Naïve painter, Roman Golla was an avid chess player. One might even say his participation in the US Open Chess Tournaments in 1953, 1961, 1963 and 1968 would qualify him as a master. An immigrant to Chicago following his time in a Nazi slave labor camp in France during WWII, Roman’s entry into the chess community most likely provided a place of acceptance outside the boundaries of the Chicago’s Polish speaking neighborhoods. Roman, being anything but a “wood pusher,” would have embraced the experience. “Wood pusher,” American slang for someone playing with little strategy, dates back over a century. In the lexicon of chess, a “wood pusher” is a person who knows how the wooden chess pieces move, but lacks any forward thinking beyond reacting to the actions of the opposite player. A superior chess player might derogatorily refer to an amateur as simply a “wood pusher.”

Roman used this word when he penned a short paean to chess and attached it to a photograph of himself standing in front of a vertical felt chessboard. It reads:

Roman Golla Portrait

Roman Golla in front of Chess Puzzle

What do you think about the game of chess? Boring, hard to understand? Time consuming? What else? What we need that for, some people even say it is “stupid” and is no money in. Who knows? Where it’s come from and what for? Is it art, sport, or sience (sic)? And it is relly (sic) big waste of time better go to saloon and get drunk. Is that right? But I assure you wonce (sic) you learn it you hooked. Chess wood poosher (sic).

Given the importance of chess to Roman, it is interesting to note, beyond a carved and painted chess set seen only in photographs, a mere handful of the 130+ known artworks created after his 1964 awakening as an artist deal with chess. These include two carved wooden queens, one drawing, and three paintings. The three paintings, Moving the Queen, 1969, Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament, 1971/72, and Chess Puzzle, 1979, are, as a group, incredibly interesting and reveal something about the importance of the game in Roman’s life. Created over a span of ten years, from before his 1978 public recognition as a Naïve painter to after, they reveal Roman’s evolving awareness of himself as a chess player and a painter.

NS2014.064 Moving the Queen

Moving the Queen, 1969, Oil on Canvas

Dated July 20, 1969, Moving the Queen, is the earliest of the three. It depicts the world as a chess board suspended in space and resting in the hand of God. A star spangled universe of a rich cobalt blue surrounds the orb, and beneath God’s hand, a deep red sun burns while Saturn, a shooting star and the moon float upward on the left. Across the chessboard are the scattered positions of several black and red pieces caught in mid-game. God’s right hand holds the red Queen just prior to placement.  If we can anticipate her move diagonally to the dark space just to the right of the Black King, it appears to be Mate.

Men on the Moon

Moving the Queen (detail)

Looking on from the crescent moon are the faces of two Uncle Sam like characters, sporting top hats. A white rocket with the letters USA rests between the moon and the hand of God. Given July 20, 1969 date recorded on the bottom of the painting – this also being the date of the first moon landing – we must conclude that the two characters witnessing God’s chess move are Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who spent the better part of the day on the lunar surface.

Regina and Victoria

Regina and Victoria, circa 1960, wood, glass beads, foil and paint.

There are two possible interpretations for this image. The first has Roman viewing a “win” in chess as a metaphor for the historic events of July 20, 1969. Roman paints the spaceship Columbia circling the moon as two astronauts explore the surface. Roman named one of his carved chess queens Regina and the other Victoria. It is possible Columbia, a female personification of America first used by the 18th century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, inspired the creation of the painting.

A second possibility, however, arises in light of Roman’s other two chess paintings. Each records an actual winning moments in chess. Both the Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament and Chess Puzzle are a reflection on victory. Given the limited number of chess-related paintings in Roman’s oeuvre, Moving the Queen more likely records a Sunday afternoon victory in chess which is made more memorable by the first human presence on the moon.

The Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament carries over one motif from Moving the Queen, and anticipates another.  The repeated construct is the hand of God, here emerging from the same flowing white sleeve in the upper right corner. God’s hand appears to be giving the downward action concluding a traditional Catholic gesture of blessing. As such it echoes the image of divine influence governing Moving the Queen. Though more mute in chromatic palette from Roman’s other images, the Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament reveals a strong sense of imaginative visual language.

NS2014.015 Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament

Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament, 1971-72, Oil on Canvas

Part of this vocabulary is the introduction of a self-portrait as a magician, which will be picked up and expanded upon in Chess Puzzle. In the Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament, Roman stands on the left barefoot, wearing a purple fez and a brown robe with a sickle tucked into his belt. The chessboard alternates between chrome green and white. Despite the profile position of his body, Roman’s face looks directly at the viewer. Nine pieces occupy the chessboard between Roman and his opponent, a dark robed bearded man with a large scythe. The five black pieces controlled by Roman include the Queen, King, and three pawns. White holds two pawns, the King and a Bishop. Many of the pieces look alive and concerned, peering from the side of the board; the White Queen seems to frown. Holding the scythe in his left hand, the opponent repeats God’s hand gesture with his right hand, acknowledging the game as essentially over. Above the board, an empty hourglass reminds the viewer that “time is up.”

Ghost

Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament, (detail)

Given all of the wonderful allusions to the importance of this game for Roman, there is one deep enigma remaining in the work, and its meaning, likely, will never be fully known. Standing to the left of the magician, who holds a suction-cup device for moving his pieces, is a smiling deep black figure, naked beneath a white cloth crossing his torso. As the cloth opens on the bottom, a stump is exposed. Crowning his head is a garland of leaves, flat and full. Most tellingly, on his chest appears a symbol of the Star of David.

In awareness of European use of black as a symbol of death, one might wonder if this figure visually identifies with Roman’s opponent and his ever-ready scythe; the loss of the game, in so many words, cheating Death of a victory. If this were the case, though, Death would not be smiling, but in agreement with the White Queen, would most likely frown at the loss of the game. Since Roman, the magician, wins the game, it would be more likely this figure is silently celebrating from the grave. Given Roman’s enslavement in a Nazi work camp during the war, the Star of David might be the key here. Unfortunately, we have nothing but conjecture to fall back upon.

The Chess Puzzle, dated February 14, 1979, may possibly be the painting Roman Golla valued most. Several photographs of Roman in front of this painting exist and, though it is unknown which painting Roman claimed he insured for $50,000, Chess Puzzle is a strong candidate. One preparatory drawing exists for this work and, though damaged by water, written on the bottom edge are the words “Immortal Chess Problem, Mate in 9, Spirit over the Matter.” Additionally, one photograph  of Roman standing in front of the painting is inscribed, “The Immortal “Chess Puzel” (sic) 48” x 24” oil on canvas.”

NS2014.070 Chess Puzzle

Chess Puzzle, 1979, Oil on Canvas

Chess Puzzle carries over the magician motif from the Historical Chess Game Ending Position in Tournament. The composition, however, is much more complex and the sense of storytelling more complete. A large painting, 24” tall by 48” wide, Roman employs the full width of the space in structuring a multi-chambered fishbowl architecture set within a verdant forest environment. The fishbowl holds water, but the chambers below lead us through the narrative of Roman’s experience. The story unfolds from right to left like a 15th century book illustration or early Renaissance painting, the primary actor appearing several times – in this case five – across the picture plane.

Roman 1

Chess Puzzle, (detail)

On the far right, a woman in a revealing white gown directs Roman, the magician, into the space. Roman, sporting a goatee, wears an orange robe with black accents. On his head, a large turban with a jewel and feather centerpiece sits comfortably. The woman appears a second time, slightly to the left, frowning and lifting her hand in the universal sign for ‘stop.’ She is cautioning the viewer, or possibly Roman, to ignore two dancing girls, twisting their bodies revealingly in front of three musicians. Roman’s second image is up and to the left of the musicians in the center of the canvas.

Roman 2

Chess Puzzle, (detail)

Here is where the action of the chess match is taking place. Roman, lounging on a green sofa in front of chessboard with a scattering of orange and green pieces, is in mid-play. A blackbird swings in an open cage above his head. The opposing player, a woman, sits to his lower left. Unlike the woman who leads Roman into the space, she wears a pair of flowing blue pants, her long dark hair cascades down her back, her upper torso clothed in a sheer fabric shirt. Roman looks directly at the viewer, his arms opened to present the conundrum on the board. The woman stares directly at the pieces, her hands fixed to the chessboard’s surface.

A close examination of chessboard reveals no random placement for artistic purposes. A seasoned chess player could read the position of the board pieces and understand Roman’s predicament. It is a true problem, but not one that Roman lets us think he will solve quickly. On the lower left, we have an inkling of Roman’s mental state.

Roman 3

Chess Puzzle, (detail)

Here he sits, bottle to mouth, leaning his weight against a fountain that flows into a bubbling pool of blue, white and yellow water. The feather and jewel are gone from his turban and we get a sense of all too real despair. This temporary lapse of focus moves to the upper left, concluding in Roman’s fourth appearance in the area above the fountain. Roman looks as if he is incarcerated, staring blankly out at the viewer. Whatever trouble he has gotten into requires time to think and consider solutions to his fate.

Roman 4

Chess Puzzle, (detail)

Interestingly, the party continues all around him.  Above, four naked women cavort in the pool of the open fishbowl. The story, however, does not conclude sadly. In the lower left, in an embrace worthy of Marc Chagall, Roman wins the bride. How did this happen? An open book tells all.

Roman 5

Chess Puzzle, (detail)

The left page records the nine moves mentioned in the phrase found on the drawing, “Mate in 9.” Though only somewhat legible, each move is inscribed. On the right page, we can make out the phrase “Spirit over the meter (matter)” and “February 14, 1979,” below which is Roman Golla’s monogram. That Roman would turn this spectacular win on St. Valentine’s Day into a multi layered romance with chess is simply fantastic. The Chess Puzzle, painted in the months following Roman’s December 1978 debut at Humanitas Gallery in Chicago, goes further than any single painting in fulfilling the comment made by Chicago Sun Times critic, Harold Haydon that Roman Golla finds “the way to pictorial expression with complete conviction and success.”

Other paintings of chess by Roman Golla may exist, but these three reveal much about the passion Roman brought to America in 1951. Roman’s name appears in early publications of the Chicago Chess League and he held a national ranking (2344) until his death in 2001. Despite his many successes, only two games Roman played, both of which he lost, are preserved on Chessgames.com. He must have been a formidable adversary, though: his mastery of the Indian Defense forced Julius Loftsson to take 89 moves to defeat him in the 1961 US Open.

There is a cognitive connection between creative action and strategic thinking. Roman’s innate genius found a home in the intersection between the two. Like the artist Marcel Duchamp, Roman loved and played chess his entire life. He also wrote poems and songs, played guitar and sang music. As a Naïve, Outsider Artist, Roman found refuge in the creation of images as powerfully palpable as his passion for chess. Fortunately, for us, he accepted the intuitive call and allowed himself to be steeped in both.

Posted by theunintendedcurator

My name is Bob Nowalk. I teach at Culver Academies, a college preparatory boarding school in Culver Indiana. Since 2001, I have been working with the Academy's Art Collection and Galleries to connect the process of learning with works of art. Several of my students suggested creating a blog to further share the stories we discover about art, artists, and the creative process. Thanks for visiting.

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