Category Archives: modern art

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.

David Dawson, Mirror in Studio (2004)

Like many a good artist’s studio, that of Lucian Freud required a mirror. And when David Dawson was in the studio it would have become a rich metaphor.

Freud‘s longterm assistant was also a painter. The master would also paint Dawson. And Dawson in turn made portraits of his employer – photographic, like the one here.

But in this shot, Freud is conspicuous by his absence in the room, then conspicuous again by his absence in the mirror. The brushes and the marks on his wall stand in.

It almost goes without saying that Freud is all the more present for being invisible. Just as he seems ubiquitous ever since he passed away last Summer.

Dawson is also absent, bur only up to a point. This is no baroque conceit like Las Meninas in which the artist includes his own mirror image in the composition.

Instead he gives the impression of this being an objective view of both ends of an empty studio. And in its way, that too is a bit of trickery.

It is a trick which captures the sad reality of this space on a top floor in Holland Park  Freud can no longer be here. Dawson, after 20 years service, has no reason to return.

David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud can be seen at Pallant House Gallery until 20 May 2012. See gallery website for times, etc. Click here to watch a video interview with Dawson

Opposition to the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings

Pictured above is a view from upstairs at the brand new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. If those fishing boats weren’t already picturesque enough, now they are framed.

At the foot of the shot is a yellow poster. And as you might know, there are several of these nearby, all voicing opposition to the new £4m gallery.

Fishermen, at least those in this town, do not want to share the beach with a first rate collection of modern and contemporary British art.

What they would prefer is a coach park, so that daytrippers can arrive by the busload and visit the old town for fish and chips. This is the town they want to see.

It cannot be denied that the new gallery changes the complexion of this part of the beach. So perhaps the neighbours are right to resist the gentrification.

They have the largest beach-launch fishing fleet in Europe and now their daily toil will become the charming and quaint view from this window.

As an art blogger from just down the road, clearly my vote goes to the gallery. We do not have a comparable space in Brighton, so Hastings is lucky.

But we don’t have a fishing fleet either. All that remains of that industry on our stretch of the coast is a beachfront museum. No, I haven’t been.

In a perfect world, thousands of art lovers would descend here every day and buy fish. Fishermen would pop round the gallery for some 20th century abstraction.

Is it really such a crazy dream? Many gallery visitors will cheerfully feast at the local chippies. But a “not for the likes of us” mentality may prevent reciprocal footfall.

But since lives are being risked daily to bring fish back from the English Channel, the maritime neighbours have the moral, if not the cultural, high ground. What’s to be done?

For more info about opposition to Jerwood on this stretch of beach, The Stade, visit the campaign website (features a 50 verse poem!). Read my review of the gallery on Culture24 here.