Reports | September 29, 2012 15:11

Jonathan Rowson reviews The Art of Chess

Photography by Norbert Schoerner Courtesy RS&A

On Sunday the participants of the London Grand Prix can enjoy their second and final rest day. One of the things they can do is head to the Saatchi Gallery and watch an exhibition titled The Art of Chess. Semi-retired grandmaster Jonathan Rowson has already seen it, and wrote a review for Prospect Magazine.

Photography by Norbert Schoerner Courtesy RS&A 

From my close contact with artists and chess players I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.

This famous quote from Marcel Duchamp was expressed sixty years ago. The book about Duchamp by Francis Naumann, Bradley Bailey and Jennifer Shahade, reviewed at ChessVibes here, was titled The Art of Chess, and so was the exhibition in Milan we mentioned two years ago.

The Art of Chess began life with five sets exhibited at Somerset House, London in 2003. Since then the exhibition has grown in size and toured the world showing in leading museums and galleries. The Milan exhibition is one example, but the exhibition could also be seen in the USA, Russian Federation, Ireland, Iceland, Czech Republic, Australia and Switzerland. Currently The Art of Chess is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

It brings together sixteen chess sets designed by some of the world's leading contemporary artists in celebration of the 'game of kings' and its continued relevance to the creative arts. These specially commissioned chess sets have been created by Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Oliver Clegg, Tracey Emin, Tom Friedman, Paul Fryer, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, Yayoi Kusama, Paul McCarthy, Alastair Mackie, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Matthew Ronay, Tunga, Gavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread. Each set is individually crafted in a wide variety of different materials including wood, porcelain, glass, amber and silver.

Scottish GM and three-times British Champion Jonathan Rowson was asked by BBC Radio 4's Front Row to review the exhibition, and also wrote about it in Prospect Magazine's blog. He gives a fascinating insight in both the works of art and the way a grandmaster looks at them.

It is not easy to make small talk about chess. When people hear that I played the game professionally for several years they often ask what kinds of chess sets I like—ornate, sculpted, antique? The conversation doesn’t get any easier when I say that a cheap plastic set is often just as good, if not better. For an experienced player the design of the board and pieces, however finely conceived, feels like a distraction from the real wellspring of aesthetic charm: the pristine logic and beguiling geometry of chess.

So when Radio 4’s Front Row asked me to review “The Art of Chess” at the Saatchi Gallery I was intrigued, but I doubted that these distinguished artists could capture the art of chess as chess players experience it. In that sense the premise of the exhibition felt slightly obtuse to me, a way of playing at being serious rather than being serious about play. It is, of course, wonderful to have the enduring cultural resonance of chess celebrated in such a prestigious way. Yet I wondered whether these figures have a legitimate warrant to represent chess as a cultural reference point when few of them know anything about chess as a game.

You can read the rest of the review here. The exhibition The Art of Chess in Saatchi Gallery runs until Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012.

Now Dr Rowson, Jonathan holds degrees from Oxford and Harvard, including a PhD on the concept of wisdom. During his chess career he wrote three highly acclaimed chess books: Understanding the Grunfeld (1998), The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras. He still plays, but very little. You can find him behind the board at 4NCL matches and he's thinking about playing the open tournament alongside the London Chess Classic this year. He is currently director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA Action and Research Centre.

Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers

Founder and editor-in-chief of, Peter is responsible for most of the chess news and tournament reports. Often visiting top events, he also provides photos and videos for the site. He's a 1.e4 player himself, likes Thai food and the Stones.


Anthony Migchels's picture

I'm sorry to say I'm disgusted with modern 'art'. Mostly it's just frankfurter schule inspired utter degeneracy. Here's anothere case in point: some cfnm porn trying to look 'intelligent'.

RG13's picture

What is your definition of porn? Is it merely the unclothed human body or must there be more to it?

Latest articles