"I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all
chess players are artists." – Marcel Duchamp, 1952.
"The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess." -- Benjamin Franklin, 1779.
The ancient game of chess, believed to have originated in India during or before the sixth century, has captivated players around the world. Originally played by kings as a game of war, it spread throughout Asia and Europe, where its rules and the rich cultural symbolism of chess pieces evolved over the centuries.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art explores the art of chess with It’s Your Move, an exhibition from the collections that brings together chess sets from several ages and cultures. It’s Your Move is on view from May 18 - July 21, 2002 in seven galleries around the Museum, housing works of American, Asian, European, and Modern & Contemporary art.
"In their amazing variety, these sets reflect the changes that took place in the game from century to century and continent to continent," said Donna Corbin, Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and organizer of the exhibition. The chess sets on view originate from France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, China, Burma, India and the United States. They are made in a wide range of materials including rock crystal, ivory, metal, glass, porcelain, wood and plastic. Highlights include Persian chess pieces from the 13th- and 15th centuries; a 1922 Russian set entitled "The Communists and the Capitalists," in which the capitalist king is a deathlike armored figure whose laborers are bound in chains; an early 19th century French set in ivory, with Napoleon and Josephine opposing the French king Henri IV and his wife Marie de Medici. The most recent set is one designed by Karim Rashid in 2000 that features pieces made of neon green and orange thermoplastic rubber.
The Museum's collection of 20th-century chess sets reflects the interest of many of the Dadaist and Surrealist artists in the game. Chess imagery figures prominently in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Dorothea Tanning. Duchamp developed a particular fascination for the game, largely abandoning painting in the early 1920s to play chess professionally. He went on to co-author a study of an abstruse endgame, entitled Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled (1932). On view in gallery 182, alongside his 1910 portrait, The Chess Players, is a pocket chess set (1943) designed by Duchamp, which the artist carried in his jacket for impromptu matches as he traveled the world. Also on view in gallery 170 are a series of photographs recording Duchamp’s love of the game, including Julian Wasser’s famous image of his 1963 match with Eve Babitz at the Pasadena Art Museum.
Also on view are sets that Man Ray and Max Ernst designed for The Imagery of Chess, a 1944 exhibition organized by Julien Levy at his New York gallery. Ernst’s set is distinctive in that the queen, the most important piece in the game, stands higher than the king, traditionally the tallest piece in a set.
A number of chess sets included in the exhibition came into the Museum’s collection in 1964 as a gift from John F. Harbeson, a Philadelphian who began collecting chess sets in the 1920s.