In 1944, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst organized the group exhibition Imagery of Chess at Julien Levy Gallery, which featured paintings and sculptures of new designs of chess pieces. Thirty-two artists including Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, and Isamu Noguchi contributed their visions of the board game. The Surrealists, of course, were far from the first to focus on the design of chess, although their artworks may have been among the first conceptual interpretations of the age-old activity.
The chess board as a form of sculpture is explored in Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World, a book recently published by FUEL that surveys dozens upon dozens of sets created over centuries from countries around the world. As Dylan Loeb McClain, a former New York Times chess columnist, writes in an introduction, the Staunton design, named for the 19th-century chess master Howard Staunton, is likely the most familiar to many of us, ubiquitous and representing the “de facto standard” used in the World Chess Federation. Masterworks highlights a selection of extraordinary examples, from one-of-a-kind sets made for royalty like Catherine the Great to a rare, circa-1900 game from Japan that features pieces shaped like birds — so accurate you can apparently identify each one with a birdwatching guide. As McClain sums it up, “The game is universal, but how it is adopted and adapted is not.”
Featuring a pictorial survey of sets each accompanied by short essays on their histories by a number of chess experts, the tome is over 200 pages of gleaming chess porn but also lends insight on how artists have played with the game’s visual language over time. Many were made simply to showcase skill; others, to commemorate historic events such as the Battle of Waterloo. Some are also impressive feats of engineering, like the first set made to be played in space by cosmonauts on the Soyuz 9 mission, which had pieces affixed to the board.
Many of the sets included in Masterworks are by nameless artisans, including craftsmen of the East India Company and those of the House of Fabergé — which produced just two chess sets ever: one of Siberian jade and pale apricot serpentine, and another of silver and silver gilt. A number, though, are attributed to their creators, indicating a turn away from individuals working within established styles toward the 20th century. There’s an exquisite set designed by the sculptor Max Esser, who transformed pearly Meissen porcelain into tiny sculptures of sea life, all set on a board that resembles the white foam of ocean waves. Also elegant are the delicate pieces by mid-19th-century German designers Michael and Anton Edel, who conceived of multiple chess sets with kings and queens on tall pedestals that resemble multi-tiered cakes. A section on 20th century chess sets highlights boards by Ernst, bare-boned but sleek; by Man Ray, who experimented with wood, aluminum, bronze, silver, and ivory to create abstract pieces; and by Josef Hartwig, whose pieces for his now-famous “Bauhaus Chess Set” were carved in forms that cleverly indicate their permitted movements across the checkered arena. Some of the most captivating of boards arrive from the Japanese Fluxus artist Takako Saito, who has made over 100 designs that turn the game into a multi-sensory experience. Various sets of hers feature pieces that vary in scent, in weight, and even in sound — emitted when a player lifts one.
Masterworks, though unintended as an exhaustive catalogue of chess design, presents a diverse selection of chess board examples; but its focus is limited, unfortunately, to the visions of men, with Saito’s sets being the sole examples by a modern female artist. Many other women have designed boards, as showcased in Ladies’ Knight: A Female Perspective on Chess, a 2015 exhibition at St. Louis’s World Chess Hall of Fame. On view were designs including Yoko Ono‘s famous white board; a dollhouse-inspired set by Rachel Whiteread; and a characteristically red, black, and white one by Barbara Kruger. These, too, are beautiful and rare, and significantly, checkmate any notion of chess as a man’s game.
Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World is available through FUEL Publishing.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.