Sloppy on purpose

Why has a pricey collection of pirated and in some cases mutilated images of chess art received much praise, wonders Stefan Löffler.

Three sisters at chess by Sofonisba Anguissola (1555)
Three sisters at chess by Sofonisba Anguissola (1555) (photo: Wikimedia)

Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of her three sisters at chess has significance in the history of art. Painted in the 1550s, it is one the oldest works by a female artist we know by name. It is also one of the oldest pieces that shows a domestic scene and a domestic worker. In the volume Chess in Art some of this significance is lost. Its editor has cut the maid out of the image.

It is not the only one of the three hundred artworks, dating from the middle ages to the 19th century, that is shown incomplete. In some cases, the colours look different from the most reliable images available on the internet. In others the reproduction is pixellated. Some of the used images apparently did not come in good enough resolution.

One painting is attributed to Caravaggio. It would be great news if Caravaggio had indeed painted a chess scene. In reality it is by an unknown contemporary.

The editor of the volume fails to provide its sources nor provide a list of the relevant museums or collections. Nor are the titles given, only the names of the artists. One painting is attributed to Caravaggio. It would be remarkable if Caravaggio had painted a chess scene. In reality, it is by an unknown contemporary. Again, the image in the volume has been truncated and is much paler than the original which was auctioned in Vienna in 2018.

Chess scence by an unknown Italian master (1600)
Chess scence by an unknown Italian master (1600) (photo: Dorotheum)

The last sentence of the book says that the images were collected “from magazines, books and internet”. Presumably, with scant attention to intellectual property, nobody has been compensated for their work. Of course, the copyright of the artists themselves expired long ago but not the copyright of those that photographed the works. Museums and galleries do not usually allow their pictures to be used for commercial purposes except for a license fee. Even those who put images in the public domain are not credited. This sloppiness serves editor Peter Herel Raabenstein, a conceptual Czech artist, to disguise rightful copyright holders.

We will freely confirm that as a book, the paper quality and layout are superb. But 110 Euro is a cheeky price for a volume of pirated and mutilated pictures. A six-page essay, that includes stylistic howlers and obscurities but no references, doesn’t make it any better. Chess in Art is only available by direct order from the publisher. Since it was published in May 2020, one would expect that other reviewers have pointed out these flaws by now. The opposite is the case. Reviewers showed their gratitude by giving praise. If you want a decent chess art book for your coffee table, consider Colleen Schafroth’s The Art of Chess. .

Chess in Art. History of chess in paintings 1100–1900. By Peter Herel Raabenstein. 320 pages. €110/$125. Here Love Prague 2020.