Diana Mihajlova: Chess is Art!!

by Diana Mihajlova
4/28/2014 – Parallels between life and chess are frequently drawn, evoking thoughts, emotions and notions like Love, Depth, Universe, Infinity, Passion, Perseverance, Patience, Blunder, Victory, Beauty, Silence, Simplicity, Indecision, Dark and Light. A chess player and artist, Diana Mihjalova, has translated them into a pictorial language, using acrylic on canvas, and put the concepts into historical perspective.

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In my website Mitra there is a section ‘Budapest’ which speaks about my involvement with chess, and chess becoming, inevitably, a subject of my ‘other profession’, that of an artist/ painter. Although, having abandoned my ‘normal’ lecturing duties, the word ‘profession’ becomes inconsequential for me nowadays, since, when it comes to a ‘meaningful profession’, over many years, for better or worse, I have been floating, excruciatingly light, in a total freedom and exciting  uncertainty.  

The fifteen paintings on the theme of chess, which are the subject of this article, were created over a three-year period intercepted with long breaks of playing chess, writing about chess, organising tournaments, travelling and daydreaming. By now, they are disconcertingly longing for prospective tender owners. 

I take it literally, when Alekhine says: ‘Chess is art’. In my mental capacity, I can only see chess as art. I could relate to it as a language, too, and also, I agree with Paul Morphy when he says that ‘Chess is eminently and emphatically the philosopher’s game’. Naturally, mathematics, logic, science, sport are all part of it, but they do not touch my sensibility. Jose Raul Capablanca gave his own definition: "Chess is something more than a game. It is an intellectual diversion which has certain artistic qualities and many scientific elements."

Chasing the allure of an ever-evading rainbow is a capacity in which both chess players and artists equally excel. Is it good? Is it bad? ‘Chess has been condemned as the devil’s game by popes, rabbis, and imams, and lauded as a guide to proper living by other popes, rabbis, and imams’. (David Shenk: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess’)

‘All I want to do, ever, is to play chess’, it is a well known pronouncement by Bobby Fischer. He lived up fully to his conviction: ‘Chess is Life.’  

‘The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions.’ (Benjamin Franklin: ‘On the Morals of Chess’, 1786)

Parallels between life and chess are frequently drawn by many a thinker contemplating the complexities of this mind game. The titles of my 15 works evoke thoughts, emotions and notions that chess/life emanates: Love, Depth, Universe, Infinity, Passion, Perseverance, Patience, Blunder, Victory, Beauty, Silence, Simplicity, Indecision, Dark and Light – are translated into a pictorial language. These visual expressions treat the ‘idea of chess’ in an abstract form, abstraction being another common trait between art and chess. Chess pieces do not figure in these paintings. Some figurative elements have been added in order to enhance the symbolism and strengthen the concept.  

Among the infinite possibilities that the modern art allows, the ‘square’ has been a basis for pictorial expression throughout the history of art. Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935) a suprematist, (he created the movement ‘Suprematism’, which was the precursor to later abstract movements including ‘minimalism’) in 1915 painted a single black square on a square canvas against a white background. The ‘Black Suprematic Square’ (today at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow) according to him, was the ‘zero of form’.

The ‘square’ found its place as a subject in many an art form – geometric, abstract, constructivist, minimalist, op-art etc. Notable examples include Victor Vasarely (1906 – 1997), Bridget Riley (1931- ) and Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) who has dedicated his entire teaching and work to the ‘Homage to the Square’.

In this respect, I see the chessboard as a ready-made geometric abstraction with its own pictorial value. I simply add colour and spread a thought over a background of 64 squares – a colourful chessboard. Colour plays a big role – an explosion of colour, which ultimately is my main concern. Thus, Passion is red, Patience is green, Silence is blue-turquoise, Victory is red-green, Universe is dark-blue, Simplicity is black & white etc.

What follows is a chain of interconnected, flowing short essays about chess accompanied with a corresponding reproduction of a painting – a fusion of thought, craft and colour.

Love

‘The principle of every art is love. The value and greatness of every art is
mainly determined by the artist’s capacity for love.’ (Hermann Hesse).

Flowers, with their beauty, gentleness and innocence, have always symbolized love. In this painting, flowers are applied directly on the canvas, while still fresh. Petals belonging to roses, dahlias, oleanders, begonias, marigolds, orchids… symbols of perfection and beauty, are manipulated into imaginary but recognisable flower shapes. With time, they undergo a certain transformation, but, alas, so does Love.

‘Love conquers all’… ‘Love is blind’… ‘Love is suffering’… all these sayings are true concerning a chess player in love with the beautiful game, including Plato’s: ‘Love is a serious mental disease’.  

In your love adventure with Chess, you would be wise not to count on your luck. You cannot play games with Caissa. She will sneer into your face and will punish you for your indolence. The treacherous muse wants all of you or nothing. You better learn and obey her strict rules. Flattering and superficiality will not do. Her main character trait is Depth.

Depth

Chess is a an ocean of possibilities; no matter how deep we dive and how
many answers we find, new questions and new ideas constantly surge up. 

The allusion in this painting is obvious. The most realistic in the series, even though highly stylised, the fish (in red and gold) plunges towards the depth of the ocean. The water’s turquoise shades darken towards the bottom as the depth becomes denser.

An intellectual battle stirs up a mysterious, bottomless well of strategies and tactics. Its surface is rippled by painstaking studies and analyses that deep into a centuries old wisdom. There is both pain and beauty in solving the mystery. The more we search, the deeper we wade through a misty maze, too complex for an ordinary understanding, fascinating and endless as the Universe.

Universe

The totality of existence known as universe/cosmos/world/reality/nature is being
continually created and destroyed. New celestial bodies pop up ad infinitum.  

Latest NASA news: ‘…there could be as many as 40 billion habitable earth-sized planets in the galaxy. The nearest such planet might be only twelve light years away…’ Mathematical studies show that there are as many more possible chess games than atoms in the observable universe. Unbelievable but true!

‘The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the Laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us.’ (Thomas Huxley). The chess universe is clustered with innumerable positions, solutions and cracking novelties that never cease to surprise. Roaming in a galaxy of endless possibilities, wooed by sparks of shooting best moves, we zoom into Infinity.

Infinity

Infinite possibilities – that is life/chess. One only need to size the right moment
and the right time to apply the best move. Easier said than done. Carpe Diem.

This painting can be seen both ways: vertically, as the number ‘8’ and horizontally, as the mathematical symbol for infinity ‘∞’. The two circles represent water-like reflections between the finite self and the infinite self, or between our dreams and reality. The continuous movement made when drawing the infinity symbol ‘8’ or ‘∞’ is described as a natural spiral flow that returns to the same starting point.

The shape of the number ‘8’ is a symbol of infinity/ immortality in the mystical and spiritual philosophies. It is explained as ‘dying into deathlessness’ or ‘not drowning but swimming in the ocean of infinity’. Infinity becomes a dwelling place for chess players where they float intoxicated by magic. Not daunted, they are indefatigable explorers, each in their own Universe lit by Passion.

Passion

 

Once conquered by chess, the flame of passion may flicker but it is never extinguished.
Its glow may change in intensity, but the burning desire to win, to impress,
to overcome oneself never completely dies. It is a quiet passion with an erosive power.

Passion brings excitement, courage, determination, single-mindedness. It can be fiery to the point of destruction, however, ‘nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion’ (Hegel). Chess as intellectual passion stirs up emotions that inflame the intellect and the soul. ‘Its object is to crush the opponent’s mind’ – as Bobby Fischer put it. This mental war over the board is too difficult to be qualified as ‘just a game’. 'Nothing by which all human passion and hope and folly can be mirrored and then proved, ever was just a game'says William Faulkner in the ‘Knight's Gambit’.

Passion alone will not take us to the desired destination. When we have embarked on the compelling uncertainty where Passion guides us, a more difficult task awaits; we need a capacity for Perseverance.

Perseverance

The endurance and constancy of purpose is a strong element of human character. It leads to
achieving ‘the goal’. ‘It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.’ (Confucius)  

The pathway to success is long, swerving and exhausting. A glimpse of the final destination, in our imagination, reveals a splendid bed of flowers. That is our desire. But, we have to reach there in order to have a rest and feel the intoxicating fragrance. Most of us never do. Obstacles are thrown at us in various shapes; the road becomes bumpy and we stumble. Perseverance stands between success and failure. ‘Only if you abandon, you will surely lose’, is the common warning. ‘No one has ever won a game by resigning!’

‘We learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.’ (Benjamin Franklin: ‘On the Morals of Chess’, 1786).  

‘Whoever perseveres will be crowned.’ (Chinese proverb). On the pathway to success, Perseverance goes hand in hand with another human quality of endurance: Patience.

Patience

 

Chess contains all elements of wisdom. Patience is wisdom. Ancient philosophies teach us a common knowledge: it takes long time and loving care for a seed to grow into a plant and bare fruit.
Jean-Jacque Rousseau reminds us that ‘it is a bitter plant, but its fruits are sweet’.

All things are difficult before they become easy. Patience is a necessary ingredient of genius. Or, as Michelangelo puts it: ‘Genius is eternal patience’. The most valuable quality in life/chess: develop sensibly your forces/resources with a careful thought and patience; do not rush into reckless, premature actions/moves. Once that achieved, Bobby Fisher sums up the rest: ‘Chess is a matter of delicate judgment, knowing when to punch and how to duck.’

Patience allows us to act mindfully and wisely. Haste brings regrets. In chess, it translates into committing a Blunder.

Blunder

 

Oops! I may chase away chess players as potential collectors of this work.
Who would like to live with a ‘Blunder’on their walls!?  

But… this Blunder is pretty as a picture! Yes, it is a black hole, it breaks the anticipated beauty and it leaves a stain on the canvas and on the soul, which is hard to live with. However, I give it a light touch. The harmony of colours is appealing and a halo-like flower-decoration encircles the ‘stain’ – there is light beyond the tunnel. Time and again, we hear the painful consolation: one should learn from the blunder.   

‘Chess is a fairy tale of 1001 blunders. The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.’ (Savielly Tartakover) But, you must not abandon and run away from the struggle. ‘Fail again, fail better’, Goethe told us. Thomas Edison would not admit to failure: ‘I have not failed. I simply found 10,000 solutions that did not function’.

The search must never stop. A pursuit of the goal with Passion, Patience and Perseverance is bound eventually to lead to Victory.

Victory

The climb to victory is steep. The blood-red colour points to the burning desire to reach the top.
Climbing the many steps upwards is an arduous work, but there, at the top, sprigs of laurel bay await.

The laurel symbolizes eternity because its leaves do not wilt. In Roman times, a wreath of bay leaves – a ‘wreath of glory’ – was placed on the Caesars’ heads after each victory. In ancient Greece, wreaths were awarded to victors in both athletic and poetic competitions. The Olympic winners were crowned with laurel wreaths. The bay leaf was etched in medals. The laurel wreath, a powerful symbol of victory since antiquity, later evolved into a crown.    

To be martial requires discipline and courage. The ancient wisdom of Tao points out further: a warrior will have many opponents in a lifetime, but the ultimate opponent is the warrior’s own self. Within a fighter’s personality is a wide array of demons to be conquered: fear, laziness, indecision, ignorance, haste, selfishness, egotism and many more. To overcome one’s own defects is the true nature of victory.  

The true warrior does not seek any victory but a victory that brings out perfection and Beauty.

Beauty

Good move, bad move, doubtful move, interesting move, best move, the only move, beautiful move: !! The double exclamation mark is well known and highly desired by chess players. Whenever it deserves to be applied to a move, be that ours or played by somebody else, it emanates a feeling of elation and beauty.

This painting’s colour combination of blue, red and gold imitate the predominant shades found in the Medieval Art, based on byzantine traditions. Medieval illustrations of the game of chess, and other illuminated manuscripts also conform largely to the use of these three colours.

One thing we all agree is the accepted adage: ‘Chess is a beautiful game’. To achieve beauty one needs a tranquil, quiet mind. Chess and beauty are best savoured in Silence.

Silence

 

We (the soul) always need silence, and when playing chess more than ever.
When the silence is disturbed, all sorts of negative feelings surge. The silence is pure,
innocent but a danger is always lurking, aiming at disturbing the powerful moment of quiet.

“Silence is a source of Great Strength.” (Lao Tzu). Our minds, polluted and agitated with garbage of data, are striving to calm down in Silence. To achieve a long-lasting inner silence is the most difficult thing of all. It comes and goes, as a wave, providing temporary and rare lulls of clarity, when all answers are clear, solutions are visible and blunders are far and away. A chess player’s dream.

This work’s pastel colours are serene and soothing. The dark turquoise wave breaks slowly into a soft, silent nothingness. Silence is indispensible in order to quiet down the chattering junk of thoughts and reach the sublime Simplicity.

Simplicity

People strive for simplicity but it eludes them painfully.
Sadly, they feel more at home when struggling.

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, Leonardo tells us. This painting draws from yet another of Leonardo’s wise observations: the geometry and symmetry of the ‘Vitruvian Man, which shows how simple, yet precise symmetry reigns between nature and man in the Universe. 

Black and white indicate the simplest duality of opposite tones. It is also the common design of the chessboard. The leaves evoke the simplicity of nature and their positions indicate the geometry of lines applied in chess. Nature has a great simplicity and, therefore, a great beauty. Simplicity denotes beauty, purity and clarity. ‘If you cannot explain it simply, than you do not understand it’, says Einstein.

The best move is the simplest move. It is there, but we do not see it because we search too much. Alas, the ‘simple’ is the most difficult. If we grasp fully and master The Art of Simplifying, we would avoid a malaise that we often fall victims to: Indecision.

Indecision

Most of us, at times fall prey to this debilitating emotion. It is the big enemy in life/ chess.
In its base is a lack of confidence and fear of making a bad choice.
However, often greater risk is involved in delaying than in making a wrong decision.

We remember with longing the laconic answer Capablanca gave when asked how many moves he thought ahead: "Just one, the best one!" With trepidation, we search for the ‘best move’; solutions clash, a new fragile thought interferes before even the previous one has been clearly formulated. A new possibility obliterates the previous one. More often than not, after having spent valuable time and energy considering various options, we return to the very first one.

In this painting, simple rows of colours convey the overlapping thoughts.

In our desire to crush the opponent, negative emotions surface with burning effect. However, chess is not really a ‘war’. It is a symbolic ‘war’, a battle of wits, a balancing act between opposing forces aiming at bringing into equilibrium  Dark and Light.

Dark and Light

A certain darkness is needed to see the stars. Black and White / Dark & Light are co-dependent.

There is equality in the cosmos: male and female, water and fire, heat and frost, hard and soft, good and bad, life and death, day and night, light and dark … are part of an overall equilibrium. They are complementary forces, interacting to form a whole greater than either part. The light and dark squares of the chessboard are an illustration of the opposite forces connected and interdependent in the natural world. Physical manifestations of the yin-yang concept are found in many natural dualities. 

‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’, is a truth testified long ago by natural wisdom (Tao) and confirmed later by science (Newton). Light and Dark are two halves of a whole. They are partners who work together, as a male and a female who create life.

I felt these two works should not be separated. They complement each other just as the Moon and the Sun/ Day and Night do.

And as Night gives way to Day, painting ideas flow in a never ending cycle. These 15 titles are not exhausted and I may add more in the near future. ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’, as Leonardo would say. However, one obvious title is missing: ‘Defeat’. It could be a lack of a painting idea, which in turn could be caused by my subconscious state of mind: I refuse to acknowledge or accept Defeat. Ever!

In contrast to these abstractions and semi-abstractions, where the chess pieces are missing, in the next article I will be showing another production – of the six chess pieces – in a figurative, most traditional style and executed in one of the oldest crafts – etching. Just for a taste, here are the King and the Queen, in black & white, but they exist in colour, too. 

 

Note: The paintings’ medium is acrylic on canvas; their sizes vary between 90 x 90 cm to 120 x 120 cm. Precise details are given in the Mitra website. You can buy them here.

I give an explanation about my painting technique in this interview.



Topics: Art

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.
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