Fotograf Magazine

Tichy has finally arrived in the czech lands

Reviewing a solo book of work by Miroslav Tichy (b. 1926) is a task one must approach by first introducing his personality, as Tichy burst into the art world of like a bolt of lightning. As late as 2003, only a few enthusiasts even had any idea of Tichy’s existence, while barely three years later he has had monographic catalogues published, and his works have been exhibited in the most prestigious venues in Europe, In the TORST edition, where he now occupies No. 26, he has surely jumped forward over a long line of candidates for the honor, both well-established names and the stars of contemporary photography.

Tichy first presented himself as a photographer at a solo exhibition at the Biennale in Sevilla in 2004, and already there his work attracted exceptional attention. A year later there followed a major retrospective at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, accompanied by a lavish monographic catalogue published by Dumont. It is hardly standard procedure to launch one’s career in a manner that for many forms the crowning achievement of lifelong endeavor. But our era seems to take pleasure in things that break the rules, and after all, what is better for attracting media attention than the disruption of an established etiquette? And Tichy is nothing short of a programmatic trespasser of rules, as trespassing is his philosophy in life. But let us go back to the very beginning. In the 1940s, Miroslav Tichy was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but following the putsch of February 1948 everything changed. Due to his differences with the coming regime, and perhaps also due to the advance stages of a psychic ailment, he abandoned his education and returned to Kyjov, Moravia, from which he rarely ventured throughout the rest of his life. As time went on, he became more and more of a recluse from society and its modern conveniences, as he continued to work: he painted and drew, and in the 1960s began working in photography. The same strange rules along which he structured his life he applied to his photography, which today captivates us with its peculiarity of vision as well as its technical aspect, subverting the accustomed notions of photography with its do-it-yourself ethos and programmatic improvisation.

And then there is the second beginning, which began when Roman Buxbaum presented Tichy’s work to the world. To make a long story short: Buxbaum had known Tichy since childhood, but then he left for exile, only starting to come back to Kyjov in the 1980s. An artist himself, he grasped the value of what the Kyjov public condescendingly overlooked, and he began to collect Tichy’s photographs. He showed them to Harald Szeemann, who, together with Buxbaum launched Tich9’s contemporary success. Foreign periodicals mostly sing the praises of a newly discovered stunning talent, accepting the “Diogenes” version of the story; the reactions at home, however, were more reserved, not to say suspicious. Those who raised their voices took issue chiefly with the fact that an eighty-year old artist was exhibiting his works without exhibiting much enthusiasm. It had never been his aim to build a career, and it seemed to go against his entire persuasion. Even as a young man, Tichy had declined all invitations to participate in exhibitions, and neither did he become personally involved in any of his present shows. And thus there are two versions of the story: one of the exploitation of a sick old man for someone’s private ends, and another of the world of art becoming richer by attaining access to a unique oeuvre which would otherwise have ended up on the trash heap, or in the stove. In short, a situation as ambiguous as Miroslav Tichy’s own persona. The current reality, however, continues to successfully cover up the underlying doubt with layers of new exhibition projects.

Roman Buxbaum contributed to both the 2005 Dumont monograph and the current TORST venture a text entitled Tarzan in Retirement, a history of the relationship between the two, interspersed with quotations from Tich9 on his attitude to life and his values, as well as on his own work. The reader gains from these a comprehensible notion of the artist, made still richer by the valuable insights of the article’s author. For the book as a whole a biographical sketch written in this intimate vein is not only enriching, as it above all provides the reader with a basis for forming a truly three-dimensional idea of the artist represented. Buxbaum’s text could not be further away from a dry official biography, and in addition one has to appreciate his role in recording Tichy’s authentic statements. What does mar slightly the otherwise fresh account is Buxbaum’s tendency to present Tichy as a stalwart fighter against communism. After years of post-revolutionary media massa­ging, presenting the struggle against the regime from the other side of the frontiers, the Czech reader might see this as more of a projection of the author’s inauspicious experiences than of the nature of Tichy’s existence under the previous regime. It is beyond doubt that there was some polarity in Tichy in this respect, but for all we know it seems rather to be more of a general discord of the artist, a temperament biased against any kind of establishment. Another matter is the text’s drive towards the creation of a legend, which, as has been pointed out above, sells well. One could hardly object to this, as it is a legitimate style of literary presentation, accepted elsewhere, but the disturbing element here is the living artist in the background, who is far from certain to agree with this kind of hagiography. The intention of building a legend is emphasized by two small photographs on the margin of the text, capturing Tichy in his hermit-like habit, taking photographs of women (or, in the case of the Dumont book, holding in his arms a pile of his photographs). The staged reconstruction of the photographer’s movements around the streets of Kyjov, dated 1990, when according to the publication he was no longer active as photographer, is hardly convincing. Thus a few exchanges later, we are again stuck with the ethical side of the business. One can hardly take exception to the rest, however.

The graphic layout of the monograph is that of the standard “TORST square” to which consumers have grown accustomed. The illustrated part features 81 full-page reproductions printed in color, which made it possible to convey all the peculiarities of Tich9’s photographs, the imprints of a non-standard process of work, the rough handling as well as the artist’s interventions. In spite of the proclaimed singularity of theme in Tichy’s photographs (which is not absolute), the authors of the publication loosely organized the pictures in small sections, based on the formal similarity of subject matter, interesting adjustment or similarity of motifs. Evidently the intention here was to not only show Tichy’s dominant theme, but also the less-frequented areas of his work. Among these are for instance a series of pictures taken from television screens, shots of the town or examples of the still life.

Pavel Vancat’s article Miroslav Tichy: Lyrical Conceptualism is divided into four subsections and forms the scholarly part of the monograph. Here the reader gets standard Vanoat: a fresh, coherent, readable essay, imaginatively combining psychological and sociological insights with those from the realm of art history, in a way that keeps the attention of both the layman and the scholar. Aside from these positive features it is also useful that Vanoat does not limit himself in his rendering of Tichy’s genesis as artist merely to the photographic part of his work, as he scrutinizing also Tichy’s work as painter and draughts­man. It is from the complexity of real and potential relations of the two media that he then unravels the interpretation of the photographs. The chapter From the Brush to the Lens, which draws on the main points of the evolution of the artist’s style, speculating on his transition to photography, the possible coexistence of both media, and the overlapping of formal approaches, however, presents some problems. This is particularly the case in a passage describing a period when Tich9’s drawing becomes more simple and lucid to the point of “fully anticipating a photographic way of seeing.” It is clear that the reader demands a story which has to flow, but the truth remains that the model of one stylistic mode growing out of another does not have many adherents today, particularly because it is essentially a retrospective view, where we piece together the path that lead the shaping of a phenomenon based on our knowledge of its outcome, We should add in fairness that Vanobt does relativize this statement, saying that drawing and photography are not subsequent evolutionary stages, but the means of a single aim, mentioning in a footnote that the area in question so far remains too little known to us to draw any unambiguous conclusions.

The same narrative strategy – an interpretation that is made relative in the conclusion – is in fact used also in the following chapter, A Coat for Life, where Tichy’s life is identified with his artistic project, as a kind of lifelong performance. Apart from other things, the elusiveness of the artist becomes wonderfully clear here, heralded as it is by a number of anecdotes and interpretations, at the same time challenging us to take new perspectives. What is most symptomatic of this chapter as a whole is the fact that in contrast to the remaining three sections it accepts the usual paradigm of artistic genius. For the metaphor of the coat can be read as accepting the hagiographic nature of the narrative of previous texts, most probably initiated by Buxbaum and then accepted by later contributors. On the other hand, putting one’s interpretation in perspective at the conclusion of a chapter is not a refusal to take responsibility – outlining two possible ways of looking at a thing is possibly the only respectable way of voicing an opinion while leaving room for other readings.

Woman in Plural deals with Tichy’s monothematic obsession, arriving with psychologically brilliant characteristic of his photography, but above all it discusses the role of the feminine model in art of the past, and in its new rendering within Modernism, as well as in recent photography. Particularly fitting is the reflection on rescuing woman as a traditional subject matter of photography from the realm of kitsch.

The final chapter entitled Lyrical Conceptualism defines Tichy’s photo­graphic activity in contrast to the current project of photography as a modern social and artistic phenomenon; the chapter in fact opens with a provocative, but absolutely relevant question as to whether Tichy’s pictures are in fact photographs at all, in order to venture forward to look for points of reference with other artists of a similar temperament. It is the heading of the chapter that falls somewhat outside the scope of the erudite analyses of Tichy’s endeavor in the field of art. The conceptual approach that Vanaat discusses in his text is conceivable in relation to Tichy either as a literary license, or, seen from the perspective of theory, in order to overcome the contradiction that one would have to abstract the artist from the work, and only then perhaps… But this is hardly conceivable, as only then would we find what a powerful drive for the interpretation of his work the artist possesses in this case. In the area of reflections on art, or philosophical concepts in general, Tichy was naturally no nad’ve innocent; after all, he went to an art school, but for many years now he has stood firmly against any kind of strategies. This may perhaps be a strategy, or some kind of concept, as is discussed in the chapter A Coat for Life, but is there some more serious implication to allow us to speak of an artistic concept in the sense that we encounter it in contemporary art?

The publication brings to the Czech reader what he or she should have known about photographer and painter Miroslav Tichy a long time ago. The age-old wisdom that no one is a prophet in his home country has once again confirmed itself. The chronic laments that once more others have had to show us what we have at home have been voiced and heard… But the book is here and it is a success. Its chief contribution is that both texts in their complementary rendition of the artist’s life and work powerfully, and clearly argue against the still dominant views rooted in the traditional concept of photography as a medium of art, the synonym of thoroughness, exactness and purity. At a time when we are witnessing the change of technologies, when traditional photography meets digital, when we are forced to reevaluate the old within the framework of the new, such a publishing venture is almost an act of education of the public, which will hopefully have an effect: let us hope, that ever fewer viewers (and also photographers and theoreticians) will feel deceived, when confronted with a work of merit but of form they have not grown accustomed to.

Vancat P. Buxbaum R. Miroslav Tichy. Praha: Torst 2006, 148s. ISBN: B0-7215-277-7.

Jiří Pátek