Ilija Penušliski

6/19/2008 – Blurb... Link.

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By Kiril Penušliski

‘Chess is a sea in which a fly can swim and an elephant drown’. – Indian proverb

The debate about what chess is has been going on for as long as the game has existed. No matter what you personally decide what chess is for you – a sport, a passion, a science, a waste of time with sleepless nights or a magnificent pastime of unfathomable complexity – one cannot deny that it has been an inspiration for countless works of art.

Indeed, looking over the history of art, not only does one find representations of a chess game in numerous instances, but one can also find prosperous and ingenious artists leaving their art and devoting their life to chess.


Partita a Scacchi, by Paris Bordone, 1540


Partita a Scacchi – detail

The list of artists who have depicted the black and white chequered board is rather long and includes names such as Paris Bordone (the author of Partita a Scacchi, from as far back as 1540), Honoré Daumier (Le Joueur d’Échecs, 1863) and Georges Braque (La Patience, 1942).


La Patience, by Georges Braque, 1942


Le Joueur d’Échecs, by Honoré Daumier, 1863

But the most famous artist among all chess players is Marcel Duchamp, the father of Dadaism. At one point Duchamp abandoned his career, left the art world, and, according to Harry Golombek’s Encyclopaedia of Chess, became a player of almost master’s strength, playing on the fourth board for the French national team in the 1930 Chess Olympics in Hamburg.


The Painters Family, by Henry Matisse

But what is common to all those works of art, and is best epitomised in the works of the great Henry Matisse, is the way chess is presented.


Femme à C ôté d’un Échiquier, by Henry Matisse

Either it is a simple decorative element, such as the board appearing in Femme à C ôté d’un Échiquier or the Odalisques, or, as most artists have depicted it, as in The Painters Family in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it is presented as an intellectual struggle between two opponents who have been locked together by an invisible force and are now held firm together, bent over a small table which is their own personal field of battle.


Odalisques, , by Henry Matisse, 1928

But unlike any of these, the painter whom I would like to introduce to you took a completely different approach when expressing his artistic views of our most beloved game.


The contemporary artist Ilija Penušliski

Ilija Penušliski was born in 1947 in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, at that point part of Yugoslavia. He attended the Fine Arts Academy in Belgrade and graduated there with a BFA in painting. He finished his official education as a Fullbrigh scholar at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York where he earned his MFA in 1972.

A professional artist since then, he has exhibited his work throughout the United States and Europe. Currently living and working in Skopje, he is the most prominent contemporary Macedonian painter.

The first thing that one notices when entering his studio is a small coffee table in the centre of the room, which always has a board, pieces and a Garde clock ready for action. An avid chess player, he proudly states that he has played the game on the streets of no less than 14 different capitals (Washington, New York – which he considers the capital of the world, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, London, Vienna, Zurich, Belgrade, Rome, Zagreb, Skopje, Ankara and Peking).

It is precisely this ‘active’ engagement with the pieces that makes his (chess) art so different from the ones I have previously mentioned.


Homage to Lasker, by Ilija Penušliski

An Homage to Lasker is a painting painted directly on a real chessboard. One day, the artist was inspired and in a split second the normally horizontal board was suddenly turned vertically on his easel. The rigidly divided space of the board has now been altered and the divisions between the squares are now blurred.

But one thing is certain: there are no players, no clock, no captured pieces and no kibitzers whispering better moves in one’s ear. All the normal décor of a painting depicting a chess scene is gone. Only the bare essentials are left. And those essentials are the ones that every chess player looking at the board during a game would see. My pieces, his pieces, I take, he takes, equilibrium, advantage, lack of advantage and complexes of weak and strong squares.

The dynamics of the position have been brought down to the bare fundamentals. The position of the individual pieces on the board together with the use of colour are what express the inner relationship between the figures, objects and squares.

The world does not exist any more; the world is the chessboard.

This is precisely what differentiates Penušliski’s ‘chess’ art from the examples I mentioned at the beginning of this text: his art, his world, has not been created by an outsider looking in, but it is a world created by and looked on from chess player’s point of view.


Capa Said it was a Draw! by Ilija Penušliski

The basic two-dimensionality of a chess diagram, or of the board looked at from above, is also reaffirmed in Capa Said it was a Draw! Here the picture emphasizes its own two-dimensionality by the restrained use of any form of illusion. By avoiding linear perspectives in his depiction of the individual objects and pieces, Penušliski painted them in such a way that their size is in proportion to their importance in the composition as a whole. Thus, one can say that it is not the objects themselves that are meant to gain the viewers attention, but it is the arrangements of the colours, the forms of the squares and the blurring of their borders on the surface of the board that ‘make’ the painting.


Chess Autobiography, by Ilija Penušliski

However, Chess Autobiography is something different. Not only does the artist show us more than just the board and the pieces, but the board itself is no longer, as in the previous examples, in the centre of the painting. It has been moved forward and upward, close to the edge of the painting.


Chess Autobiography – detail

With this subtle manoeuvre, the artist has managed to create an emotional component not previously found in Capa and Lasker. Here, we know for certain that we are looking at the world, and at the board, through his eyes. We have become him, and the writings on the edge of the board – which here appear instead of, or perhaps as, notation coordinates – together with the title of the work bring us closer to the artist.


Chess Autobiography – detail


Chess Autobiography – detail

The writings on the painting are the addresses of the important battlegrounds of his life. Orce Nikolov 96 is the address of his current studio; 500 Riverside Drive was the address of his apartment in New York; while Rajiceva 10 of the Academy in Belgrade… and I believe that there is no need for me to explain to the reader what happens daily on Washington Square, in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris (close to the exhibition parlour) or in Bar del Fico in Rome (which I sincerely hope will open again very soon). What’s more, the artist himself has admitted that in the pieces he placed on that board, he depicted Serpenti and Augusto (to the visitors of playchess.com better known as "La_vie_en_rose") from Bar del Fico, as well as his good friend IM Mark Yoffie from Brooklyn. The painting is homage not only to the game itself, but to friends and opponents he has met across the board.


The Chess Game – Self Portrait With a Chess Board, , by Ilija Penušliski

But it is the small The Chess Game – Self Portrait With a Chess Board which best illustrates his approach to chess and how it has influenced his art. The yellow background was painted in thick, with brushstrokes made with a quick light touch over a thick layer of colour, which has previously dried. The dried colour repelled the new one, resulting in so-called broken brushstrokes where the underlying colour shows through the breaks in the upper paint film. This in term creates an uneven surface full of tension and energy.

But the painting, despite its title, is not a conventional representation of a chess game as there is only one figure, that of the artist himself. Crouched, his eyes have an evil gleam; his head drawn in some detail, the eyes and the direction of the gaze indicated by solid black irises. The posture of the body and the vibrant brushstrokes, which delineate its position, tell us that he is playing, and that he is in the process of making his move, possibly delivering a mate.

But there is no opponent, and no board and no pieces, in front of him.

Instead, the board and pieces surround him. The perspective of the board is broken but it does seem to be vanishing into his figure. The pieces are scattered around the man; some are still on the board (the strong white rook in the lower left corner), while others seem to be lifting from it (the black pawn in the centre).

It is the black piece on his back that explains the painting. The pieces are attacking him! They are haunting the man and his position is falling apart. It is not mate that he is delivering but one that he is receiving.

The painting is a realistic depiction of the horror, pain and sometimes, sheer disbelief that come when one loses a game. But the fusion of the man, the pieces and the board testify of the artist’s love of the game. It has become a part of him and it is consuming him from the inside and out.

This painting is also a testament to the truth that my favourite player, the great and now forgotten Salomon Flohr once said: Chess is like love; it is infectious at any age!

  The author of the text, Kiril Penušliski, is supposedly writing his doctorate, but can on most nights be found playing on the playchess.com server. He learned to play chess at age six and formerly played second board for the Penušliski family team (comprising of: first board Dr. Kiril Penušliski (now deceased), second board Kiril Penušliski Jr., third board Ilija Penušliski and fourth board Ilija Penušliski Jr.). His most lofty goal and ambition in life is to someday learn how to avoid making mouse slips.

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