‘The Art of Chess’ exhibition currently showing at Somerset House has attracted media attention even though chess does not have a great deal of popular interest. The exhibition displayed 19 chess sets dating from the 19th Century to the present day including some newly commissioned work by some members of the Britart school. With the exception of a set designed by Marcel Duchamp, who was himself a very good player, it would be very difficult to actually play a game with some of the sets. In one case this was the deliberate intention. Yoko Ono designed a set entirely made up of white pieces so that the combatants would become so confused that an effective battle could not be fought. So chess has been used to promote the cause of ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ A laudable objective perhaps but missing the key idea that chess is a cerebral battle not a physical one.
The Britart gang clearly had little interest in or knowledge of the game. There was a time when if an artist was given a design brief he undertook some background research to ensure that his design was appropriate for its use. Good design becomes a fusion of imagination with knowledge of materials and understanding of the artefacts function. The Britart school blindly ignores this tradition and is in danger of becoming totally irrelevant to real concerns. Not surprisingly a chess journalist commented that ‘one of the exhibits looked like the contents of a kitchen cupboard which had fallen onto the floor.’
Away from the exhibits the real Art of Chess was being demonstrated by two chess prodigies David Howell aged 12 and Sergei Karyakin aged 13 who played a demonstration game on a giant-sized chess board in the courtyard. The genuine beauty of the mind game being enacted through the moves each player made is something which none of the artists, except perhaps Duchamp, seem to have understood.