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Museum Searches for Surrealist Wineglass Chess Set

The midcentury artwork used glassware filled with red and white wine in lieu of traditional chess pieces.

Morton Hochstein
Posted: July 31, 2004

Curators of a chess-themed art exhibit are searching for the show's would-be centerpiece, a long-lost, wine-themed chess set created by surrealists André Breton and Nicolas Calas.

If it is found, the Breton-Calas chess set will be shown in "The Imagery of Chess Revisited," an October 2005 exhibit at the recently renovated Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, N.Y.

The original set was created by Breton and Calas specifically for the 1944 "Imagery of Chess" exhibit in New York, which was curated by Dada artist and chess master Marcel Duchamp. The traditional chess pieces were replaced by various shapes of wineglasses; the white pieces were filled with white wine and the opposing pieces filled with red.

Breton, who helped found the surrealist movement in 1924, and Calas, his younger colleague, considered chess a foolish game that reflected the alienation and madness of war with its intoxicating violence. In their version, upon capturing a piece, the player drank the wine as the symbolic blood of his victim. Hence, as the game grew more violent, it also grew more intoxicating.

Although the search continues, the new exhibit's guest curator, Larry List, suspects that the wineglasses and mirror-topped board were assembled just for the original exhibit and then returned to daily use afterwards.

If the Breton-Calas set is not found, the museum has permission to replicate it for display, along with original chess sets and artworks by 35 artists, including German painter Max Ernst, psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Zilboorg and the late Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who founded the museum in 1985.

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