The Art of Chess.

A discussion Paper written by


3rd yr. Art Student

Curtin University School of Art

June 1998.


Please send any comments about this to KEL at


The history of Western Art is well documented in a vast amount of books. I have chosen to use an Art form that is familiar to me and not one that is not from my own personal heritage, although as an African I can lay claim to an African Cultural background, but for the purpose of this argument I'll not travel that path. Many books show the earliest paintings to be dated between 15000 to 12000 BC , such as the 'bison' painted in the Altimira caves in Northern Spain, and with this early attempts at presenting a visual representation of the world as those early humans saw it till today western artists have followed many rites, rituals and taboos(and broken a great many as well!!) in the pursuit of the definitive image for history to record as THE penultimate painting.( the use of the word Penultimate is used in the context of the always being a better or different way of doing or see or expressing oneself) Through the misty ages of history many influences have created Art as we have come to know and debate about in a many forums from Art Schools, to Cafes, to Bars, etc,etc. Some Historians argue that had it not been for the influence of the Arab Empires and the raids from the Mongol Hordes that the Age of Enlightenment may not have been. Along with advances in hygiene, schools and the basic running water the Ottoman Empire and it's predecessors introduced Chess to Europe.


The history of Chess is not as easy to trace as the history of Art and it is disputed that there may have been Chess played in early Egyptian times. A China jar containing what appears to be two chess pieces was discovered in the Russian Uzbek Republic dated around the 2nd Century (yet to be confirmed to be Chess pieces-and as soon as someone comes forward to claim them we'll ask them..).The more acceptable period is around 5 AD and the game like Art has had many alteration in it's history. The pieces have been renamed and the value and power of the pieces altered to suit a more Western inclination, as has Art over it's history. The 'Queen' was not always the 'Queen' but the 'Fazier', the 'Bishop' was originally an 'Elephant' to symbolise troops mounted on Elephants, but has also been known as a spy, a confidant and a 'Seer'(this is the most ambiguous of all the pieces), the 'Knight' symbolised mounted troops or cavalry units, the 'Rook' comes from the Arabic for chariot 'Ruhkhk' and it's meaning has change because of the many language interpretations about the meaning of the original name.


In this discussion paper I will ,with the use of comparisons, show the inter-relationships of Chess and Art and how the two are one.I will show specific art forms and their interrelationships with Chess. Chess as a Performance Art, as a Conceptual Art, as an Ephemeral Art and as Temporary Installations.


"But how is Chess an Art form?" you may ask...Ever since the 1800's when the Western World defined Art and Artists , Academics have postulated and argued the rights and wrongs of Art and all it's points of conjecture. The various Art movements in just the last 100 years has heralded monumental leaps and bounds in human development and understanding.( not always good)!! >From the Impressionists, Cubists, Expressionists, Abstraction in all it's forms, Dada ,Fluxus (in the 60's) and into this so called Post Modern Age we have witnessed the birth of Conceptual Art as an art form of it's own( not thatit did not exist in one way or another prior), Performance Art, Installations bo th temporary and permanent, Ephemeral Art, Photography and Computer Generated Graphic Art and all these are still being debated as to whether they are or are not forms of Art by the 'Academics'. Any 'Art' movement has a long list of these so called 'Academics' who will vermontly defend their position. An 'Academic' for the sake of this discussion is and can be anyone armed with any knowledge on any subject , not always the correct or complete knowledge but is willing to express a point of view.( and we number in the millions!!?).



If these 'Art movements' are to be considered as art the so to does Chess as it lies within several of the parameters of the aforementioned Art movements. In the Conceptual level Chess moves on the board form only a small part of the overall picture as with Minimalism where the idea is manifested in the theory and the canvas is only a small part of this manifestation. Just because you don't get the Joke does not mean it is not funny. The various 'Openings' are as the colours and brush strokes and the ideas behind the moves are as far-reaching as the theories of these Conceptual and Minimalist Artists. Much like Art theory Chess theory has been explored, researched and analysed to the "n"th degree and is listed in such an array of books that even the most learnered of either discipline is unable to have read all available material. As a performance Art ,each sequence of moves planned and executed are like a performance .Nothing is hidden but the true meaning is only revealed in the fullness of time.

The Artist ,in today's society, is portrayed as an eccentric, an outcast who views life at an 'unusual angle'. The Chess player or student of the game is treated very much like the Artist, both are miss quoted, miss interpreted, miss understood and looked upon as pursuing an unusual ,if not wasteful 'pastime'. In other ways Chess players are 'performers' of the highest calibre , one only has to frequent any Chess competitions and/or events to witness some of the 'eccentric' behaviour of some of the competitors. Fischer vs Spasky in 1972 is a prime example of this , Fischer more so than Spasky at that event. The antics of some of the best players in the world today pail into insignificance when compared to the behaviour of the more mediocre players who feel it is their Right to behave as some of the 'Grand masters' ,but lack the ability to back this up with actions. Nothing infuriates any Player or Artist more than being shown their own mortality. To the Audience of the Performance it is as if the performers are following a sequence of events known only to themselves much like two 'Grand masters' pitting their will against each other.

It is the overall picture or performance which is to be considered and viewed, but then each 'performer' is also to be considered and viewed. Those who view these performances and have only a limited knowledge of their true meaning are like those who admit to knowing how to play chess or have a limited knowledge of Art, dismissing it as an unattainable goal, but this not true the ideals of chess and art are not so far from attainable as are the workings of a car or a computer. Only a few who make the effort will progress past a basic knowledge. The moves themselves are Ephemeral in nature not meaning to last but to leave a lasting effect on the viewer. Each sequence of moves are like a temporary installation- here one minute gone the next!.

Chess too exists in the realm of 'Cyber-space'. If as the Scientists lead us to believe that the mind is the "Ultimate computer" then this is truly the realm of Chess as about 95% of the concepts, ideas and moves are only done in the mind, the other 5% is the physical manifestation of the 95% unseen and unmoved. Nothing is hidden but only those who look will ever see the underlying beauty of this Art form. "There are none so blind as those who will not see" is true not only for Art but also Chess. The list of openings to be considered on just the first move are vast, just like the colours of a palette. The image is not only on the board but also in the mind of the opponent and the viewer, each move like the brush strokes of a painter, the moves made by the opponent is like the materials 'talking' to the Artist letting the Artist know the limitations of the materials which is being used. The beauty of the line is only as good as the artist creating the flow of images within the mind of those watching every move ,the grace of the dancer ,the beauty of the colours blending to create a multitude of possibilities, the positioning of each piece an installation of ideas upon the viewer. The board is the palette, the pieces are the colours, the mind of the opponent and all who wish to see is the canvas. Shall this be a painting ,an installation, a performance of pain and sorrow or of power and victory?


The history of the game depicts White moves first - always. Just another one of the many Rites and Rituals of Chess. The time limits implaced by the Rules, in competitions, stipulate that the first 36 moves are to be completed in 90 minutes (time limits vary to the needs of the different works) , this was brought about by the need to complete games which up until the early 1800's took up as long as 1 or 2 years to finish( some competitions were decided by the opponent dying before the game was finished) and that notation of all moves are to be done ,this aides in any disputes which may arise during or after the completion of a game. Special clocks have been invented to keep track of each players time. Some games take only 5 minutes/player to complete much like the warm-up drawings in 'Life Drawing' classes,other time limitations are 15 minutes/player also known by the musical term "Alegro".The Purists or Academics of the chess world scorned the introduction of these time limits much like the introduction of the Impressionists, the Fauves, the Expressionists, the list continues all the way through to the Sixties and 'Fluxus' even onto today's Art ,some of which can only be described as "Neo-Brutalist" lacking in aesthetics and compositional quality but Art never the less. A symptom of the "Post-Modernist" time we live in today

The only thing left to define is "intention". The Intention of the true Artist and the true Chess player are not so far apart. The true Artist seeks the answers to the puzzles set out in front of them when wishing to express their ideas in whatever medium they desire. So to does the true Chess player seek out the answers to the puzzles laid out in front of them. The desire to create the purest, sweetest moves or sequence of moves drives a great many true Chess aficionado to constantly review and revise their techniques and strategies. An Artist travels this same path in their work and therein lies the similarities between the "intentions" of both Art and Chess.

Games such as the "Immoral Masterpiece" by E.Lasker against Sir G.A.Thomas nearly half a century ago highlight the fact that at the higher end of the scale of chess players it is not just the brute calculation to win that drives them but the finesse and beauty of the winning combination the subtle moves that enchant and mesmerise the average player. Are not the Galleries of today not filled with works that are the intellectual domain of the higher levels of the Art World? The many Art Awards around, not only Perth, are a sign of the level of Art that is in the "suburbs" and that this Art is not always so "well informed" as is the Art of the Private Galleries. As with the higher levels of Art World so to is the higher levels of the Chess World, the higher you get the more you appear to "see". The level of theory need to gain these dizzy heights is no different to each other just the "Language and Codes" are different from each other.


In conclusion I put it that Chess is very much like a work of Art. If the forms of Conceptual Art ,Performance Art ,the Art of the Sixties (such as Fluxus) and all the other forms which started around and since the time of the 'Dada' Movement and the introduction of Photography and Computer Graphics. Then is not Chess which can, and does, fulfil some if not most of the Rites, Rituals, and Taboos of these Art forms be Art and take it's place in the realm of Art? The images are in the mind and the visual only aides in creating the basis of the image within the viewer. The concepts of the structure of the images is what is important, for a large portion of Chess is in the mind of the viewer as is Conceptual Art and Performance Art. Not everyone with a camera, computer, paint set, pencil or lump of clay can create Art, but they continue to try!

The flow of the game, the reasoning for the line of attack, the beauty of the Aesthetic of the piece placement, the concepts involved with the outcome of Chess are immensely creative and intuitive. Art as Chess can ,with the introduction of computer generated graphics, be clearly defined as a mathematical equation or equations. Pixelated, calculated and deleted at a touch of a button, but is this the future of Art and Chess ?.When two equal antagonists are pitted against each other, across the board, it is the one with the clearest instincts and ability to see in abstraction what is to follow, the ability to manipulate the processes in front of them who with prevail in the end. Just like any Artist, striving for that image in their mind, to manifest itself in whatever Artform . The lines of the openings are like the concepts of a image that an artist will want to take, the opponent is the limitations of the materials , but in unison are they not joined in a 'Performance' of 'Conceptual' ideas creating works not only on the 'board/canvas' but in the minds of the viewers. Not all forms of 'Art Forms' are self explanatory , not all forms of Art are accessible of to the 'unschooled'. 'Art Speak', the language used to identify or justify Art, is as prevalent as are those who assume that they know how Chess is played or understand the finer qualities of a variety of openings . Anyone can draw, paint or sculpt but only a few can do it effectively. "Many are called but only few answer". Although this does not stop those 'die hard dabblers' from creating 'works of Art' or playing games of "Chess". The grace of a well played opening and the execution of a well planned endgame are as beautiful to observe as the graceful line and beauty of a well place brush stroke in a cubist painting or the atmosphere of a romantic painting or the graceful lines of a Henry Moore Sculpture. The diversity of Art and all it's forms cater to an increasingly diverse audience, not everyone enjoys a performance piece or a photographic exhibition or even a cubist painting, minimalist painting, computer generated Art but they are all one form of Art or another. One only has to attend some of the local council Art awards to see the shallow level of Art appreciation in the general populous to see that the ideas and concepts espoused at Art schools are not filtering out fast enough. "I don't know much about Art but I know what I like" mentality is rampant amongst the plebs. Long live DADA and all it's offspring!!!




 < /P>

Beckett, Sister Wendy The Story of Painting

contributing consultant-Patricia Wright

Dorling Kindersley Book

RD Press , Surry Hills N.S.W. 1995


Brace, Edward R. An Illustrated Dictionary of Chess

Chartwell Books Inc.

Secaucus, New Jersey. 1989


Keene R. and Kasparov G. Batsford Chess Openings 2

The Bath Press B.T. Batsford LTD

London W1H 0AH 1989



Linton N., Smith A., Cummings R., Collinson D.

Looking into Paintings

The Open University, Walton Hall

Milton Keynes. 1985


Preble D. and S. Artforms 5th Edition

Harper Collins College Publishers

New York 1994


Purdy C.J.S. and Koshnitsky G. Chess Made Easy

Penguin Books

Ringwood Victory 1992


I.A. Horowitz All about Chess

Colliers Books

New Yorks 1971


Howard Staunton The Chess-Player's Handbook


London 1985