An eye-catching work of modern art and unparalleled quality, the Man Ray chess set is delightfully interesting and unconventional.
One of the most unique and recognizable modern chess sets is, without a doubt, the Man Ray chess set. Characterized by its clean, smooth look and the interesting geometric shapes of the Man Ray chess pieces, this chess set has intrigued and delighted many since it was designed in 1920. The Man Ray chess set was created by the American Dada-Surrealist artist Man Ray, who continued creating his now-iconic chess sets until his death in 1976.
Now, in 2023, there are only a few original Man Ray chess sets in circulation and on the rare occasion one comes up for sale, they tend to go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Ironically, when Man Ray first designed his chess set, he wanted to create a chess set that was simple, straightforward, and affordable. Fortunately, these gorgeous replicas are a little kinder on the wallet and easier to come across than the originals.
Man Ray Chess Set (640$)
This Man Ray chess set is licensed for manufacture by the Man Ray Trust, and it is the closest thing to an authentic Man Ray chess set that most of us will come across. Both the chess board and chess pieces in This Beautiful Man Ray Chess Set are made of excellent-quality veneered beechwood. The chess board was specifically designed to complement the Man Ray chess pieces and measures 17” x 17” and ¾” deep, with a 15.75” game board area. The squares on the board are 2 ⅛”.
The Man Ray chess pieces truly steal the show in this set. Each is represented by an abstract geometric form with a deliberate meaning behind it. The kings are pyramids – the Egyptian symbol of kings. The queens are cones, nicely complementing the king’s pyramid, and representing the headpieces worn by medieval queens. The bishops are represented by a type of drinkware called flagons, representing the tradition of bishops concocting their own liqueurs and spirits. The rooks are large cubes, and each pawn is a sphere atop a base. The knights are fashioned to look like the scroll of a violin. The knight pieces in this Man Ray chess set are actually sourced from an Italian violin manufacturer for a precisely perfect and authentic look. The entire set is finished in Germany.
The kings and queens are 3.25” tall with a 1.5” base. The bishops are 2.75”, knights are 2”, and rooks and pawns are 1.4” tall. The rooks and pawns being so close in size are another of the unique things about this set. This is an intentional nod to the increased importance of pawns in modern chess play.
Who was Man Ray?
Man Ray was one of the most influential contributors to the Dada and Surrealist art movements of the early 20th century. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Philadephia in 1890, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Man Ray spent most of his artistic career in Paris. Though his favorite way to create art was through painting, Man Ray created in a number of different mediums. He is best known for his contributions to the world of photography, specifically portrait and fashion photography.
From childhood, Man Ray showed artistic talent and received some formal art training during his time at the Brooklyn Boys’ High School. He was able to find work as a commercial artist in Manhattan until he eventually eschewed conventional artistic methods to involve himself with the Dada movement. Dadaism was a radical “anti-art” style that defied traditional artistic techniques and aesthetics, as well as the societal and cultural values of the time.
In 1921, Man Ray moved to Paris, where he continued to create art, primarily photographs and experimental short films. Man Ray actually appeared in a short film entitled Entr’acte, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, another influential artist of the time period. Perhaps a little disappointingly, they are shown playing with a conventional chess set, not the Man Ray chess pieces.
World War II sent Man Ray back to the United States. There, he resided in Los Angeles and focused his creative efforts on painting. He did return to Paris in 1951, where he lived and continued to create art – notably including reimaginings of many of his earlier works – until his death from a lung infection in 1976.
Man Ray’s artwork has continued to inspire and intrigue, many years after his death. One of his 1926 photgraphs, titled Noire et Blanche, became the 14th most expensive photograph ever sold when it was purchased for 2.6 million Euros at Christie’s Paris in 2017. That same photograph was also featured on a stamp by the United States Postal Service in a 2013 collection based on works of modern art. In 1999 ARTnews magazine named Man Ray one of the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century.
Man Ray was actually not the only 1920s artist to create an unconventionally styled wooden chess set. Josef Hartwig, of the Bauhaus art school, a German institution that embodied a revolutionary style based on combining fine arts with crafts and technology, also created one in 1924. The Bauhaus style chess set also featured chess pieces represented by geometric forms. In the Bauhaus Chess Set, the shape of each chess piece was specifically designed to represent the type of movement that piece is allowed to take on the chess board. The original Josef Hartwig Bauhaus chess set currently lives at MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) in New York City. Fortunately for lovers of modern art and chess, both The Bauhaus and Man Ray Chess Sets have been beautifully replicated so that you can have one of your very own – without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars!
Our final thoughts
We are thoroughly impressed with the quality craftsmanship and appealing look of this Man Ray chess set. This chess set would make an eye-catching statement in any room of the house; it is truly a work of art. The Man Ray chess set could make a very special gift for anyone who loves quality hardwood chess sets, is a fan of Dada-Surrealist art, or is intrigued by chess sets with a modern look. These licensed Man Ray chess sets are the closest you can get to having a copy of one of the world’s most iconic and unique chess sets in your own home.
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