Chess Art

Chess is one of the world’s most popular games. It echoes through the ages of history as a metaphor for human interpersonal relations and advancement. It has embodied our appetite for conquest, while challenging us with its unique complications and avenues to victory or defeat. It has stood up as a past-time that is ageless and as popular today as it has ever been.
Even with the cyber-age introduction of video consoles and games that are hyper realistic and excitingly complicated, people still play chess. In fact it would be fair to say that people will always play chess. It is a vital part of our humanity and speaks to our basic nature in ways that, perhaps, no other game ever has.

Eugene Delacroix, Arabs Playing Chess 1847-1849

Eugene Delacroix Arabs Playing Chess 1847-1849

Garry Kasparov 

In the past one hundred years chess has remained a vital part of our culture. For example, the Russian chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, and his various battles and conquests against human and non-human opponents. The much publicized Kasparov holds the record for the longest time running as the number one player in the world. He embodies legendary status amongst chess fans worldwide largely due to his battles with Deep Blue, a chess playing machine created by computer scientists. In 1997 Deep Blue became the first computer to beat the reigning world champion, Kasparov, under standard time controls. Today Kasparov’s noteworthiness in popular culture is evident, and that speaks to the popularity of the game. After retiring he devoted himself to politics and writing and is currently chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.

Chess Paintings

Like everything that is a prominent part of culture chess has been captured in art through the ages. Rarely will you find a symbol of greater power than chess in art. It encapsulates something essentially human to us in its inherently combative and yet strategic setting. Immediately, in paintings and also in writing and poetry, the situations presented are enhanced with a depth and focus. The game expresses what is going on beneath our veneers. It asks us questions, and involves us in ways that few other artistic symbols can.

Chess became an inspiration in the arts soon after the game spread throughout the globe in the Middle Ages. In the 15th and 16th centuries many works of art used the game as a center piece. As the game continued to thrive, Ludovico Carraci created I Giocatori di Scacchi (The Chess Players) (c. 1590),

Ludovico Carraci, I Giocatori di Scacchi c. 1590
Ludovico Carraci, I Giocatori di Scacchi c. 1590

Eugene Delacroix created Arabes jouant aux échecs (Arabs Playing Chess) and Thomas Eakins created The Chess Players (1876) to name but a few. In the 20th century Marcel Duchamp created Portrait de joueurs d'echecs (Portrait of Chess Players) (1911), and Henri Matisse created Femme à côté d'un échiquier (1928).

Thomas Eakins, The Chess Players 1876

Thomas Eakins, The Chess Players 1876

Chess Paintings by Theo Michael

It’s with this sentiment in mind that Theo has created works of art involving the game that are similarly inspired. Theo’s fascination with chess comes from his teenage years when he regularly played games with his father, along with another board game, the game of draughts. Theo continued to play with his brother, and brothers in law throughout the decades and developed a passion for the game and its various strategies of defense and attack.
As an artist he saw the essential depth of the game. The moves made by an opponent said something about them and their personality. He saw that beyond the confrontation chess was asking deep and searching questions about who we are as players. Are we brave and reckless? Or are we cautious and defensive? How far ahead are we thinking with our movements, or, by contrast, are we simply thriving in the moment? Over time Theo was able to truly appreciate the artistic metaphor of the game and how that related to our humanity in the wider world.

 So as an artist and a painter it was always going to be a matter of time before chess would appear in his repertoire of work. Theo first created The Chess Players in 2009.

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Chess painting the Chess Players by the beach by Theo Michael

The Chess Players

The passion and concentration of the game are encapsulated for anyone to see, as well as the gregarious nature of the game. Here the game is more than just two players. In the background Theo’s father makes an appearance in the painting, elegantly watching on, perusing the battle from a near distance. One of the players, meanwhile, leans back secure in his impending victory, while his opponent is wrapped in the absorption of the next move.

The Chess Players, oil painting by Theo Michael 2009

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Chess Painting, Queens Gambit by Theo Michael featuring a chess player in a cafe, created in June 2021

Chess painting The Queen's Gambit

In The Queen’s Gambit, Theo’s next foray into utilizing chess in his art, the game is secondary and almost out of view. Here we are asked as a viewer to wonder. We wonder if the female subject of the painting is involved in the game or merely sitting beside a table where a game has taken place. She is distracted and lost in the moment, and it is left for the viewer to reach their own conclusion. We share in the curiosity of the male subject in the painting who is also wondering about the woman. Here the setting is the foreground, and the beautiful character of the Cypriot town, a signature of Theo’s paintings, is key. If we look more closely in the background of the painting another game of chess is at play. How the game was started, Queen's Gambit, London System or Fried Liver Attack, we will never know. And if the female is the player after all, we can see she is deep in thought contemplating her next move.

The Queen's Gambit oil painting by Theo Michael September 2021

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Chess painting of a chess player titled Make Your Move by Theo Michael, created in April 2021

Make Your Move

Where subtlety is everything in The Queen’s Gambit, Theo’s next painting featuring chess, Make Your Move, is much more absolute and confrontational. Here Theo invites the viewer to participate in the painting by immediately involving him as a participant in the game at play. The whisky and the time clock continue to involve the viewer further while the subject exudes bravado in his relaxed and confident disposition. The pieces on the table tell the story of the game and any chess aficionado will appreciate this level of detail in Theo’s work. Every piece of the puzzle, no matter how small, tells a part of the story just like how, in the game of chess, every move builds towards a resolution.

Make Your Move oil painting by Theo Michael April 2021

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Chess, unpretentious, direct and inevitable

Like all of Theo's work, The Chess Player, The Queen's Gambit, and Make Your Move are paintings to fall in love with. Individually they are unique stories, approaching the game of chess from a myriad of different perspectives. But, together the three paintings combine to tell a story about Theo's own love affair with the game and what it says about us as human beings.

But, when the dust settles, and the paint dries, they also acknowledge that chess is simply another board game, merely inviting our participation. Chess is unpretentious, direct and inevitable. It is sometimes
intimate, always competitive, and often very emotional. In the end, Theo's invitation here is to simply participate in his passion, and to enjoy the power of the game and the hidden depths that it can speak to.

As the French painter and sculptor, Marcel Duchamp said, "I have come to the conclusion that
while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."

Author Marc Michael, January 5th 2022