Marcel Duchamp


(Compiled by Oliver Dunne.)

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). At first associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, Duchamp is now regarded as the founding father of conceptual art, which again came to prominence with the ‘Brit Artists’ of the 1990s. Because of this latter role, Duchamp has come to be seen as one of the two most influential artists of the 20th century (the other being Picasso). According to the artist Man Ray, one night Duchamp studied a chess game into the early morning hours, leaving the pieces in a position that he planned to study further the next morning. Furthermore, this was while he was on his honeymoon. When he awoke, he discovered that Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, his wife, had glued the pieces to the board. They divorced a few months later. Although he made a serious effort to become a professional chess player (playing a number of times for the French Olympiad team), Duchamp finally accepted that he couldn’t compete with the very best and, while maintaining a lively interest in chess, he returned to art as his main occupation.

There follows a compilation of Duchamp quotes dealing directly with chess. These are of interest since they not only express the views of a prominent artist who reached a high level in the game, but also contribute to the age-old debate of whether chess is an art, a game or a sport:

‘Chess has no social purpose. That, above all, is important.’

‘Objectively, a game of chess looks very much like a pen-and-ink drawing, with the difference, however, that the chess player paints with black-and-white forms already prepared instead of inventing forms as does the artist. The design thus formed on the chessboard has apparently no visual aesthetic value and is more like a score for music which can be played again and again. Beauty in chess does not seem to be a visual experience as in painting. Beauty in chess is closer
to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem.’

‘I have come to the conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.’

‘If you start out playing chess when you are young, you’ll still play chess when you grow old and die… It is a passion that accompanies you to your grave… It happened to me and very likely helped me to achieve what I wanted.’

‘In both cases it is a fight between two human beings, and by introducing more chance in chess and reducing the chance factor in gambling, the two activities could meet somehow.’

‘Nimzovitch is my God. He brought new ideas to the game.’

‘In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It’s the imagining of the movement or the gesture that makes the beauty, in this case. It’s completely in one’s grey matter.’

‘It is not true that I retired from painting to concentrate on chess. I have been interested in chess since I was 13 years old.’

‘Chess in itself is a hobby, is a game. Everybody can play it. But I took it very seriously and enjoyed it because I found some common points between chess and painting. When you play a game of chess, it is like designing something or constructing some mechanism of some kind by which you win or lose. The competitive side of it has no importance. The thing itself is very, very plastic. That is probably what attracted me in the game.’

‘And why isn’t my playing chess an art activity? A chess game is very plastic. You construct it. It’s mechanical sculpture, and with chess one creates beautiful problems; and that beauty is made with the head and hands.’

‘Nothing in the world interests me more than finding the right move. I like painting less and less.’

‘I find everything around me transformed into Knight or Queen, and the outside world holds no other interest for me than in its transposition into winning or losing scenarios.’

‘There is a mental end implied when you look at the formation of the pieces on the board. The transformation of the visual aspect to the grey matter is what always happens in chess and what should happen in art.’

‘Chess teaches restraint and observation. One is inclined to look around a bit before making a move.’

‘Chess is a sport. A violent sport. This detracts from its most artistic connection. Of course, one intriguing aspect of the game that does imply artistic connotations is the actual geometric patterns and variations of the actual set-up of the pieces and in the combinative, tactical, strategic and
positional sense. It’s a sad expression though — somewhat like religious art — it is not very gay. If it is anything, it is a struggle.’

‘Chess has the visual possibilities of art. It is a mechanistic sculpture that presents exciting plastic values. If you know the game you can feel that the bishop is like a lever. It incites a whole new pattern when moved.’

‘The milieu of chess players is far more sympathetic than that of artists. These people are completely cloudy, completely blinkered… madmen of a certain quality, the way an artist is supposed to be and isn’t, in general.’

‘Chess is purer, socially, than painting, for you can’t make money out of it.’ …

Marcel Duchamp in America

Through my close contact with artists and chessplayers, I have arrived at the view that, while not all artists are chessplayers, all chessplayers are artists.
Marcel Duchamp, at the Cazenovia Chess Congress, 1952

When Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of the ready-made artwork, came to America, he became an arbiter of taste for rich American collectors. And he managed to pass off a few more of his ready-mades:

‘The first one was in 1913, it was a bicycle wheel… The second one was a bottle-dryer… And then the third one was a snow-shovel, which I did here, in New York, when I first came in 1915…

It was just a plain snow-shovel, I bought it in a hardware shop, and it’s now, well, the replica of it is in Yale.’¹

Jeff Koons also tried his hand at ready-mades in the 1980s, but had a problem with scale. His three identical Hoovers, side by side, hung in front of six white fluorescent lights, lack Duchamp’s elegance.²

The Author: Dear Jeff Koons, how did you get to be such a big success?
Jeff Koons: Dear Oliver, by not helping people like you.

Duchamp was a keen chess player. He also designed a number of chess sets, and chess features in some of his paintings. Marcel played a number of times for the French team in the chess Olympiads.
Here’s one of his games:



Unfortunately, here, Duchamp allows his queen to get chased around, resulting in a lost position. But Duchamp was a very good player, and he took some scalps off historically renowned chess players. Finally, Duchamp announced that he was giving up art for chess, as well as noting, sensibly, that you have to do something in between waiting for inspiration.

Perhaps Jeff Koons too will give up art for chess (we hope), but as there’s not much money in it… In fact, Jeff gave up the stock exchange for art, and found there was more money in art. Well, there’s always money in selling. The Duchamp game is taken from Ernst Strouhal’s book Duchamps Spiel. It would be remiss of me not to quote one of my own games. (As Montaigne says, an expert should reveal some of the basis for his expertise.) The following was awarded a best game prize at the LCU Branagan Cup, and published in John Hurley’s chess column in The Sunday Tribune, 20 April 1997.³


In the end, it turned out that Marcel hadn’t entirely given up art. He spent his last years secretly working on a piece that is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Étant donnés (‘Given’) is a tableau, visible only through a peep-hole in a wooden door. But it may well be that his greatest work of art is one of his many chess games. Or, indeed, an off-hand game of which there is now no record. In that case, only he and his opponent knew about it. All true artists finally elude their public.

Oliver Dunne

¹Marcel Duchamp. Audio Arts Magazine, Vol.2, No.4
²Jeff Koons, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, 1980.
³John Hurley’s chess column contained a misprint. After Black’s 24th move, it reads ‘black can resign’, where it should read ‘white’.