Of Chess and Art

There is a scene in The Queen’s Gambit in which 15-year-old Beth Harmon, the chess prodigy, has just won the Kentucky State Champion and a reporter from Life magazine is interviewing her. Between the blinding flashes of the camera and the intrusive, condescending questions of the reporter, Beth, clutching to her trophy as if she were holding a doll, explains with candor in a hushed voice the reason why she plays chess:

It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it, I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So, if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.

Viewers spend the rest of the series rooting for Beth Harmon’s ascension and success — her storyline that of a part-underdog, part-unstoppable genius — but it is that scene that explains, in the simplest words, the appeal of chess. It is that moment that makes younger generations fall in love with chess after merely watching the series.

Chess is a beautiful game. Like artists painting their worlds within the confines of a canvas, so do chess players build their vision within the square-format of their board. Any art lover will be awed to notice how grandmasters — the best players of chess in the world — will follow similar principles of composition in their strategy that artists use in their art. There’s symmetry, rhythm, an understanding of line and negative space. And just like in all compositions, no element is truly independent, but connected to the whole. The best-placed pieces will attack, threaten, defend and block the opponent’s movement, all at the same time. 

Throughout the Netflix show, visual thinking is the key to Beth’s success as she lies in bed and envisions sequences of chess moves on her ceiling. It is a dramatic Hollywood effect, inspired nonetheless from the practice of real grandmasters.

With this clear overlap between chess and art, you would think that artists — especially abstractionists — would jump at the opportunity to combine these two visual realms, the same way they have done with geometry and music. But instead of getting a chess-like strategic approach to art, as we look back through art history we get to witness the social role chess has played through the ages.

Gérard Portielje – Chess Match
Gérard Portielje – Chess Match. Oil on canvas. Private collection

The modern-day impression of chess as a slow-dragging, boring game played by the elderly rich was already captured in Gérard Portielje’s nineteenth-century paintings Chess Match and The Chess Players.

In warm plush interiors extolling a comfortable life, for Portielje’s players chess is more of a sensual pleasure than an intellectual exercise. There is a heaviness present that subdues and cocoons them, like the fog of sleepiness descending after a large meal. The chessboard may be the pretext for these paintings, but it is not the central element. Portielje’s artworks are about social status and comfort, and chess is merely an indicator of status.

Gerard Portielje - The Chess Players
Gérard Portielje – The Chess Players. Oil on canvas. Private collection

The story changes when looking at Thomas Eakins’s The Chess Players. Again, we have a rich, lavish interior, where chess and brandy seem to go hand in hand. But there is so much concentration in the body postures and face expressions of the players and their witness – Eakins’s father – that we can start gauging the intellectual effort this game requires. It is exhausting to even look at them, empathizing with the complicated mental calculations they must be running.

Thomas Eakins – The Chess Players (1876)
Thomas Eakins – The Chess Players (1876). Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Nineteenth-century idea of chess as a lonely, quiet game comes at odds with the bustling Renaissance crowds chess used to draw. I used to think that artists stopped painting crowds and groups of people because it was more challenging to stay true to reality that way. It’s one thing to ask one individual to pose, and a whole different endeavor to demand the same thing, at the same time, from ten different people. Yet a similar thing happened over the centuries in literature and music. We went from tracing the history of family dynasties and composing goosebump-inducing symphonies to a dispiriting minimalism centered on one-note individuals. Art wasn’t the initiator, but a symptom of change.

The first painting that comes to mind from the days of yore is Sofonisba Anguissola’s depiction of her sisters playing chess in The Chess Game. On the edge of the chessboard Anguissola, then only 20 years old, left this inscription: “Sofonisba Angussola virgin daughter of Amilcare painted these three sisters and a maid from life.”

Sofonisba Anguissola – The Chess Game (c. 1555)
Sofonisba Anguissola – The Chess Game (c. 1555). Oil on canvas. National Museum in Poznań, Poland

The fact that girls within a household would be taught chess the same way they were expected to learn sewing strikes us as odd today, when we still associate the game with men and high intellectual achievement. Such were the days when women were just as likely to play chess as men, and both genders prized the social side of the game.

Even though the eldest sister has just won the match, there is no display of competitiveness, but warm camaraderie and kinship. Chess is a central element here — not least thanks to the zooming in and cropping technique used — animating the picture and the relationships between the siblings. The game is their bond and their entertainment, far more lively than Portielje would depict it centuries later.

The same social attitude towards chess can be seen in other Renaissance paintings, as well. When the genders mix, the chessboard becomes the equivalent of a modern-day dance rink, where advances are rewarded or punished with an erotically-charged tease. 

Liberale da Verona - The Chess Players (c. 1475)
Liberale da Verona – The Chess Players (c. 1475). Tempera on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

You can see this in Liberale da Verona’s The Chess Players. Alongside its companion piece, this panel was used to decorate the front of a chest and shows two episodes from an unidentified novella. In the first scene a young man falls in love with a beautiful maiden who appears at a window. In the other panel, The Chess Players, the lovers are engaged in a game of chess, while their arms overlap with a gentle sensuality. Playing chess is an act of courtship.

Bleached blond hair was all the rage in fifteenth-century Siena, which makes the pair and the group of people surrounding them almost look like angels, if not for the highly expressive faces of the women present. I wonder if that was da Verona’s missed attempt at showing blissful joy and ecstasy. To me these faces reveal a wide range of negative emotions, from the boredom of the maiden to the angry frown of the woman in red and the vacant stare of the woman next to her.             

Giulio Campi – The Chess Game (c. 1530-1532)
Giulio Campi – The Chess Game (c. 1530-1532). Oil on canvas. Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin, Italy

In Giulio Campi’s The Chess Game the intellectual courtship gets more allegorical and physical, as we look at the match-up between a fashionably dressed voluptuous woman and a man-at-arms. The pair alludes to Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, and Mars, the god of war. Although the chessboard is only partially revealed, it animates this whole scene, connecting the lovers and on-lookers who have gathered around them.

What’s most admirable about this picture is its duality and symmetry. At first glance the group seems disordered and convoluted like a whirlwind of figures, with each person looking in a different direction — exciting, in its own way, since it adds a three-dimensional quality to the painting. But through the use of line, you get to see these eight characters bonded by invisible chords in mutable pairs.

The Venus and Mars counterparts seem to be pulling in different directions, yet they’re the mirror-image of each other, insomuch as they are both seated and leaning towards their left with their heads tilted down. I think of this as such a beautiful metaphor for the differences amongst us which we find insurmountable when we’re essentially alike. It is the lack of a mirror, or self-reflection, that convinces us otherwise. And it is striking how much Campi insists on these apparent yin-yang opposites: man – woman, front – back, war – beauty, left – right.  These differences charge the painting with an undeniable tension, yet they are sides of the same coin.

You cannot help but love how Campi constructed his composition. If you were to draw lines between each of the characters you would get a bouquet of parallel and diagonal lines revealing both similarities and contrasts between them. Part of me even wonders whether the artist intended to show this assortment of figures as a replica to the chess pieces, which also come in pairs. I say this because in French (fou) and Romanian (nebun) bishops are called “madmen”. The jester in the bottom right corner could play the madman role, just like the little girl on the left could pass for an allegorical pawn. I do not think that this was Campi’s intention, but this approach gives you a glimpse of the lively universe you can discover within a 64-square checkered board, with repercussions far beyond it.

It seems that chess’s metaphorical potential is almost inexhaustible. There’s life, there’s comfort, there’s family, there’s love and then… there’s death. Who can forget the image of Death playing chess in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal?

The Seventh Seal scene
Scene from The Seventh Seal (1957) in which Death plays chess against the knight. Direction Ingmar Bergman

When a disillusioned knight returns from a long crusade to his village decimated by plague, he meets Death along the way. As he tries to buy himself more time, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes couldn’t be higher, for if he wins, he can go on living. It seems like an impossible wager, but this forestalling is successful in granting the man enough time to redeem himself through one last act of kindness and bring himself closer to finding the meaning of life, a meaning that is not beholden to God.  

Albertus Pictor - Death Playing Chess
Albertus Pictor – Death Playing Chess (1480-1490). Mural. Täby Church, Täby, Sweden

The inspiration for the film came from Albertus Pictor’s fifteenth-century mural Death Playing Chess. Above a man and a skeleton huddled around a chessboard, a now-faded ribbon used to carry the inscription “I checkmate thee”.  A far cry from the chess love games played in France and Italy during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this chilling line aptly finds its cinematographic expression in Bergman’s film. You cannot change the rules of the game or escape a preordained defeat, but there is merit in playing at all, in trying to find meaning along the way. That goes for chess, as well.

12 thoughts on “Of Chess and Art

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Onnimune! This is so fascinating. The game was called “senet” which means passage, transit. I’m curious to read more about it now.

      It wasn’t my intention to write about death at all, but I remembered that scene in Bergman’s film and I just had to reference it. I was aiming for something more upbeat. Now I’ll read up on Egyptian mythology and see whether I should update the post. I very much prefer Egyptian art to Medieval art.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. A few thoughts here.

    The computer and my dad killed chess for me. I was pretty decent at chess. As a teen I did all the puzzles in a Bobby Fischer chess book, and that put me leagues above my peer who hadn’t put in that kind of effort. But my dad, who I didn’t grow up with, was an internationally ranked chess player who hustled chess at the beach to garner survival rations. He had books inches thick about the end game on a shelf. I played him once, and it was like being caught in a sand trap. Every move led inexorably to a loss.

    He loaned me a chess computer, and I studied my favorite opening and strategy until I beat the damned thing, and could do so a few times in a row. I beat a friend in a two out of three at college and never heard from the friend again, teaching me that even winning is not so pleasant. I never had any aspirations regarding chess, other than being kinda’ good at it for a rank amateur. But when I looked at my dad’s life, and the amount of time he’d invested in chess, as opposed to anything else, and where it hadn’t got him, I decided that time could certainly be used more constructively to other ends.

    As I’m sure you know, the chess computer ‘Deep Blue’ beat the best human chess champion at the time, I believe Garry Kasparov. That was the final blow to chess, as far as I’m concerned. Computers are neither conscious, nor do that have imaginations or creativity. Those factors became not irrelevant, but much less important than memory and sheer analytical power. I just saw no reason to pursue something AI could do better, without even being aware it was doing it at all.

    About the TV series. I haven’t watched it. I have a problem with movies about artists, writers, and well, anyone’s life. It’s always a fictionalization — and usually an unintentional parody — which counters any real understanding of the individual in question. I fear having more social conditioning crammed down my throat, as I’d learned the lesson that I’m responsible for all evil in the world decades ago, and I have a low boredom threshold. I’d rather an authentic biography of anyone at all than a fictionalized, politicized (if it is), portrayal of a “significant” individual.

    Also, I don’t consider chess that much about spacial arrangement, though maybe that’s just so obvious that I gloss over it. I see it as the ability to envision strategies, multiple options and consequences, and how they unfold in successive iterations. The visual component just seems the terrain where all that math takes place.

    I think some of the images you shared require more mental gymnastics and analytical precision than playing chess at a very high level. The composition in the Campi painting is enormously sophisticated, while the flat shapes simultaneously must give the impression of being three dimensional. With chess all the rules are established and the pieces move in extremely basic patterns. There’s not a curve in the whole game.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you touch on an important point when you mention the effort and obsessiveness required to be fairly good at the game. And the egos involved! I heard GMs and IMs talk about a lot of tantrum fits, hitting walls and whatnot. This game gets to you big time if you play at a professional level. You breathe and eat chess all day.

      The Queen’s Gambit makes a good introduction to this jargon-filled obsessive world. It’s a completely fictional story (the only politics is the Cold War with the chessboard as its battlefield ), based on a book written in the 80s by this guy who was going on a bender, kinda losing his mind, and his only respite from the darkness was playing chess and billiards. (He wrote about pool too, The Hustler, which was turned into a movie starring Paul Newman.) That’s why the series has an authentic and redemptive feel to which viewers responded favorably, even though it’s all fiction.

      I think chess today is very different from what you grew up with. I too have heard that its heyday was during Bobby Fischer’s time and that the computer kinda ruined it for a lot of folks. But chess today embraces the computer and makes it a vital part of it (which must be equally horrifying to you hehe). It’s more like gaming, and its popularity (from before the Netflix show, but especially in 2020 during the pandemic) is thanks to Twitch and YouTube live streaming. I mean, how extraordinary is it to have GMs streaming to the masses, to tens or hundreds of thousands of people at a time, explaining their strategy, their every move, their reading of the game? This is completely uncharted territory. If it was just a Netflix effect, I assume that the fad wouldn’t last for more than a year. But this goes far beyond Netflix, and I find it amazing how this game keeps reinventing itself.

      In 2018 the first piece of AI-generated art was sold at Christie’s for over 400k. It made me very sad and angry, because in an AI world we should at least hold onto our human creativity. I don’t know if we’re all essentially replaceable, but like I said in the post, there’s merit in playing the game even when you know you’re going to lose. What other option is there?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agh! That AI painting is horrible.

        Yeah, I heard there’s been a resurgence of chess. I can tell you there’s another one for digital art. There are so many new channels on YouTube just for tutorials.

        My disillusionment with chess is my own. But, from my particular portal on the universe, for the amount of time it takes to get good at it, one could learn to play the guitar, or even play the guitar and sing and write songs. I know which I’d rather be able to do.

        Chess is great for the brain, though. Nothing at all against it. Just not for me.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. That article written by a “robot” reads just like it was written by a human impersonating a robot, though in reality it’s AI programmed to impersonate a human voice. Either way, there’s so much human influence in it that I can hardly make out the contribution of AI.

        Because AI isn’t conscious, it can only collage snippets of human creations in order to mimic art or articles. It can’t ponder the nature of its own existence, because it is unaware that it exists at all. If AI were somehow to becomes conscious — I think it would need a living, biological component to do so — than it probably wouldn’t think like people. What it would do and for what reason may be unfathomable to us.

        So, I’d say, probably smart to stick with NOT attempting to make AI conscious. This way it will just be an infinitely intelligent tool.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You mentioned The Social Dilemma in one of your previous posts, how these algorithms are dividing us. What chilled me the most in that documentary was when they briefly mentioned machine-learning. The algorithm continuously improves and refines itself until it needs no more input from engineers. Not only that, but the engineers cannot understand what the AI is doing anymore or control it. Meaning the AI can outdo us even without consciousness.

          It sounds super sci-fi, but then I was watching HBO’s Silicon Valley, and the whole premise of the show’s last season is about how AI can take a life of its own. I found it disturbingly realistic, something that could happen within the next 10-20 years.

          Right now it seems that we’re still in that phase of collaboration with the AI and there’s immense potential there for growth and development. Art I expect to be the last area threatened by this. Still, I can’t shake off the feeling that we’re playing with fire.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I think AI operates in a very different way than human intelligence. For example, AI has no issues with memory, multi-tasking, or math. On the bright side, this can be a way for people to extend our intelligence. We can use calculators or Excel to do math in an instant. We can look up things we can’t remember in a quick internet search. We can task out computers to do something while we do something else. But it’s no surprise that given the non-human strengths of AI, it will easily outdistance us in certain areas, such as algorithms. It has no trouble doing calculations on the fly that would stagger mathematicians. All of this can be used to our benefit.

            Of course it can eliminate jobs. Though when it comes to art of any kind, AI is not conscious. Something that doesn’t even know that it exists can’t address the nature of existence which is fundamental on some level to all art. AI has no need to share or communicate, has no empathy. Nothing matters to AI.

            If it were to become conscious, well, that’s a different story. But consciousness seems to be linked to biological life. The more immediate and real threat is what people do with super computers, which is generally to find ways to establish their advantage over everyone else.

            Just some thoughts on the topic, and I only speak from my limited perspective.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a varied collection of paintings discussed here Gabriela. And yes inspite of the morbid mention, it was a great idea to include Bergmann’s scene from The Seventh Seal. It is etched in my memory forever since having seen it the first time.

    The Campi painting is so fascinating and the way you explained about its lines and angles. Wow.

    And you know already i love the metaphors you draw from painting to life. Chess too is easily a place to do it and you do it well.

    The discussion in comments between you and Eric too is insightful and yes, AI has such future in coming years. If not consciousness but surely entering more genres of art and creativity. The fact that they will enter and replace realms of automatic work is a given. Let’s see how things unfold.

    Liked by 1 person

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