The Contemporary Chess Art of Ilija Penušliski

10/31/2008 – In part one of this essay we saw how different artists represented chess in their works. Unlike any of these, the artist whom we are introducing to you now took a completely different approach when expressing his artistic views of our most beloved game. For some of these works, chess and its elements literally provide the backbone on which his art is based. Essay by Kiril Penušliski.

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The Contemporary Chess Art of Ilija Penušliski

By Kiril Penušliski

In the first part of this article I presented some works of art by artists who have used elements of our game in their work. What was common to all of the examples was the way in which chess was presented.

In most cases the repeating pattern of the black and white squares of the chess board provided the artist with a decorative element which he could use to a great effect; the way Matisse uses the board in Femme à Côté d’un Échiquier. There the board is used as a visual counterpart to the play of the other colour fields in the painting.

The other common way of depicting chess is as an intellectual struggle between two opponents who have been locked together by an invisible force and are now bent over their own personal field of battle (as in Le Joueur d’Échecs by Daumier).

But unlike any of these examples the artist whom I would like to introduce to you took a completely different approach when expressing his artistic views of our most beloved game. For some of this works, chess and its elements literally provide the backbone on which his art is based.


The artist in his atelier in Skopje

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 fewer 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 Beijing).

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

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.

Here 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 upon from a 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 viewer's 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. 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 was that 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 a homage not only to the game itself but to friends and opponents he has met across the board.

La fin bleue (The Blue Endgame) further emphasizes this point – the close and intimate position that chess has on this painter’s art – the panel being created as a result of a game played and an endgame dreamed.


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 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 turn creates an uneven surface full of tension and energy.

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. He is crouched, and 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 pieces, in front of him.


My Studio, by Ilija Penušliski

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 rising 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 to the artist’s love of the game. It has become a part of him and it is consuming him from 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 some day to learn how to avoid making mouse slips.


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