Listening to Art, by William Denton.
Volume eight, number seven: Chess Set in Homage to Marcel Duchamp by Salvador Dalí.
Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.
You may be surprised to learn that Salvador Dalí was close friends with Marcel Duchamp, the greatest artist of the twentieth century. On the one hand there is Dalí, the wild and outlandish showman and prolific painter, and on the other Duchamp, the quiet intellectual who first gave up painting and then gave up art itself (or so it seemed) to study chess. But they were very good friends, having met at least by 1930: they both exhibited in the same show in Paris in the spring; in November Duchamp attended the premiere of L’Age d’Or, the film Dalí made with Luis Buñuel. In the 1950s and 1960s they and their wives spent vacations together in Cadaqués, on the Catalan coast in northeastern Spain.
There are many connections and parallels in their lives and work, and this was the subject of a fascinating exhibition in 2017 and 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. We have heard four works recorded at the Royal Academy then: two by Dalí (volume two numbers eleven and twelve) and two by Duchamp (volume two number five and volume seven number one). The catalogue of the Dalí/Duchamp show, conceived by Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, is a wonderful book.
It is more well known that Duchamp played chess. In the 1920s and 1930s he was a member of the French national chess team and played in many international competitions. I quote from Calvin Tomkins’s Duchamp: A Biography (p. 285):
[Team caption Alexander] Alekhine was one of the great players of all time, but the French team seldom won during those years—a fact that suggests the team’s other members were not very strong. Duchamp lost many more matches than he won. He was coming to realize that he did not have it in him to play consistently at the highest level, the level of a Tartakower or an Alekhine. Duchamp had become one of his country’s best chess players, a remarkable accomplishment in itself, but he was not a chess genius, nor was he in those years a particularly innovative tactician. He stuck to the classic principles he had studied in the chess literature, and because he was often matched against stronger players, his strategy tended to be cautious rather than daring. The absolute iconoclast in art became in chess a sound and sober conformist. Later on in life, when he played mainly for his own amusement, he was able to give his chess imagination a freer rein. The American grand master Edward Lasker considered him “a very strong player” and “a marvelous opponent,” one who “would always take risks in order to play a beautiful game, rather than be cautious and brutal to win.” If American chess players had been ranked in the 1950s, said Lasker, Duchamp would certainly have been in the top twenty-five.
One of Duchamp’s best competition games was played in Paris in 1929 against George Koltanowski, who later became one of the greatest at playing simultaneous games while blindfolded. Koltanowski was white and made a queen’s pawn opening. Duchamp used the East Indian Defense. The moves are:
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 b6 5.f4 Bb7 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.Nf3 e5 8.d5 g6 9.O-O exf4 10.Bxf4 Bg7 11.e5 dxe5 12.Nxe5 O-O 13.Qd2 Nxd5 14.Nxd7 Nxf4 15.Nxf8 Bd4+
Here Koltanowski resigned.
This is thirty-two chess pieces cast in silver and gilded silver; the largest is 9.1 cm high and the smallest 3.8 cm high.
Now let’s listen to Chess Set in Homage to Marcel Duchamp by Salvador Dalí, recorded at Dalí Paris, in Paris, on 14 July 2019.
That was Chess Set in Homage to Marcel Duchamp by Salvador Dalí. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.
For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.
Listening to Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All web sites accessed as of date of publication.
Ades, Dawn and William Jeffett, eds. Dalí/Duchamp. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2017. Exhibition catalogue.
Chessgames.com. “Georges Koltanowski vs Marcel Duchamp (1929).” Chessgames.com. https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1080563.
Dalí Paris. “Dalí Paris.” Dalí Paris. https://www.daliparis.com/.
Denton, William. “Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel.” Listening to Art 07, no. 01 (15 May 2020). https://listeningtoart.org/07.01/.
⸻. “Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm.” Listening to Art 02, no. 05 (13 January 2018). https://listeningtoart.org/02.05/.
⸻. “Salvador Dalí, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach.” Listening to Art 02, no. 11 (13 April 2018). https://listeningtoart.org/02.11/.
⸻. “Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” Listening to Art 02, no. 12 (01 May 2018). https://listeningtoart.org/02.12/.
Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography. Rev. ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Wikipedia, s.v. “George Koltanowski,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Koltanowski.
⸻, s.v. “Marcel Duchamp,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel Duchamp.
⸻, s.v. “Salvador Dalí,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Dalí.