Fotograf Magazine

Miroslav Tichý

So much has been written about Miroslav Tichý over the course of three years that, for many, he has undeservedly quickly found his place alongside famous Czech photographers such as Josef Sudek or František Drtikol. They all share an unusual lifestyle, their photographs command high prices and their work evokes strong reactions from both audiences and theoreticians. In professional circles, new older artist are usually accepted with reservations, but his individual exhibition, a small monograph including a theoretical text and biography, and an erudite review[ref]Miroslav Tichý. The Brno House of Arts, 2006, curators: P. Vančát, J. Vránová. Buxbaum R., Vančát P.: Miroslav Tichý, Prague, Torst 2006. Pátek J.: Tichý Arrives in Bohemia, Fotograf, p. 102–103, 7/2006. [/ref] have paved the way for this artist’s presence to be clearly felt in the Czech art world. There is a catch, however. The current efforts at judging or placing the artist’s works within the context of art history are all too reminiscent of the many years during which state institutions worked to deny Tichý a free and authentic way of life.[ref]On each May Day, the police transported Tichý out of town so that his presence would not spoil the proper image of socialist society. He was also frequently persecuted for his appearance and unusual interests.[/ref]

Miroslav Tichý was born in 1926 in the Moravian village of Netčice and, except for a few interruptions, has lived in Kyjov since 1930. He completed secondary school and, after World War II, briefly studied in the studio of Ján Želibský at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, which he left in 1948 for unknown reasons. He returned to Kyjov after completing his basic military service and has been hospitalized in psychiatric institutions several times during his life. In the early 1950s, he made avant-garde paintings and drawings, which he exhibited together with painters Vladimír Vašíček and Bohumil Matala, but he stopped painting in the late 1950s. According to Roman Buxbaum, in the 1960s Tichý mostly made drawings and began to photograph. His central theme was women, photographed in limitless forms. At the same time, he began to lose interest in standard social norms and found himself on the edges of society. Nevertheless, he maintained contacts with important persons in the south Moravian cultural scene, such as the poet Jiří Veselský, with whom Tichý shared an intense fascination with the female sex. Using technically distinctive homemade cameras, he photographed the more attractive body parts of Kyjov women of various ages, most frequently in public and in situations not having anything to do with work – recreational activities such as bicycling, jogging, walking through town, standing in groups or in line, sitting on benches or sunning themselves while swimming or shopping. In the end, he does include some work – nighttime shows from Austrian television. “When you photograph, the most important thing is movement,“ [ref]In: Buxbaum R., Vančát P.: Miroslav Tichý, Prague, Torst 2006.[/ref] he claimed. Besides movement, Tichý also focused on minor female gestures and poses. Using enlargers made of household junk and rags to prevent light leaks, he created out-of-focus small-format photographs which, following an equally unusual chemical process, were rinsed in the courtyard in a barrel of rainwater. On some photographs, he emphasized the contours of women’s bodies using a pencil, some he framed in paper passepartouts which he frequently adorned with hand-drawn ornaments resembling a frame. Most photographs shared a similar fate, ending up strewn about Tichý’s home, where they slowly succumbed to the ravages of time and rough treatment. Recognizing their potential, in the 1980s the Czech-Swiss Kyjov native Roman Buxbaum began to collect them and sought a way to present them within a gallery environment. Their distinct entry into the art world took place at the 2004 International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Seville (the exhibition was curated by Harald Szeemann). This was followed by an exhibition at the photographic festival in Arles and the famous retrospective at the Zurich Kunsthaus (2006). The artist’s works have made their way into important collections, commanding unusually high prices. Buxbaum is also planning to produce Tichý exhibitions in 2008, including one at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. As usual, without the artist’s participation or interest. In a short period of time, Tichý’s work has earned a series of contradictory evaluations. According to Harald Szeemann, “intensity always finds its medium”[ref]In: Buxbaum R., Vančát P.: Miroslav Tichý, Prague, Torst 2006, p. 39. [/ref], Vladimír Birgus called them “the precursor of a trend… banal photographs capturing banality”[ref]In: Reflex, 6.9. 2005, Flowing Journey, Petr Volf interviews Vladimír Birgus.[/ref], Pavel Vančát advocates the term “lyric conceptualism” and Tomáš Pospiszyl emphasizes that “…the photographs’ primary ambition was not artistic; instead, they are associated primarily with the artist’s voyeurism”[ref]In: A2, 23/2007, p.1, The End of Art, Tomáš Pospizsyl.[/ref]. From this listing of diverse reactions and interpretations, we can observe how the authors’ personal preferences and motivations combine with varying degrees of impartiality. On the other hand, the fate and character of Tichý’s work is so atypical that it is difficult to come up with a comprehensive point of view in a short period of time (if it is even necessary to try to do so), since an artist’s incorporation into the body of art history usually occurs organically and over time.

For me, it is enough to understand Tichý as an amateur[ref]In the original meaning of the word – to love. Not the love of technology, gathering and competition – the typical characteristics of amateur photographers’ organizations.[/ref] who creates out of love and personal enjoyment, but who is nonetheless influenced by his original modern art education, in an unbelievable combination of primitive photography and contemporary reality. I believe that Tichý’s success rests on more humble (but more complicated)factors than art history and theory. The yearning for beauty and freedom, adoration, admiration and obsession find themselves in the gallery environment, which usually presents manifestations of institutionalized art but which lacks something to simply intimate and personal. Audiences’ unusually strong reactions result primary from Tichý’s absolute diversion from the strategies of contemporary art; those who place Tichý in relation to artists who, in the past forty years, have combined photography and painting, do so in hopes of more easily defending his work. His photographs’ credibility and authenticity are deepened by non-artistic factors. Photography as a private fetish has existed since the birth of the medium, and the human desire to own and adore images is older still. The unmistakable handmade quality of Tichý’s photographs makes them objects of uncommon value.

Above all, they are an extraordinary portrayal of ordinary women. Unlike attempts by modern photography to hide the desire for women through their aestethization, Tichý is open in his feelings and is not ashamed to show them plainly. The photographs’ non-public character certainly contributes to this, but it is precisely this factor which creates the immense potential of audience interest. It is a rare opportunity to be able to look into someone’s obsessive desires (the psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum made an excellent diagnosis). What is more, the experience of viewing Tichý’s photographs is enhanced by one important aspect – Tichý does not approach women in order to capture or usurp them, nor does he use them as a tool for addressing political issues. All he did was observe minor gestures, with pleasure and with a level of attention more characteristic of the early 20th century. He had no other aspirations.

While in the Czech Republic photographic categories are a key subject of discussion (questioning the originality of Tichý’s works or looking for their deviation from the general model of photography), I consider Tichý’s work to be the result of the conflict of two technologies. Above all, I see it as representing many years of development and intense private studies of women, performed through photography instead of the classical means of painting or drawing. [ref]Tichý M. Photography is drawing with light. In: Buxbaum R., Vančát P.: Miroslav Tichý, Prague, Torst 2006, p. 50.[/ref] I believe that Tichý’s approach and his technically poor photographs represent an alternative to the systematic production, distribution, and control of artists and art through all manner of institutions. If, however, Tichý moves outside the realm of usual artistic categories, is it really necessary to immediately judge him, or should we seek out new relationships and create new categories? Tichý’s very open work could offer an impulse for thinking about how art history and theory may be constructed without the usual rigid systematization, thus adapting themselves to Tichý in an attempt to seek out questions instead of answers, in a yearning for movement and constant change.

Jan Freiberg