Painted Pieces: Art Chess from Purling London at St. Louis’ World Chess Hall of Fame

    By George Sells

    St. Louis’ World Chess Hall of Fame is monument to the game, starting with the two-story-high chess piece that stands outside. But inside you’ll find the place isn’t just inspiring chess players, but artists as well.

    In the Hall’s gallery you’ll find “Painted Pieces.”   It is the art exhibition showing in conjunction with Purling London, a high-end maker of chess sets and other games. They mixed art into their equation when the owner of Purling encountered the most practical of problems. He and a friend were trying to play chess on the beach at sunset.

    The World Chess Hall of Fame’s Shannon Bailey explains, “The sun was going down and they were having a hard time as it was getting darker and darker, differentiating between each other’s pieces.

    “So [Purling London Founder Simon Purkis] thought, ‘What about having contemporary artists brighten up chess sets, or give them their own flare?’”

    They began seeking out those artists, mostly in London and around Europe. Playing the game was no a prerequisite, as London’s Crystal Firschetti found out. Asked if she plays, she laughs.

    “Do you know what? I actually don’t play chess. But as a kid I used to play with my dad. I actually prefer backgammon.”

    Her work in the display, called “Three Kings.” is just that: three king pieces from a chess set painted colorfully. She says it took her several tries to get it right.

    “The first attempt was just ‘no Bueno,’” she said with a laugh. “It just didn’t work.”

    Her “Three Kings” are meant to symbolize the forgiveness surrounding the biblical story surrounding the birth of Christ.

    There are other works on display that are far more light-hearted. An artist named “Mr. Doodle” did just that, creating tiny, intricate drawings in black on a white chess set. Many of those doodles are reminiscent of 1980’s and 90’s graffiti art.

    And speaking of graffiti, there is a set done by Thierry Noir. The Frenchman is best known as the first artist to use the Berlin Wall as a canvas, both in West Berlin before the wall fell, and then in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the barrier’s symbolic fall. In the latter period with a communist government still in power in East Germany, Noir was often seen running from East German soldiers to avoid arrest.

    Other names are even more notable. Sophie Matisse is one example. Yes, Matisse.

    Bailey reminds us of a lineage that makes her “art royalty.”

    “She the granddaughter of Henri Matisse, one of the most important artists of the 20th century.” She says.

    Matisse is also the step-granddaughter of Marcel Duchamp, another giant of the art world. The artist has two chess sets on display in “Painted Pieces,” showcasing colors and their interactions. Other pieces, meanwhile, have something more to say.

    “There’s a really beautiful set that you’d look at the colors and think, oh wow, that’s really beautiful,” Bailey says, “and it’s actually a commentary on plastics in the ocean and the bleaching of the coral reef.

    “Then there are other ones that talk about the glass ceiling and women breaking out an is kind of a “Me Too” moment.”

    The “Me Too” reference is something appreciated the artist who created “Glass Ceiling,” Daniela Raytchev, who also resides in London.

    “Ahh I love it!” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve done a couple of pieces that were feminist and have female empowerment pieces in it. The piece glass ceiling, I think it was the timing of the exhibition and what I was thinking about. Oh. I feel privileged.”

    The rising pieces and broken glass on the board tell part of the story. More subtle is the positioning of the pieces, laid out as they were in 2012 when the world’s top female player, Judit Polgar, defeated Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion who has held that title for five years. Yes, this artist is a chess player, who thinks to world of this unusual canvas.

    “I loved the idea. I used to play chess as a child. So I understood the game. I really like the idea of two sides against each other.”

    The Purling sets can cost up to $10 thousand, so playing on them here is a no-no. they did come up with a virtual alternative, however. They set up virtual reality stations in the museum for patrons to play on.

    “So what you can do is pick any kind of chess set you want, any kind of location,” Bailey says. “You can play against the grim reaper. You can play in Rome. You can play in a library in England, and a few of the sets you can actually pick are sets from this exhibition.”

    To play for real requires a purchase, but these type of sets should be able to handle the workload. So, yes, for a price someone can play a game of chess on a Matisse.

    “They’re sturdy and they’re durable and you don’t have to worry about pieces breaking if you want to play. So, I guess it’s up to the owner of the set,” Bailey says.