I learned how to play chess when I was 13 years old. My best friend's cousin from California came to visit for the summer and not having much to do in rural Michigan, spent his time trying to teach his cousin and her an awkward friend how to play the board game. Jonny was my first real crush. All of 14 years old, he was tall and handsome with piercing blue eyes. How I wanted to learn the game to have Jonny's attention. It was one of the happiest and most heartbreaking summers of my life, as I don't think he even noticed my existence. I think he was just trying to while away the time as there was nothing else to do. But by the end of the summer, I was able to play chess with Jonny and I may have actually beaten him once or twice.
Years later, I came across a book called Birth of the Chess Queen, by Marilyn Yalom, the author of History of the Wife. Once I picked up the book, I was hooked. A avid lover of history, I loved the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, the Cult of the Virgin Mary and Queen Isabella of Spain.
Most historians agree that the game of Chess was invented in India around the 6th century as a war game, with a king, a vizier, elephants, chariots, horses and pawns, which were the foot soldiers. There was no queen on the board of what we know in modern times as "Queen's Chess." The vizier was the advisor to the king. And like the king, could only move one square and had very little power. As the board game developed, it traveled along the Silk Road through Persia, the Arab lands, North Africa and eventually, Spain. Around the 11th century, a female figure of a queen was discovered, yet she, too, had very little power and could only move one square. It's vast and sumptuous history reveals an incredible timeline of rules, restrictions and freedoms that revolved around the game.
Before there were cel phones, texting and all manner of technological devices to gain instant gratification, people played a board game that required skill, critical thinking, strategy and intuition to amuse themselves and each other. Chess was a game played at court and considered a "courting" game. It was the the only time a man and a woman could be alone – to flirt, to fall in love, to make love. Chess was integral to the idea of “winning” someone’s heart through competition and strategy. The 14th century poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in chess metaphors in THE BOOK OF THE DUCHESS, inspired by the death of Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster and beloved wife of my favorite chivalrous character of the 14th century, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
The history of the chess queen is fascinating in how she emerged at a time when women's status was rising. The chess game was a witness and participant in the lives of men and women trying to find love, fun and pass their time. So different from how we while away our time on Facebook or Instagram, numbing our minds and our hearts with the click of a button, while our ancestors were busy using their minds and hearts trying to connect and communicate through a series of moves on a board. Chess was sometimes an erotic game, a game of love or a game of power.
Marilyn Yalom explains In a New York Times article, "Also crucial was the example of medieval warrior queens, who made a chessboard without a queen seem as incomplete as a Ferrari without an engine."
Before Wonder Woman, there was Toda of Navarre, in the 10th century, who went to battle to install her grandson on the throne (and won); Urraca of Galicia, who divorced her husband, King Alfonso I of Aragón and Navarre, waged war on him, retook Portugal and then a lover. (Alfonso married into her family's crown. I think she didn't like him very much.) And when the Chess Queen became the dominant piece on the board, it was Queen Isabella of Castile, who united her country, financed Christopher Columbus' expeditions to found a new world, exiled Spain's Jews, expelled the Moors and in her spare time ran the Spanish Inquisition. She was quite the powerful one. There were other queens whom we would consider "badass" today. Adelaide of Burgundy (later a Holy Roman empress), Matilda of Tuscany (she led her troops into battle on horseback) and Catherine the Great. And one of my favorites was Eleanor of Aquitaine in France, whose court was the epitome of courtly love.
Over the years, I wanted to create an art exhibition in honor of the this magnificent powerhouse of a queen. And here we are, two days away from opening night, preparing my gallery for the first group show we have had in years. We have pulled together a collection of over thirty painters, sculptors and multi-media artists from around the world to present their interpretation of the History of the Chess Queen or the Advent of Feminine Power.
This story of the chess queen and the experience of preparing this exhibition made me think about how women's resilience to their environment, their cultures and their place in life have evolved over the centuries. Although women have had to fight for the right to stand alongside men as equals, the exhibition could easily be construed as a political commentary, especially with events happening today to women all over the world. However, this exhibition attempts to display the evolution of a simple board game that originated with an all male cast to how the most powerful character evolved to become the only female member of game.
I look forward to presenting the beauty and power of the messages these artists wish to share. We will be planning artist forums throughout September and October so you can meet the artists one on one. Oh, and Marilyn Yalom has kindly agreed to fly to Chicago to do a talk about her book, BIRTH OF THE CHESS QUEEN, and to visit our show! Stay tuned to the calendar of events.
I am very grateful for the efforts of my wonderful staff. My gallery assistant, Kate Maddox has graduated to Gallery Director! Congratulate her when you come by this Friday. My intern, Sid Sidani, has worked tirelessly in preparing the exhibition catalog. And my former intern, Ivana Gatica, came back to help with designing the posters and preparing the exhibition. And we could not do without my gallery assistant, Dan Corwith, who has been working tirelessly hanging the gallery, lifting heavy (seriously heavy) sculptures, moving walls and preparing the exhibition for all to see this Friday on the opening night of the River North Art District fall season. And much gratitude and love to my co-curator and fellow artist, Rashelle Roos, who has brought new vision and wonderful aesthetic to this show. And a big thank you to all of the participating artists:
SANTINA AMATO - HUGH ARNOLD - SUSAN AURINKO - SHARON BLADHOLM - PATTY CARROLL
RICK GARCIA - PETER GRAY - JULIE GARDNER - KOSTIS GEORGIOU - ROBERT FLEISCHMAN
ARICA HILTON - TAMMY KOHL - DOUGLAS KIRKLAND - SUZANNE COHAN-LANGE - JEFFREY LEVING
TERRY O'NEILL - EVE OZER - PAUL NELSON - MICHAEL PARKES - JACK PERNO - TERRY POULOS
CHRIS REEVES - RASHELLE ROOS - MARCO NEREO ROTELLI - LAUREN SUDBRINK
TAN TAŞPOLATOĞLU – SOREN THIELEMANN - JULIAN WASSER – DAVID YARROW
If you feel like stopping by to play a game of chess, my son gave me a replica of the 12th century Lewis Chess pieces, one of the few complete sets discovered in Scotland. It's been a long time since I played, so I need to brush up on my critical thinking and strategy skills! I have read that playing chess increases IQ, exercises both parts of the brain, increases concentration (for those of us who are ADD, maybe good to try) enhances memory and increases creativity. So let's play chess!
See you Friday, September 8th from 5:30 to 9 pm for the opening.