|Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Garrick
Pic by Sisi Burn, from here
|Another cover version.
|Left: Coltrane by Nette Robinson.
Right: Prestige and Blue Note Album covers
Re-mix and now we get chess art. Before we continue: yes, that was Nette with an article in the April 2013 issue of Chess.
|Emanuel Lasker front cover design,
based on a painting by Nette Robinson, based on a...
Many readers of Chess were at the private view of her chess art exhibition in the Muse Gallery in London's Portobello Road ten days ago (and now closed), though your blogger had, unfortunately for him, to be elsewhere, embroiled, as Streatham and Brixton CC was, in a crucial London League relegation battle. But a visit to the show the next day provided a chance to see her chess art in the flesh - and there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, paint, brush-marks, actual size, and all.
First, let's look at her photo-sourced images of chess players - all well-known. Some are straightforwardly in pencil, delicately done; and there is one of Gary Kasparov, painted Coltrane-style, although it didn't seem to me to be as successful for a chess great as a jazz legend. This style works best, IMHO, when it is called on to do energy, and for this image Gazza models dead-pan.
Going a step further in the exploitation of flat tone (white, black and a grey or two), now in defined blocks with the painterly gestures suppressed, Nette has developed a simplified style that has surprising expressive power - less is more indeed - especially with a cropped, raking, assymetric composition; and the familiarity of the subjects does not get in the way, far from it.
|Deep in Thought
In many of these images of chess-maestros past and present hands play an expressive part. It's a subject we've touched upon before in chess art. However hard we try, we can't read a chess player's mind (it would help my grade no end) but body language or, more precisely, hand signals, give us a clue. For this reason chess artists have grabbed at them for an interpretive leg up. There is a stunning convergence between Nette's portrayal of Iron Tigran shutting out all distraction, narrowing his field of vision, focussing his cogitation, and one of Bill Hook's works (we blogged about it before) which, moreover, also uses a similar tonal economy, albeit with more actors on stage. It makes telling chess art.
|Pal Benko (right) in action.
Bill Hook (1925-2010)
Any chess player might covet one of these, especially if it was created, bespoke, from their favourite move, even one of their own. Unlike the Tal and Tigran in action (or inaction) portraits above, with these position-pieces the chess player has a privileged level of appreciation, and you'd have to ask a non-chesser whether they work for them devoid of chess meaning. But we can apply a test (taught in any art class) to see for ourselves. One way of trying to assess whether the formal compositional qualities of an artwork stand up independently is to look at it in a mirror, or upside down (the picture, obviously), or both, so as to defeat its content. So here we go:
That is quite revealing, and I almost prefer it that way! There is something about having the weight of the textual border and all the black bits in the lower half that gives stability and equilibrium. I suppose that means the obverse for the original orientation. The experiment makes us confine our gaze to the plane of the humble diagram and the pattern of the elements (busy and linear, with a white bit enigmatically stranded among the black) on the unforgiving checkered ground, and the two empty rows now assert themselves. Try the re-orientation trick on the other position-pieces on Nette's website and see what you think. Resist the urge to look beyond the picture plane supposing that there is a game somewhere to be found.
Finally we have the most recent development of Nette's chess art, seemingly the natural consequence of the above: abstracts based on mapping the chess moves of a complete game. A couple of examples were on display in her Muse Gallery expo, here is one of them: Jose Raul Capablanca vs. Rudolf Spielmann, New York (1927).
It is acrylic on canvas, 30 inches high, 30 inches wide, and - another crucial dimension - just 26 moves long. As we found with Tom Hackney's chess artworks based on actual moves (we blogged about him here), the temptation to play the game through and "see" it in the painting is irresistible. In the exhibition she gave the relevant game score alongside. It works remarkably well.
Tom Hackney, though, was less interested in the look of his finished works (seductive though they are) than how they got there - the process - as we found when we interviewed him. So let's put him on one side and compare two other artists who have heroically created artworks from the complete move-sets of well-known games. They are Dominique Digeon and Ugo Dossi. We looked at them in posts some time back, and each had their own way dealing with the challenges of complexity, sequencing, and legibility according to their particular artistic intentions.
Digeon depicts the moves as a surge of organic growth, and they intertwine in a floral carpet of many colours. Dossi maps them as geometric incisions as if forged by precision engineering (or perhaps a circuit diagram is more apt as an analogy) in which the moves democratically ignore hierarchy - all pieces are equal - as they mutate through the colours of the rainbow. The labelling of their works is not entirely clear, but I think that the two D's have both, by coincidence, represented the same game by the two K's from Leningrad 1986. Dossi is on the left.
Frankly, I'm not sure that these make a convincing case for presenting all the moves unedited, whether serpentine or straight, as artwork. There is obviously no reason why, ipso facto, the moves of a game should produce a compelling configuration; and adding colour or symbolic coding may not save the day, even if they add a bit of interest otherwise lacking.
Nette Robinson's work however shows that active artistic intervention ("pruning"? "re-wiring"?), can construct order in the chaos, and may re-present the drama of a game in a way that rises above the visual contingency of the moves. She has overpainted some moves to simplify the image, and uses a combination of signs and symbols as indications of the action. The colour assists our reading of the moves - it is not mere decoration. Here is another example in the same style; and it also works sans chess.
|Alexander Alekhine vs. Emanuel Lasker , Zurich (1934)
So here's to you, Nette Robinson - good luck, and we'll be following all your many careers (we haven't yet mentioned the belly-dancing) with considerable interest.
Thanks to Nette Robinson for kindly letting us use images of her work, all are her copyright.
Chess in Art Index