The Black and White Board in Art

10/19/2008 – The debate about what chess is, has been going on for as long as the game has existed. No matter what you personally decide that 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. Part one of an essay by Kiril Penušliski.

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The Black and White Board in Art

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 that 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).


Le Joueur d’Échecs, by Honoré Daumier, 1863


La Patience, by Georges Braque, 1942

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.


Marcel Duchamp, the father of Dadaism

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


Femme à Côté d’un Échiquier, by Henry Matisse

Either it is a simple decorative element, such as the board appearing in Femme à Côté d’un Échiquier or the Odalisques, or, as most artists have depicted it, as in The Painters Family, 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


The Painters Family, by Henry Matisse

Unlike any of these examples, the painter whom I will introduce to you (in part two of this article) took a completely different approach when expressing his artistic views of our most beloved game. For some of his works, chess and its elements literally provide the backbone on which his art is based. For example, his 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 world does not exist anymore, the world is the chessboard.

Part two of Kiril Penušliski's article will appear here in a few days.


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