October 28, 2016

Tortoise Shells, Butterflies & Amber: Oh My!

Chess can seem insular. Intimidating. Foreign. It can feel like another dimension, far away from our everyday life. However—as I found on a recent visit to the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis, MO—a quick peek behind the curtain and it is clear that these ivory king and queen figures, these gilded pawns and knights, these alabaster castles, are among us. They are in the stones that surround us, the gems beneath the soil, the butterflies in our gardens and even the thumbs with which we type so furiously.

This notion—that chess is deeply rooted in history and, if we look closely derives inspiration from almost everywhere—was at the heart of Larry List’s fascinating lecture last Thursday evening at the World Chess Hall of Fame. The talk was inspired by an exhibit currently on display: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Natural Splendors from the Chess Collection of Dr. George & Vivian Dean, for which List was the guest curator.

The collection explores the concept that chess sets are not apart from life but rather a part of our life and the rich natural world around us. Larry’s lecture helped the audience grasp how each spectacular chess piece holds rich meaning.

Can you imagine an Indian artist picking up an ivory carving tool with his big toe, creating intricate detail with just his hands, feet and a primitive carving tool? Who figured out that resin in Chinese trees can turn into clear lacquer? How was King Augustus’ love for porcelain a turning point that rocked the art world to its very core?

These are the nature of the questions List explored in his talk. And, while a chess and/or history novice would not know the first thing about the historical nature of the chess sets, we see something beautiful. We appreciate it. We may spend a moment admiring the creativity or expertise of the artist but not often do we ponder on how the materials themselves were transformed.

Dr. George and Vivian Dean are stewards of the arts, and have been collecting chess sets for the better half of a century. They are kind enough to share these treasures with the outside world. Thank goodness for it. A 1790 Butterflies and Insects Chess Set and Board from Italy is showcased at the exhibit with the exact preserved species that the ebony and ivory pieces were painstakingly carved to resemble. Plaster casts of Larry List’s actual thumbs are shown to see how Salvador Dalí’s famous finger set came to be—complete with his and her pieces, featuring casts of Dalí and his wife Gala’s molars delicately perched atop the thumbs of the king and queen.

The actual tools used are showcased with every set, along with the raw material form of what each set is made from, lent from a wide range of prominent institutions such as The Field Museum of Natural History and Saint Louis Science Center, among others. It is a fascinating deconstruction, a de-evolution of sorts illustrating how much beauty surrounds us in our daily life, and how wildly creative these historic artists really were.

While List had to return to New York following the lecture, the exhibit is on display in Saint Louis until March 2017. Lucky us. Check it out before these treasures must depart for their next destination. The Louvre, perhaps? Fun fact: the rock crystal set in the exhibit (pictured below) is only one of two sets in the world and the other one is at… wait for it… The Louvre. Unfortunately, the Louvre’s set is missing a piece. But who’s counting?