The Game of Chess : Some Depictions in Art

Unknown artist (British, mid-19th century), Double Portrait of a Chess Player, 1866. Albumen silver print, 8.6 x 5.7 cm. Gift of the Estate of Frank C.C. Lynch, Ottawa, 1967. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

It is ironic, if perhaps not surprising, that in the man’s world of chess, the most powerful piece is female. The king is the most important piece, in that his capture ends the game, but his greatest protector is the queen. She has formidable freedom of movement, with the straight lines of a rook and the angles of a bishop.

Still, moves named for the queen are often described in male terms. One chess website explains how the “queen’s gambit”, the move for which Netflix’s latest hit TV series is named, involves the white side of the board sacrificing “his” wing pawn to make “his” king pawn more powerful. Not “her” pawn or “their” pawn or even, most appropriately – since a side is an object and not a person – “its” pawn.

The Queen's Gambit, from left to right, Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in Episode 107 of The Queen's Gambit Cr. Phil Bray/NETFLIX © 2020

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the series The Queen’s Gambit is about Beth Harmon, a young girl who is determined to conquer the male-dominated chess world and become a Grandmaster. The show’s success has spurred a boom in a game that has been with us for at least 1,500 years. That long history can be also seen in art. Although women are rarely depicted, they do appear in medieval manuscripts, Renaissance art and 19th-century paintings. Images of the game of chess can also be seen in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

William James Topley, Mrs. Grace Ritchie [as "Chess"], 1876. William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-138390, e011091689

The photograph Mrs. Grace Ritchie in Costume, March, 1876, currently on loan from Library and Archives Canada, is a fun and fabulous souvenir of the fancy-dress costume balls that were popular with the Victorian gentry of Canada at the time. In the photograph Mrs. Ritchie’s floor-sweeping dress is a chess-board pattern of white and black squares, as are the long cuffs that stick out from her dark cloak. Around her head is a crown made of chess pieces. She looks every inch the dominant queen — although, it comments more on the game than the player. It speaks to the enduring popularity of the game, whose board and pieces and even its classic cri de victoire — “checkmate!” — are universally recognizable.

How to explain that popularity? Is it elemental, that bewitching mix of the immediate and the infinite? One can learn chess in minutes, in terms of which pieces move where, then spend a lifetime playing it badly. The possible moves are so vast as to be all but incomprehensible, like the scale of the universe itself.

Muriel C.W. Boulton, The Chess Problem, 1906. Oil on canvas, 80.8 x 65 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The endless search for the right move is seen in The Chess Problem, a 1906 oil painting by PEI-born Muriel C.W. Boulton. A gentleman extends one hand to move a piece, while his other hand, upon which his head rests, speaks to the duration and depth of thought that guided his choice. One can almost hear an old clock ticking in the background, as the daily world retreats behind the man’s focus on the inscrutable battlefield of 64 squares.

Marcel Dzama, A Game of Chess, 2011. Digital video, 14:02 minutes, and diorama (wooden box containing paper maquettes and drawings), installation dimensions variable; diorama: 23.5 x 29.2 x 13.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Marcel Dzama, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Photo: NGC

The chess-as-life metaphor is seen vividly, and violently, in the stark video work A Game of Chess, created by Winnipeg-born Marcel Dzama in 2011 video, A Game of Chess. In the background, strings from Prokofiev’s 1938 movie score for Alexander Nevsky are strummed with dark urgency, as scenes of two men at a chessboard in an industrial wasteland are interspersed with dancers in black or white costumes on a black-box stage. The scenes flash past — the dancers do battle, a woman cocks a machine gun, masked faces gape in terror, a dancer takes a bullet to the chest. This is chess as war, and war as life.

Unknown artist (French, early 20th century), The Chess Party, c.1914–18. Gelatin silver transparency on glass, 5.2 x 12.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

War was the background for The Chess Party, a French photographic diptych taken between 1914 and 1918. Three ordinary soldiers – medics, wearing Red Cross armbands – are in a plain room dominated by a soot-blackened hearth and worn wallpaper. At a table with unabashedly scuffed legs, two seated men study the board, while a third stands to the side, equally consumed. Not even what was then the worst war in human history, presumably raging nearby, could distract them from the deep demands of a chess victory.

This fascination with chess is almost as old as the game itself. “Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days/ Where Destiny with men for pieces plays,” wrote the Persian poet Omar Khayyam in the 12th century. Chess is a battle played on many fronts, and The Queen’s Gambit reminds us that the front of gender equality has yet to be fully overcome. Almost all Grandmasters are male, and only one woman, the Hungarian Judit Polgár, has ever cracked the top 10 in world rankings. Polgar was never a world champion, but she defeated many men who were, including current champion Magnus Carlsen.

There are other world-class female players, including Polgár’s sisters Susan and Sofia. Beth Harmon is an avatar for them and for other women who have played, or will play, competitive chess. The film and book are fictional – and no spoilers about the ending – but it seems just a matter of time before a woman becomes chess champion in the real world.


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