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Something is captivating about the act of placing your bets on a rotating numbered wheel and watching your fate play out. Maybe it’s the perpetual motion and that wheel of fortune that says something about our human condition and the role of chance in the universe. For some playing roulette is simply not enough, and this legendary game has sparked the imagination of many artists to immortalise the roulette game in their work.
Roulette wheels first started appearing in classic 19th-century etchings, featuring men with curled hair, cropped jackets and military trousers seated around a roulette tables and croupiers using long ladles to collect bets and hand out winnings.
One of the most famous paintings featuring roulette is Edvard Munch’s At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo. This fabulous Expressionist oil painting created in 1892 captures the glamour and money that roulette attracted in the late 19th century. Depicting a group of men in formal evening dress crowding around the green baize and a classic roulette wheel. Over 100 years later, roulette still holds same allure and the smart set still come to the Monte Carlo casino to play it.
It’s the mystique of roulette that has captivated some of the world’s leading art figures including French-American conceptual artist, Marcel Duchamp.
In 1924 Duchamp, the artist who loved to shock, created a piece of work called Monte Carlo Bond or “Obligations pour la roulette de Monte Carlo.” Duchamp devised a roulette system, based on the laws of chance and created bonds to attract investors for his new scheme. Each bond is a collage, with a photograph by Man Ray of Duchamp’s head covered in shaving foam in the centre of a roulette wheel.
While Duchamp’s idea for turning the roulette system to his benefit failed at that time, years later the gamble came off. At Christie’s Auction House in New York in 2011, the artwork raised a startling $1,082,500.
If you love art that is a riot of colour and texture, then you’ll love the bold tones of the 1974 painting Green Table by modern American artist LeRoy Neiman- this picture should catch your eye! Again, the roulette wheel provides the focal point with a painting that’s full of energy and activity. You can see the men and women crowding around the action spinning out over the roulette wheel, the beating heart of the drama that’s unfolding.
And it’s this thrill and high-octane drama that brings roulette fans back to the table time and again.
And the enduring appeal of roulette is felt around the globe. The renowned Chinese French avant-garde artist, Huang Yong Ping, was famous for creating art that provoked discussion. Huang Yong Ping took the roulette wheel as a part of his outrageous and often provocative art.
He was so captivated by the idea of chance contained in roulette that he created 3 different series of works from 1985-1988 themed around roulette.
He used 6 different roulette wheels covered in different icons to decide the content and colour of his paintings. It was the wheel’s destiny to decide the outcome of his work. Now, that turns “painting by numbers” on its head entirely!
And despite its long history, the game of roulette still inspires and transfixes.
In 2019 at a world-leading art show in Basel, Switzerland, another conceptual artist, Xu Zhen, from China, produced a mind-boggling piece of roulette inspired work.
The boundary-pushing work was entitled Nirvana and put baccarat and roulette at the centre of a huge installation which featured 6 full-sized gaming tables, set on classic casino carpet.
What makes this piece so startling, apart from a set of gaming tables, was that, instead of the green baize that marks out the roulette table, something rather surprising was put in its place!
In real-time in front of the visitors, Xu Zhen recreated the tabletop with the intricate numbers and patterns using only grains of coloured sand. This extraordinary feat was all about creation and destruction and was inspired by the ancient Tibetan Buddhist monk artform of making meditative sand mandala patterns. And, once again, this roulette gamble came up trumps, with the artwork worth a massive 350,000 US dollars.
And just to make sure we’re not taking the art of roulette too far, some light relief. During the 19th century when America’s famed seaside resort, Coney Island, a centre of fun and frolics was booming. They took their gambling fun as far as setting up a human roulette wheel- talk about art in action! In this extraordinary homage to roulette, people would seat themselves on a giant spinning “roulette wheel” to see who could remain in place when the spinning began! Well, that’s one way to get in a spin over this table game.
So, as you can see, this game with its chips, wheel and the ball, hurtling around to the pocket of a Huxley wheel, still creates a buzz. Perhaps it the thrill of the game that provokes artists around the globe to represent roulette’s emotional pull on canvas, or even in tiny grains of sand.