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Man Ray and his Modern Chess Set

The modern chess set designed by Man Ray in 1920 is certainly one of the most important chess sets of the 20th century. Man Ray (1890-1976), a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements, had a long career pioneering work in photography, painting and sculpture.

The surrealistic photograph ‘Glass Tears’ was believed to have been inspired by Man Ray’s breakup with his lover Lee Miller. The model in the photo who appears to be gazing upward in distress is in fact a mannequin.The large unnatural tear drops suggest an exaggerated sign of sorrow that mock the event. The thought provoking photo, staged as it was, may present a metaphor for artificiality in art.



‘Glass Tears’. by Man Ray, 1932

As with his friends Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp, the theme of chess was reflected in many of his works. Our Beech Wood set is a licensed reproduction of the original Man Ray set that is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
dali and man ray

Salvador Dali and Man Ray in Paris, 1934, photo by Van Vechten

In this, his first design of chess pieces, Man Ray used pure Euclidean geometric forms – cube, sphere, pyramid and cone. He still made iconic associations such as the pyramid with the Egyptian symbol of kingship, the cone with medieval queen’s headgear and the flagon with the bishop’s tradition of creating exotic liqueurs and spirits. Dadaist that he was, he could not resist interjecting at least one discordant though somehow congruent element into the ensemble. He based the form of the Knight on a found object in his studio – the head scroll of a violin. Its form is also based on pure geometry, that of the Fibonacci sequence that defines spiral growth patterns in nature.


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