The story of a picture

by André Schulz
11/17/2015 – One of the most famous chess photos is the picture "Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude (Eve Babitz)". It was made in 1963 by Time photographer Julian Wasser in Pasadena and shows Dada artist and chessplayer Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a naked woman. The picture was supposed to celebrate Marcel Duchamp but in the end it made Eve Babitz an icon.

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The story of a picture

One of the best-known chess photos is also one of the most famous photos of all time. It shows a man and a woman playing chess. The man is old and sits on the right-hand side of a table with a chessboard on it, while the woman, who sits on the left side of the table, seems to be rather young. The picture shows the two players from the side with the chess board between them. The face of the woman is covered by her medium-length dark hair. This is the only part of her body that is covered - the woman is completely naked. But the man seems unperturbed by this and focuses on the chess board. The room in which they play is huge and a number of paintings and installations can be seen in the background on the walls. Apparently, the photo was not taken in a private room but in a public space. The two chess players are the only two people in the photo.

The man in the photo is Marcel Duchamp, born 1887 in Blainville-Crevon (France). Duchamp was born into an artist's family and had five siblings who all became artistically active. Duchamp's older brother Gaston, who became known under the name of Jacques Villon, introduced Marcel Duchamp to various artists and poets and Duchamp came into contact with Cubist art, which had a strong influence on him. Other influences came from literature and the technical developments of his time. In 1912 presented the painting "Nude, descending a staircase, No.2", one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century. Later Duchamp became known through his "ready-mades" (Objet trouvé), installations, in which he turned everyday objects into works of art. The most famous is "Fountain", a urinal turned upside-down, lost since 1917, but definitely not forgotten. After a four year sojourn in the US from 1915 to 1919 Duchamp returned to Paris where he met dadaists and surrealists and helped to shape these art movements. In 1927 he married the young and wealthy Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, but apparently only for financial reasons. The marriage soon ended in a divorce. In her book "A Marriage in Check", which appeared 50 years after it was written, Lydie Sarazin-Levassor portrayed her marriage with the artist.

In the beginning of the 1920s Duchamp dedicated himself more and more to chess and in the middle of the 20s he almost stopped his artistic work to become a chess professional. He published a textbook and from 1924 to 1933 he played in five Chess Olympiads for the French team. In 1942 Duchamp left France and moved to the US. Together with other artists who had emigrated to the US, for example, Max Ernst, he started to become more artistically active again. Max Ernst shared a passion for chess with Marcel Duchamp and Duchamp's friend Man Ray, and Ernst himself created a number of chess sets and chess sculptures.

One might assume that Marcel Duchamp who had a leaning towards self-fashioning initiated the picture showing himself and the naked woman playing chess. But it was Eve Babitz, the naked woman, who became an icon through the picture - and through her life as "L.A. Women.

Eve Babitz was born on 13. May 1943 in Hollywood as the daughter of an artist couple. The mother of Eve Babitz was an artist, her father a musician. He played the violin and came from a Jewish family in Russia. Igor Stravinsky, a good friend of the family, was the godfather of Eve Babitz.

Eve Babitz was a well-known party-girl in the bohemian circles of California where she met and became acquainted with a lot of celebrities, among them Harrison Ford, Steve Martin and Jim Morrison. She met the musician in 1966, one year after Morrison had founded "The Doors" together with Ray Manzarek and others. When he met Babitz Morrison was only 22 years old. Eve Babitz later remembered: "With Jim it was as if you had Michelangelo's David in your bed but with blue eyes. Jim's skin was so white." Babitz later published several books about her youth in California.

The photo with Marcel Duchamp was shot in October 1963 in the Pasadena Art Museum. The director of the museum, Walter Hopps, 31, celebrated Marcel Duchamp's oeuvre with a retrospective. On 7. October the exhibition started with a party to which Hopps had invited a number of hip Californian artists. Among the guests were Marcel Duchamp and his friend and co-worker Man Ray, art dealer Irving Blum, Pop-Art-artist Edward Ruscha, the artists Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston, the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Hopper, his wife Brooke Hayward, the English Pop-Art-artist Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol. Another guest was Beatrice Wood, "femme fatale" and model for the character of Catherine in Henri-Pierre Roché's novel "Jules et Jim", known through the screen adaptation by Francois Truffaut.

Also present were Eve Babitz, 20, and her 17-year-old sister Miranda, who looked like an American version of Brigitte Bardot. Eve Babitz came with her friend Myrna Reisman who later married Canned Heat drummer Frank Cook. However, Walter Hopps had not invited Eve Babitz because he feared she would misbehave - as she had done on previous occasions. Babitz was annoyed about not being invited and appeared anyway. The photographer Julian Wasser was at the party because Time Magazine had sent him to report about the vernissage. Wasser was a good friend of Miranda Babitz.

A few days after the party the exhibition was opened for the general public. Eve Babitz came with her parents and drank a couple of glasses of wine which put her in a relaxed and good mood. Marcel Duchamp and Walter Hopps were playing chess on a little pedestal. The father of Eve Babitz, who apparently knew something about the game, explained to his daughter that both were playing very badly. Then Julian Wasser had the idea to take a picture of Eve and Duchamp - however, an unusual one: Wasser wanted Babitz to play naked. Spontaneously Eve Babitz agreed. She was particularly pleased as she saw this as a kind of revenge against Walter Hopps, the director of the museum, who had ignored her when inviting guests for the opening party. Later she had second thoughts but Julian Wasser did not let her off the hook.

The photo session in which the famous photo was shot took place the following day. Wasser had talked to Duchamp and picked up Eve from her parents. In the museum, Eve Babitz changed clothes in an adjacent room and then, dressed with only a gown, entered the exhibition room where the photo session was to take place. Julian Wasser, who had prepared everything for the photo, took the tunic Babitz was wearing and threw it into another part of the room to stop Babitz from changing her mind. Then, Duchamp and Babitz played a couple of games against each other but Babitz, who knew next to nothing about the game, always lost after a couple of moves. Then suddenly Walter Hopps appeared who froze when he saw what happened in his museum but Julian Wasser still managed to shoot all the photos he wanted. From the many photos Wasser shot, Babitz later selected one in which her face was covered by her hair. Marcel Duchamp was supposed to be the centre of the picture, and she only an attractive but anonymous extra. However, things turned out differently.

©1963 Julian Wasser

When he later was asked how he hit upon the idea to let Eve Babitz pose naked with Duchamp, Wasser replied: "Eva was not like other groupies. She was something special. Apart from that, she looked fantastic. And I knew that she would enchant Marcel Duchamp. And that's what she did!"

In June 2015 Wasser made some of the photos he had taken during the Duchamp exhibition 1963 public. In some of them, you see the face of Eve Babitz. Julian Wasser's photo has often been quoted and referred to, among others by US WGM Jennifer Shahade. In her version, the roles of man and woman are changed and the man is naked.

Vanity Fair: Eve Babitz’s Famous Nude Chess Match Against Marcel Duchamp, the Full Story...

Julian Wasser: Duchamp in Pasadena...

Jennifer Shahade: Naked Chess...

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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