Saturday, August 16, 2008

Chess in Art X

Albert, Duc de Bavière affronte son épouse aux échecs

Hans Muelich (1552)

frontispiece to The Book of Jewels of the Duchess Anne of Bavaria

[Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich]

Partita a scacchi

Sofonisba Anguissola (1555)

[Muzeum Narodowe, Poznan, The Raczynski Foundation]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]


Anonymous said...

These two were painted three years and worlds apart.

The dour Herr Muelich, official painter to the court of Albrecht V of Bavaria, portrays a glum assembly. Apparently* it was Albrecht’s consort, chess loving Anne of Austria, who commissioned the piece as the title page for her Book of Jewels. She must have expected a bit more sparkle. On close inspection you might just discern a hint of a ghost of half a smile haunting the tableau.

By contrast, the precocious Sofonisba Anguissola lovingly paints her three sisters Lucia, Minerva and Europa as they enjoy themselves in the Italian campagna, and their governess sees that they play nicely together. Chess playing sisters, one of whom is an artist. Thus their father, Seňor Amilcare Anguissola, anticipates Laszlo Polgar by four hundred years**.

Now, hang on to your pieces; we are going to get technical. Painting a group portrait can be tricky. It’s not like a class photo or a team snap where everyone poses together, watches the birdy and, after a moment or two to frame the shot, it is over in a flash. A portrait painting takes many repeated sittings over days, maybe months. You couldn’t have kept all of Albrecht’s courtiers together long enough for that. They’d be plotting a coup and/or stabbing each other in the back. And the girls would be kicking lumps out of each other under the table.

So you paint them one by one into the composition. This may make for unstable scaling or wobbly perspective such as we detect in the figures in both pictures, and the diminutive animals in one. You may also be tempted to start on the left, work across in the direction of reading, and finish on the other side. If you do, reminding yourself in advance to leave sufficient space for the last person on the right is, generally speaking, sound advice. Cropping your governess like that could get you grounded.

An artist can always make room for small conceits though, especially in something as personal as a Book of Jewels. Marylin Yalom suggests that the two lap dogs beside the board were symbols of fidelity. The Duke and his wife each has one. No doubt they were a sixteenth century must-have fashion accessory, just as the twentieth century mobile phone was before everybody else got one. I wonder though, if somebody called your pooch and it yelped, did you forfeit the game?

* Marylin Yalom. Birth of the Chess Queen: a History. Pandora Press 2004.
**Turn of phrase borrowed with humility, but without permission, from Alan Bennett.

Martin S.

Anonymous said...

"The origin of domination is always the paradoxical, and thus unexpected, subsumption of an object under a concept that is in other respects heterogeneous to it. Accordingly, the phenomenon of aesthetic form always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between such a concept and the real object thought through it, and hence between what is abstract and perceptive"

What Adorno has in mind, I bet, is that it's important to get the board the right way round. :-)

Atticus CC

Jonathan B said...

How do you know all this Martin?

Anonymous said...

Sister Wendy told me.

I think you are wrong. Adorno was saying it didn't matter.

Martin S.

ejh said...

Of course both paintings have a black square in the righthand corner: that was among the reasons (and there are several) why I paired them. And indeed, why I asked the question the other day about how long it has been the rule or the convetion for that corner to be light.