Duchamp, Chess, Rare Books

Duchamp and Chess

Submitted by Marsha Morrow on

In the early 1920’s a rumor circulated through the art worlds of Paris and New York that Marcel Duchamp—the artist best known for Nude Descending a Staircase, the sensation of the Armory Show of 1913—had decided to stop making art in order to devote his life to playing chess.  Although Duchamp never abandoned his artistic career he had indeed entered into regular tournament. 

For the remaining years of his life, he sought opportunities to combine the two endeavors.  The theme of chess was an ever-present motif in his work from his earliest paintings to his final major project, Etant donnes, the tableau that Duchamp secretively worked on for 20 years.  On more than one occasion he buried coded messages in his art that could only be interpreted by proficient chess players. He went so far as to suggest that the activity of playing chess be considered a component of his artistic expression. “I have come to the conclusion that while all artists are not chess players,” he memorably remarked, “all chess players are artists.” 

Duchamp left a legacy to chess in the form of an enigmatic endgame problem he composed in 1943. The problem was included in the announcement for Julian Levy's gallery exhibition Through the Big End of the Opera Glass, printed on translucent paper with the faint inscription: "White to play and win". Grandmasters and endgame specialists have since grappled with the problem, with most concluding that there is no solution. 

The library’s rare book collection includes this volume, the deluxe edition of the catalogue for the Marcel Duchamp exhibition at Ronny Van de Velde, Antwerpen, in 1991.  The top and bottom of the wooden box are a reproduction of the artist’s Mental Chess Board. Also featured in the case is a lithograph reproduction of Obligations pour la roulette de Monte Carlo, a Duchamp readymade, which features a portrait of the artist by Man Ray.

We’ve installed the volume and related ephemera in the display case in the reference room of the Ingalls Library to celebrate the museum’s fall exhibition Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography in the Kelvin & Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall. Interested visitors are welcome to view the library display case Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 5pm. Take the elevator or the stairs off the north lobby to level 2R.    

Duchamp, Marcel. Marcel Duchamp / Andre Breton, Arturo Schwartz. Antwerpen, Belgium: Ronny Van de Velde, 1991.  N6853.D8 A4 1991 Rare