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"The Chess Players", illustrating chess and a tribute to Paul Cézanne

Nowadays everyone, and virtually every club or organization, needs, or wants, promotional materials. This is as true of chess clubs as it is of commercial businesses, and chess clubs, which are usually quite small, informal and friendly organizations, actually need their promotional materials if they are to attract new members. These promotional materials, whether they be posters in local libraries or at information points, leaflets, or web-sites, need to be illustrated if they are to gain attention. So how does one illustrate a chess club, or some of the members of a chess club playing chess?

I remembered that, some years ago, I had bought a small Taschen book on Paul Cézanne and his paintings, among which were shown two paintings of The Card Players, so I looked it out, looked up the relevant pictures in it, and read the text. Cézanne had not been interested in the emotions or the personalities of the people posing as his card players; he had been concerned only with the problem of depicting light, shadow, colour and form in three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. This is, of course, what photography does, so photographs could be similar in composition to Cézanne's paintings to show the activities of chess players. Photographs would also give more detail in the faces of the players, and might therefore show tension or perceived success in the game. The pose which Cézanne used, which the Taschen author, Ulrike Becks-Malorny, states was taken from an earlier anonymous painting (of card players) in the Musée Granet in Aix, was of a view-point straight on to the playing-table, with the players in profile or three-quarters on either side, and possibly one or two spectators, shown full-face, standing behind the table.

I also looked out other props which might be of some use for other illustrations, and among these I found a tin box of "Chess and Draughts" which I had bought many years ago at a sale price. I had never opened it. I did so now. The chess set was quite useless. It wasn't just too small to have any detail in the pieces - it had two white queens, and no white king. But there was a little book on how to play chess and draughts. This contained four illustrations of people playing chess. One showed two Indians or Persians kneeling on a carpet, with a chess-board and pieces on the carpet in front of them. The other three were more useful. They showed Europeans, seated, playing chess at tables, with one or two spectators. The poses were similar to those used by Cézanne. One of the pictures was a political cartoon, with Germany as one of the players and Britannia as the spectator; another may have been meant to show Ruy Lopez, a Spanish priest, playing a superior cleric while two members of the superior's order look on.

For my first attempts at illustrating chess I have therefore used this arrangement of the players. With a hand-held camera and flash, I can move slightly to one side or the other to give some variation in the view; the poses of the players will change slightly as the game progresses, and there may or may not be spectators. If I have the opportunity to take further shots, I can experiment with the placing of the spectators and the flash.

If the illustration is to be The Chess Players, or A Game of Chess, then the players and any spectators should be looking at the board, and not at the camera. A photograph in which one of the players, or the only player, is looking at the camera, is A Portrait of X, Playing Chess - a perfectly valid picture, which may well be as useful in illustrating a leaflet or a web-site, but it's not The Chess Players.

Iain McLean 17 Nov 2015

(Webmasters note: Sincere thanks to all of our "models" for helping Iain create "The Chess Players". We chose five of Iain's photos to mirror the five paintings of The Card Players by Cézanne. Incidentally, I am not asleep in the final picture, I am just resting my eyes!)