The Comité Hayden has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Set in the Café La Rotonde, Les joueurs d’échecs, encapsulates the internationalism and tolerance that pervaded café life in Montparnasse. The game of chess is central to the composition. A battle of intellect and strategies, chess may be seen as a metaphor for the anxieties felt by many concerning the arrival of so many foreign artists in Paris. Hayden, a newly transplanted Polish Jew, appears at the apex of the painting looking over the game, smoking his pipe. He is imbibing Parisian cosmopolitanism, an attribute of La Rotonde itself, while consciously borrowing from the late work of Cézanne, whose retrospective exhibition of 1907 was highly influential on a new generation of emerging artists.
A contemporary account of Café la Rotonde was given by the British writer and journalist Douglas Goldring. In his 1941 book on Montparnasse he devotes a chapter to the café: ‘In almost every quarter of Paris there is a Café de La Rotonde, but the only one which has attained worldwide celebrity is at the Carrefour Vavin, where the Boulevard Raspail cuts across the Boulevard Montparnasse. At the height of its fame it was nicknamed the ‘navel of the world’, and it was claimed that from a seat on its terrace, if you waited long enough, you were fairly certain to see almost every contemporary artist and writer of any importance. […] On almost any evening the Picasso gang - Derain, Vlaminck, Salmon, Mac Orlan, Max Jacob, Kisling, Apollinaire, Zadkine, Vaillant and occasionally Braque might be seen at an end table mingling with such local Montparnos as Zborowski, Foujita, Taya, the sculptor, a girl in a cocked hat and white perruque, wearing huge earrings[…]. The clientele was thoroughly cosmopolitan. In its early days Libion presided over what was in effect a family of the poor, or mostly poor - a heterogeneous collection of painters, poets, writers and scientists, with a sprinkling of Russian revolutionaries. Lenin, Trotsky, and Lunacharsky were among the latter. Those who remember seeing them there describe them as a glum and taciturn bunch, engaged most of the time in an interminable games of chess.’ (D. Goldring & C. Beadle, Artist Quarter: Reminiscences of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the First Two Decades of the Twentieth Century, London, 1941).
The Delaunayesque cupola that we see through the window on the left is that of the Val-de-Grâce hospital a street away from La Rotonde. This is balanced on the right hand side by a landscape reminiscent of Picasso’s The Factory at Horta de Ebro (1909, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) or it could be Hayden’s own 1911 painting The Factory now in the Leeds City Art Gallery. This appropriation by Hayden from leading avant-gardists is interesting if we consider the landscapes on the far wall as signifying different strands within L’Ecole de Paris. If on the right we are looking at one of Picasso’s landscapes at Horta from 1909, and on the left a Delaunayesque rendering of Val-de-Grâce, then we are witness to the work of a French artist on the left and a foreign artist on the right. Hayden appears in the middle as balance to the concerns of the French tradition, L’École française, as well as a convert to the international cosmopolitanism espoused and manifested by L’Ecole de Paris.
The presence of the dark skinned Aïcha, may be read as another symbol of that international spirit. Seated alongside the poet Artaval (Georg Oppenheim) and Renée Kisling – wife of Moïse – she appears free of the ‘othering’ iconography of primitivisim. Goldring dedicated a whole chapter to Aïcha in his 1941 Montparnasse memoirs and André Salmon, who wrote about her in his novel La Nègresse du Sacré Cœur, said, ‘Aïcha is too much a girl from Roubaix not to be perfectly civilized. She sits, she dances, she is pleasant. Long before Josephine Baker launched the fashion of banana belts, Aïcha wore, at wild parties in Montparnasse, her diminutive raffia skirt.’ (A. Salmon quoted in M. Fabre, ‘Rediscovering Aïcha, Lucy and D'al-Al, Colored French Stage Artists’ in The Scholar and Feminist, Online, Fall 2007 - Spring 2008, p. 1). In Les joueurs d’échecs we, as spectators, are invited by to join Hayden’s international gang in his beloved game of chess, to glimpse an aspect of the cosmopolitanism of café life in La Rotonde and weigh it up alongside the aesthetic and political potency of that unique period in Montparnasse before the outbreak of the First World War.
Tricha Passes, Lecturer in History of Art and History, University of Bristol.