Man Ray’s Unique Chess Sets: Where Chess Met Surrealism

Extract from Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess in Man Ray's studio. Extract from Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess in Man Ray's studio. Sold for €10,710 via Grisebach (June 2010)

He was famed the world over for the wild creativity of his Surrealist projects and pioneering photography, but behind Man Ray’s dreamlike art was a surprisingly rigid approach, dictated by the 64 squares of a chess board, which gave order to his art and added to his diverse oeuvre with the production of a series of limited edition chess set creations.

Chess set by Man Ray (Wikimedia Commons)

“The basis for all art… it helps you to understand the structure, to master a sense of order,”

Man Ray, on the artistic influence of chess

Chess was much more than a pastime for Man Ray. By his own admission he was a third rate player, but chess provided him with something much more than a way to while away a few hours. It helped him form the building blocks on which his art was based. Born as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Man Ray considered the basis for all art to be a grid of squares and he wasn’t alone in his fascination with the game of chess. It’s a logical passion that he shared with the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp and French avant-garde painter, Francis Picabia.

All three artists were associated with the Dada movement of artistic expression through nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest, so the embrace of the logical order of chess stood apart from the collective rejection of reason in their art. It was Duchamp who illuminated the chess-loving trio of artists, as it was his passion that fired interest in the others.

Duchamp’s passion was shared with Man Ray and the pair could be found together at a chess club when they both lived in New York. Man Ray was already a recognized name in the art world at the time as a respected part of the American modernist movement in the 1910s, before moving to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and returning stateside in the 1940s. His legacy is far more eclectic though than that of a modernist, as his art spanned painting, sculpture, film, prints and poetry, as well as a range of styles from Cubism to Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism.

Silver chess set designed by May Ray.

Silver chess set designed by May Ray. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Despite Man Ray’s comparative lack of ability, he prepared drawings for his own a chess set in 1920. Far from being another ordinary traditional chess set though, this one was suffused with the dada ideal of taking an object and presenting it in a different form. How else might you end up with the broken neck of a violin to represent the knight? Unconventional and in geometric shapes rather than the traditional forms of the pieces, Man Ray’s set was more an expressive work of art than a practical chess piece.

Man Ray chess set, dated 1976. Sold for £32,450 via Sotheby’s (June 2010)

Man Ray chess set, dated 1976. Sold for £32,450 via Sotheby’s (June 2010).

At this point, his design was just that, a design. But in 1945, the exhibition, The Imagery of Chess, by Julien Levy, gave him the opportunity to realise these designs as a participant. “I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive,” Man Ray once said, and that imagination is clearly evident in his reinterpretation of the chess pieces. The Egyptian symbol of kingship, the pyramid, was used for the king, while the queen was given a more feminine form and modelled after the conical headdress worn my women in medieval times. It offered a glimpse of Dadaism to many people not necessarily ensconced in the art world, and opened their eyes to the conceptual work of Man Ray.

This was repeated in 1965 with a limited edition reproduction of Man Ray’s chess set. Authorized and re-issued by the man (ray) himself, it’s a faithful reimagining of the original 1920 design that maintains faithful to the artistic essence of his original abstract and minimalist interpretations of the chess pieces. The ‘60s was seemingly a period of reflection for Man Ray; throughout the decade he recreated a number of his iconic earlier works, including a number of limited-edition replicas of several of his objects in collaborations with the French gallerist and editor, Marcel Zerbib, and art historian, Arturo Schwarz.

Man Ray chess set. Sold for £15,000 via Christie’s (September 2019).

Man Ray chess set, 1947. Sold for £15,000 via Christie’s (September 2019).

Both of Man Ray’s sets remain highly regarded for their artistic merit and are highly sought after by collectors when they appear at auction. Perhaps more recognized for their aesthetic appeal than as a functional chess set, the appeal of the designs was highlighted when an inscribed and numbered set was sold for €16,510 in October 2023, while even reproductions of his distinctive chess pieces often achieve over a thousand dollars.

Check Mate

“All artists are not chess players – all chess players are artists”

Marcel Duchamp

Man Ray fondness for chess was eclipsed by that of his friend, Marcel Duchamp, who moved to the United States in 1915. He was a dedicated player of the game and invited Man Ray to the Marshall Chess Club on West 4th Street in New York in 1916. “This is the part of my life that I enjoy the most,” said Duchamp of his hobby that similarly proved to be an influence on his art. Such was Duchamp’s love for the game that he wrote in a 1921 letter to Francis Picabia, “my ambition is to be a professional chess player” which, impressively, he achieved as a semi-professional for about ten years. He was awarded the title of chess master by the French Chess Federation in 1925, he joined the French Olympic team, and played in a number of international tournaments during the 1920s and ‘30s.

The conceptual nature off chess, coupled with its purposelessness appealed to the trio of Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia. The process of playing was an absorbing one for Duchamp, and the sensibilities of the game can be seen in Chessmen (1920)Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled (1932), and Pocket Chess Set (1943), to name just a few. Duchamp and Man Ray’s shared passion for chess can also be seen in René Clair’s film Entr’acte (1924), in which they share a brief scene playing chess on a Paris rooftop.

Chess was an all-consuming passion for Duchamp. It absorbed him and even threatened his marriage when his first wife glued his hand carved pieces to the chessboard in an act of frustration. It even affected his art career, as he remained transfixed by the game, while his artistic contemporaries began to enjoy commercial and financial success. “I am still a victim of chess,” he said. “It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”

A Recurring Motif

Man Ray, Aline et Valcour, 1950. S

Man Ray, Aline et Valcour, 1950. Sold for £636,500 via Sotheby’s (February 2008).

Man Ray shared Duchamp’s fondness for chess, but did so in his own unique fashion. As an artist who was drawn to the intellectual challenge and aesthetic possibilities within chess more so than the pure enjoyment of the game, chess became a recurring motif in his art and a significant influence on how he approached his pieces.

“My works were designed to amuse, annoy, bewilder, mystify and inspire reflection,” explained Man Ray of his artistic approach that had chess at its heart, in one surrealist-influenced way or another. “The basis for all art… it helps you to understand the structure, to master a sense of order,” said the artist of how the game of chess made its mark in his art. And its impact on the artists is evident through repeated references in his diverse art.

MAN RAY, À l'Heure de l'Observatoire.

Man Ray, À l’Heure de l’Observatoire. Sold for $71,700 via Christie’s (October 2003).

Providing him with a sense of structure and order, chess’s influence can be seen in Obstruction, his mobile assemblage of 64 hangers hung in mathematical progression – 64 being the number of squares on the chessboard. The distinctive pieces from his unique chessboard even make an appearance in his painting, Aline et Valcour (1950), showcasing the close relationship between art and chess in Man Ray’s world. The mannequin also appeared in his 1946 painting, Endgame, which depicts mannequin figures entangled with chessmen in the middle of a game, which is intended to symbolize the chaos of war.

Equally, his Observatory Time, includes a depiction of the lips of his former lover, Lee Miller, while a nude sculpture lies on a sofa underneath the painting, a chessboard where her feet might be. Man Ray even brought art and chess together in 1934’s Surrealist Chessboard; an assemblage of artists associated with the Surrealist movement, including Salvador Dalí, Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Joan Miró, but he curiously omitted his chess partner, Duchamp.

Providing Man Ray with the foundations of his art, chess gave order to his unique perspective and view of the world, while in turn adding an artistic and surrealist touch to world of chess. Chess added structure to the irrationality of his art that has helped it to remain in the public conscious to this day – and for that we have chess to thank.


Sources: TheArtStory.org | Tate.org.uk | Christie’s | MoMA | OpenCulture.com | ArtNet.com