The Refinement of the Simple: A Chess Set Designed by Man Ray
The American artist, famous in Surrealist and Dadaist circles, was also an experienced chess player.
As Marcel Duchamp once noted, in chess the aesthetic load falls upon the movements that occur on the board. It’s the inexorable dance of 32 pieces that seek to merge with space – and to do so literally – in which the beauty of the ancient game germinates.
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 of the gesture that makes the beauty in this case.
Although in the universe of chess this quality resides in action over matter, throughout history there have been certain versions of the game whose design has tried to reclaim the aesthetics of its pieces. One such case is undoubtedly a chess set created in 1924 by Man Ray. An experienced player, and one largely influenced by Duchamp, Ray resorted to the most basic geometric forms to produce a beautifully stylized set. Kings are pyramids, queens are cones, bishops like jugs, rooks like cubes and pawns but small spheres; the knights, perhaps in recognition of their absolute linearity of movement, presume spiral forms.
We don’t know whether it was deliberate or not, but Ray’s chess set seems to honor that old, and accurate, premise that the deepest beauty and maximum elegance is found, paradoxically, in the simplest of forms.
In 2012, the Man Ray Trust authorized a reproduction of the original design. Since then the set has been produced in Germany, made of solid beech wood.
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