Having been schooled in a game of chess recently (due to my friend Matt’s skill, though I’ll claim if pressed that it was my mistaken judgment on the value of an exchange), I’ve decided my game could use much improvement. To the chess books! While searching through a few tomes on the end game, I came across the artist Samuel Bak, whose chess-scapes appear as the dreams and nightmares of a mad scientist still hung-over from the inhumane side effects of the industrial revolution. The chessboards are broken, in decay, and sometimes sinister. The pieces are often rough. Sometimes, they are wounded. Bak has used the game to illuminate life.
In The Game Continues, the book I had picked up, Lawrence Langer examines Bak’s chess paintings, proclaiming that “Bak provides us with a visual vocabulary for imagining the tension between fixity and fluidity” (p.11). When I viewed the paintings in this context, I couldn’t help but notice that it appears very hard in the paintings to stop the force of fluidity, brought about by nature and human nature, and that it is human “civilization,” the rules and conformity by which we aim to check and order nature, that is trying to impose the fixity. Nature is winning.
I also noticed that, even in their abstract arrangements, the chess figures in the painting are trying to behave according to the rules, with limited success. As one would expect, there is a military aspect to many of the paintings, keeping in line with the nature of chess.
That said, I found a few touching personal pieces.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make my move.