Dali's Chess: Pushing Fingers
By Scott Martin
posted: 01-21-10
Dali's 1964 chess set with piece (queen) in detail
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Enthusiasm for chess ran deep in Duchamp's circles, who spent thousands of hours playing the game and, in some cases, constructing their own unique sets. Salvador Dali engaged the game in 1964 by designing a set for the American Chess Federation that alludes to the function of the chess player -- omniscient and eternal from the perspective of the gameboard, meting life and death in pursuit of an abstract agenda -- as surrogate for the divine.

Naturally, Dali developed this theme by modeling most of the pieces on himself. "In chess as in other expressions of the human alchemy," he wrote, "there is always the creator -- above all, the Artist as Creator. It is this that I wanted to be represented: the hand of the Artist, the Eternal Creator. How better to express this vision than by sculpting my own hand, my own fingers?" Only the queens (a slight but pregnant variation, cast from the thumbs of Gala and crowned with teeth) and the rooks (hotel salt cellars) break the reflexive scheme. Just as the queen is both the most powerful piece on the board and feminine, Gala Dali was the most important person in the artist's life and so appears on the board under her own aegis (or tooth); esoteric elaborations of chess ascribe the rook to the element of matter or alchemical salt, and so its form here reflects the persistence of the artist's materials in the ongoing process -- the game, the work of art, the life.

More self-effacing artists tend to keep their own likeness out of the game. Man Ray, for example, created fine abstract sets, but Duchamp dismissed his friend's chess as little more than pushing wood around the board. If Dali ever played at this set, we can imagine him savoring the irony of pushing his own fingers to push their disembodied representations in pursuit of what Duchamp called the "beautiful problems" of the chess universe. If the artist creates the world, then who created the artist? For that matter, who or what takes the side opposite the artist and wields his own hands against him? And now that Dali is dead, what does it mean to sit down at the board and set these now-necromantic relics of the man to dancing?


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