Saturday, January 17, 2009

Samuel Bak's Chess Art

"Board Meeting", by Samuel Bak. Credit for image: University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies' web article, "Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak". .

Chess in art is an old theme -- from the chess pieces themselves to numerous paintings of a chess theme. Surely the most famous Israeli artist who used chess motifs in his art is the surrealist painter Samuel Bak. He used chess themes in many ways, as the link above shows. It is well worth visiting for a retrospective of his chess art.

For Bak, chess was more than a cliche -- a fallen king symbolizing defeat, a pawn next to a queen to indicate master-and-servant or romantic relationships, etc. They are used in much more sophisticated and interesting (indeed amusing) ways, as in the picture above. What's more, Bak correctly paints all the technical details: the demonstration board is (as often in real life) green and off-white, with the lower right-hand corner a white square; the pieces are in different shades of brown and red, as in real life, and are correctly proportioned; even the wear-and-tear and fading marks on the old pieces are accurate. (The blue pawns are artistic license: they appear in much of his chess art, as a symbol of hope.)

The avoidance of cliches and the accuracy in the depiction of the boards and pieces indicates that Bak probably plays chess. When non-playing artists use chess motifs, not only are these motifs often mere cliches, but the board and pieces are usually monochromatic black and white, and -- as a crowning achievement -- the lower right-hand corner is usually black. As Tim Krabbe noted, for some reason people think it looks better that way.

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