World Chess Hall Of Fame Chief Curator Shannon Bailey On New Exhibition On View Through March 12

In the 1940s, a handful of artists took a vacation to the beach in Long Island. As unapologetic chess enthusiasts, they were surprised to see that the furnished beach house they’d rented did not include a chess board. Undeterred, art dealer Julian Levy, who owned a gallery in New York City, took it upon himself to create his own chessboard using the materials literally at his disposal: the eggshells from that morning’s breakfast. The artists took the shells to their finger-drawn board in the sand, nestled the shells into their respective squares, and played.

When the troupe returned to New York City, impressed as they were with their own ingenuity, they decided to commission the help of their friends and other artists of every variety to create an exhibit showcasing chess. Professionals from all walks of life contributed: there were sculptors, painters, musicians, a research librarian, art critics, and even theater lighting and set designers. Marcel Duchamp, champion of the Dada movement, created the programs. It was a well-publicized event, and it went off without a hitch.

And that was it. When the exhibit closed, it seemed that the memory of it went, as well. But Shannon Bailey, chief curator for the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis is bringing back the surreal magic with a recreation of the 1944 exhibition Designing Chessmen: A Taste of the Imagery of Chess, which is on view through March 12, 2017.

People often try to create unique chess sets available for sale. What makes these sets unique and definitively art?
The artists were experimenting with brand-new styles and techniques. There’s surrealist, Dada, there’s playfulness, dream imagery and fantastical storytelling. There’s a lot of photography and romantic paintings because it’s war-time, so there are some very dark stories being told. Chess is a game of war, and then these artists, who had been experiencing war, use some disturbing or violent imagery.

Artist Max Ernst was experimenting with mixing together Oceanic and African art at the time, and these chess pieces are all beautiful little sculptures. We’ve got a wine chess set created by two art critics who actually hate chess. There are wine glasses filled with red wine and white wine for black and white, and the chess board is made of mirrors, because they said that chess players are selfish and they’re obsessed with this whole idea of looking into mirrors as you’re playing this game. There’s just so much personality—you walk in and see that it’s truly a group show. And even though they had a theme, each one really held on to their style.

The intersection of such a strict, “ancient” game, as you call it, and off-the-wall Dada and surrealist art forms seems both jarring and completely natural. How do they come together?
There has been a tradition of chess sets being created to tell stories, and they might not just be the style that everyone thinks of. That’s the tournament style: it was created so that it didn’t matter what country you were from or what language you spoke, everyone knew that the king was the king and the queen was the queen. Whereas the Dada’s and the surrealists, they’re blowing it out of the water. Some of them, I guess if you studied them long enough you could figure out what pieces they were; some of them are just playing with geometry.

This year, you’ll once again combine art and chess as you reach out to local artists to create new chess sets and chess-related art.
I have always been interested since I’ve worked here—I’ve been here seven years—in doing some kind of St. Louis version of the exhibition. St. Louis is the capital of chess for the United States, and we do art exhibitions here, and I thought it seemed to be a natural fit. But before we did that, I thought it was important to basically show St. Louis an idea of what the show was, because it brings together our mission completely: art and chess. Plus, I wanted to give the artists in our own exhibition here the ability to kind of see what the original show looked like.

We will open up that exhibition on March 23, and we have 20 St. Louis artists that are participating and paying extra homage back to the original show. I made sure that we had sculptors, photographers and painters. We have some musicians creating music for it, and I have Michael Drummond, the fashion designer, creating a piece for it so that it also has a very eclectic feel.

designing chessmen

Exterior View of the World Chess Hall of Fame. Photo credit: Carmody Creative.

How do you think the interpretations of today’s contemporary artists will differ from those of the original exhibit?
I loved watching them feel challenged by the project. Some of them, as with the original one, really love the game of chess, and some of them are like, “I haven’t played since I was five!” It’s just looking at that inspiration of how each person interprets the game. I was thinking about the war, and how it impacted these artists and their artwork. I also already know that some of the contemporary artists are taking the current political debate and folding that into it as well. I’m seeing some traditional pieces, but I’m also seeing people wanting to make a statement.

I think it’ll be perfect for us to really focus on some local artists—we’ve done that in the past, like with Living Like Kings, our hip-hop exhibition. It was really successful, I think, because we had so many St. Louis contributors work on it. So we’re already making new friends, and I really cannot wait to see what they come up with.

You’ve mentioned how the war deeply affected the artists featured in the original exhibit. I’m curious to see what will affect these contemporary St. Louis artists.
Adrian Walker—he was in a project that we did during Living Like Kings—is a young African-American male, and his piece is reflecting on racial issues, which again is another big topic of discussion in the area. I think there’s going to be some great dialogue coming out of it. Each artist also has to participate in some kind of outreach event with us, too, so it’s going to give the public more opportunities to learn more about them and about their pieces. And then we’ll have a concert for the musicians, and that’ll be in September.

What part of the exhibit is your favorite?
I really love the Levy prototype piece and this idea of creating a chess set out of eggshells. Just think, if we all thought outside of the box a little bit more how much more innovative we could all be.

Featured photo courtesy of Ashley Kuenstler and the World Chess Hall of Fame.

Correction: The original post referenced an incorrect date for the start of the St. Louis artist show opening. The correct date is March 23.

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