board. Raymonzrek explains that “the added feature of pressing a button to eliminate your enemy…is a representation of a chemical attack; a real and present danger in modern warfare. The button is to act as a dirty tactic. Either player, at any time during the game, can set off the dirty bomb as a sign of weakness and evil; if they so choose. What would it take for the player to decide the only way out is to completely extinguish the enemy with a chemical attack? This technically makes him a winner, but leaves him as a moral loser.” Raymonzrek’s intention is to highlight and raise awareness of the increasing threat of advanced military technology and modern day conflict in the wake of ever more scarce and valuable resources. Raymonzrek goes on to conclude that, “as competition for these finite commodities gets stronger, the potential use of dirty tactics such as chemical attacks are more likely to happen. This threatens our world peace, and deserves attention.”
Barbara Kruger’s chess set “Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?” (2006) comments on power-specifically, the desire to assert power over another. It is a striking set which is highly charged with emotion. The board features a close up photo of a face with eyes closed and mouth wide open. The expression is purposefully ambiguous and thus can be seen to reflect the many emotions and feelings which may arise during a game of chess; despair, frustration, anger, glee and exhilaration. The colours of this set are bold red and black. The pieces, which are influenced by the geometric, simplified forms of Josef Hartwig’s iconic Bauhaus Chess Set (1924) and Man Ray’s “Early Wood Chess Set” (1920-24), are each fitted with a motion-activated voice chip and a miniature speaker which are powered by the chess board. As the pieces are moved, each will utter its own provocative question or aggressive come-back. The result is an intense, emotional power-struggle as each side tries to provoke, assert and have the last word.
Another artist who has created a set exclusively for Purling London is contemporary artist Crystal Fischetti. With her set she takes us back to a time when chess played a role other than being a strategic game to enjoy. For many young lovers of the upper classes in Mediaeval Western Europe, chess become a game of courtship, love and seduction. During this era, young people of the wealthy classes were expected to learn chess as part of their education. As chess was accepted as a mixed-gender activity, it became a way for many young men and women to spend time in each other’s company in a way that was regarded as appropriate. There are many examples of chess being used as a means of lovers courting and flirting with one another. For example, there are numerous illuminated manuscripts, carved ivory reliefs and secular stained glass windows which show images of men and women sat at a chess board in an intimate pose.
Crystal Fischetti’s concept was to represent this seduction and play between men and women. Fischetti explains that every move made in the game is an elegant act of seduction and as the game progresses, the opposing pieces meet and interact in a sensual dance. Using the image of the sun and the moon to signify the masculine and feminine energy, the board and pieces are painted with hues of yellow, orange, blue and silver. Her chess set is painted, not with solemnity or cool precision, but with an artful and joyful playfulness, perfectly capturing this game of seduction.
Chess is a game that is so rich in complexities and subtleties that it is little wonder so many artists have used it as a way of illustrating concepts, conveying messages or addressing specific issues. As chess has been a source of inspiration for artists throughout time, no doubt this ancient game will continue to provide creative stilulus for artists of today and of the future.