For Art Enthusiasts: Chess in Art

by André Schulz
10/15/2020 – "Chess in Art" is a large-format illustrated volume for all chess enthusiasts with a penchant for art. The book takes its reader on a journey through time, exploring the world of art and showing its connection with chess on over 300 colourful pages. And every single image has a story to tell.

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Chess and Art

Chess in Art is a project by Czech painter and concept artist Peter Herel Raabenstein (Redblue Dimension), who spent considerable time and resources to collect depictions of chess in art and place them in a historical context. A large selection of his work has now been published in an illustrated volume of impressive size.

Peter Herel Raabenstein was born in Hradec Králové (Königgrätz) in 1967. Today, he lives in Prague. He spent 15 years of his life in the Netherlands, where he studied painting, art and other subjects at Gerrit Rietveld Academy. After returning to the Czech Republic, he founded the Zátiší gallery of contemporary art in Prague. His project "Redblue Dimension" explores the emotional effect of combining the colours red and blue in a vast array of different depictions. This approach was inspired in large part by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's colour theory.

Chess in Art sees Peter Herel Raabenstein taking on the role of author for the first time. That said, the book is entirely built around the aesthetic effect of the featured images and only includes text in its foreword and prologue.

The book is a journey through the ages, different countries and the world of art. At the same time, it contemplates the history of chess and its depictions. Each of the over 300 pages in the volume is dedicated to a single work of art, the pictures are sorted based on their artistic period.

The first section features depictions from the years between 1100 and 1500, covering late medieval Romanticism, the transition to the Gothic period and eventually the Renaissance. The first few pages are filled with illustrations from the books of Jacobus de Cessolis (1250-1322). Chess is apparently held in high regard and serves as an allegory for society. Different chess pieces represent social classes. The king is powerless without nobles, the clergy and farmers.

What follows is a series of illustrations from the Book of Games by Alfonso X of Castile (Alfonso the Wise) and a number of other depictions of chess in different contexts. Up until the end of the 14th century, artists had no way of rendering perspective. Games of chess are usually portrayed as flat squares. The late Gothic painter Nicolo di Pietro is the first artist in this collection to depict a chessboard drawn in perspective. Three scholars are grouped around the board. One of them is browsing through a book, apparently a chess manual. Chess is seen as a complex game and as an exercise for scholars.

Over the course of the centuries, painters and artists feature chess in their work time and time again. Nowadays, chess is considered to be a fairly peaceful game. All conflicts are carried out on the board, physical violence between players does not occur frequently.

However, if the illustration by Loyset Liedet is to be believed, this has not always been the case. His picture shows chess players being murdered.

Violence at the chess club

Around 1730, James Northcote of the British Royal Academy of Arts created a painting showing two chess players. Northcote was a prolific artist particularly famous for his depictions of exotic animals. "The Chess Players" shows two affluent gentlemen during an advanced stage of the game. A young man (?) is watching. A small dog sits below the table. In his description of the image, Peter Herel Raabenstein claims that what seems to be a young man is in fact a woman with short hair, and that the image is actually centered around her. To substantiate his claim, he presents a number of arguments.

Just like the images featured in this small selection, all other pictures and paintings from the volume tell a story, and every single one of them is thought-provoking in its own way. What story did the artist want to tell, and what role does chess play in the respective context?

In the appendix, readers can find biographical data about each artist and picture, together with some additional references.

Chess in Art is a colourful journey through the world of art tied together by the overaching theme of chess. It does, however, end somewhat abruptly. A continuation dealing with the period from 1900 onwards would be much appreciated!

Chess in Art is just the right book for all who love chess culture.

Chess in Art, ca. 110 euros


Translation from German: Hugo B. Janz

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


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