MIROSLAV Tichý is an artist, draftsman, graphic designer and photographer, who has risen to prominence over the past few years mainly because of the photographs which he took over two decades in Kyjov, the town where he still lives, using homemade cameras. The majority of these photographs were taken in the vicinity of the local swimming pool and feature scantily clad girls and women who were largely unaware they were having their photo taken. Tichý created tens of thousands of pictures, several thousand of which he himself enlarged. What results is a series of unfocused, grainy, low-contrast photographs, often subject to accidental, non-authorial interventions, featuring endless variations on the same subject – the female body or details thereof, especially its intimate parts. The technical imperfection is at one with the physical imperfection of the “models” in the photographs. A smaller collection comprises photographs of pornographic films broadcast by Austrian TV, which Tichý took during the same period.
Many critics have analysed his work within the context of concepts of beauty, play, protest against the regime, l’Art Brut or stateless ethnicities. Tichý has also been called a conceptualist, classicist, eccentric and voyeur. There is no consensus regarding Tichý amongst art critics or the general public. Some reject him as an insignificant curiosity, others find in him are mark able body of work advancing the frontiers of art and photography, while some regard the “Tichý phenomenon” as a cynical exercise on the part of curators with a knowledge of how the art market operates. So what exactly has made Tichý one of the most discussed artists of the last few years?
One of the key questions in the history of art is the extent to which the life and times of the artist is crucial to an understanding of their work. Does the work of art take on a completely independent life upon being published, exhibited or performed? Does any reference to the character and life of the artist lead simply to empty psychologising? Or are biographical details so fundamental that without them we cannot say we really know a work? It would seem that Miroslav Tichý the man is virtually inseparable from the pictures and photographs he created – his life story legitimises their form. It is as though the romantic idea of the artist as eccentric genius finds its embodiment in Miroslav Tichý, who single-mindedly pursues his vision and is willing to sacrifice everything – status, friends and money – to it. Tichý represents an almost crystalline case study. An outsider all his life, possibly suffering a psychological disorder, he lived as an observer on the margins of small-town society, where he aroused attention through his “homeless” appearance and apparently meaningless activities, namely his photography using bizarre cameras which many believed could not actually function.
A fundamental question when interpreting Tichý’s work is whether he continues the tradition stretching back thousands of years of illustrating the female form in fineart (a simple parallel could be the theme of bathing so beloved of the modernists), or reduces woman simply to the status of the object of male erotic desire. It is clear that interpretations of his work are more multilayered, even if much of this is down to the viewer rather than reflecting the artist’s original intention. Furthermore, within a Czech environment, which is not especially sensitive to issues surrounding gender, Tichý’s work has never been subject to a feminist critique. And this is a pity; a debate of this kind could give rise to other possible interpretative view points.
For Tichý taking photos of girls and women was a record, the incarnation of a certain situation, the enjoyment of which brought him pleasure. In texts devoted to Tichý several authors (Tobias Bezzla, Aleš Kuneš, Josef Chuchma, et al,) speak of the chase. This is an apt comparison. The thrill of the chase derives not only from the prey (in this case those subjects captured on celluloid), but the entire process, from the waiting to the event itself. Tichý was a voyeur, but was not satisfied with a fleetingglimpse. In stead he wanted to capture the female form for his personal needs, as a kind of private record, a fetish – and it was in this spirit that he treated his pictures. Some of them he touched up and modified, ot her she crumpled up, thre wtothe floor and walked over. Coffe estainsand the tooth marks of rodents can be seen on some. However, sometimes he would retrieve a photo from the dust where it lay and begin work on it anew. And these obvious physical traces lend these photographs the indelible aura of an original work.
One of the symptomatic elements of Tichý’s photography is voyeurism. Voyeurism in its credible form requires a feeling of authenticity, i.e. what several commentators on Tichý call truthfulness. The authenticity of Tichý’s voyeuristic photography comprises several elements: it is “anti-technical” (the photos are unfocussed, grainy, low-contrast, the result of poor quality developer/fixer,etc.),i.e.ittransgresseseveryruleofthe craft; it is “anti-art” – the photos lack composition, they even manifest a disgust with any premeditated visualisation; it features manual interventions – touching up without creative ambition, the accentuation of certain elements in the photography; it is anti-adjustment – the perfunctory doodles on coloured margins and the way the edges are dirty, carelessly done, the creation of the frames, the way the photos are glued to impromptu mounts. There is the whiff of war zone reportage to them. Pictures taken on a mobile telephone or the photos from Abu Ghraib are a more intensive experience than perfectly composed colour action shorts provided by the front-line news wires. Similarly, Tichý’s “authentic” eroticism is in this sense more intensive than mainstream pictures in The Hustler or Playboy. The pictures of tortured prisoners taken at Abu Ghraib are to James Nachtway, say, as Tichý is to Playboy. Yet in one respect this comparison is inappropriate. We have only a few shocking pictures from Abu Ghraib, whereas Tichý’s work is drowning in a plurality of multiplication, which can be tedious. And this fact can complicate any retrospective exhibition of Miroslav Tichý, especially if the pictures are “sterilised” by the traditional gallery layout. The plurality referred to is somewhat reminiscent of the current incessant snapping of digital cameras.
This brings us to a key question in connection with Miroslav Tichý’s photography, namely that of time. What role in the often enthusiastic reception of Tichý’s work by the general public does nostalgia and a sentimental view of the past play? If we want to see how Tichý’s pictures feed into the current interest being displayed in the culture of the seventies, we only have to think back to the very successful project entitled Husák’s 3+1. However, it would in reality be a mistake to accentuate the years of normalisation in Tichý’s work. These are sentimental references. Nostalgia, and not “Ostalgia”.
The period of time elapsed is exploited on another level. Even though the photos were created more than twenty years ago, they only began to appear in the exhibitions of galleries around the world over the last few years. This is despite the fact that their main populariser, the Czech-Swiss Roman Buxbaum – psychologist, artist and performer, well-informed as regards modern art – was familiar with them from at least the beginning of the eighties.
Unquestionably Tichý’s photography falls in line with a host of contemporary art strategies, which is why it is acceptable to and understood by the general public. Probably far more so, in fact, than at the time the photos were taken, when they would have been regarded as obscure, technically maladroit, and besmirched. For instance, at a time when the phenomenon of DIY is so popular, Tichý is described as the handyman par excellence, who constructed from the most bizarre materials cameras with long focal length lenses, enlargers, used chemicals available over the counter at pharmacies, etc. Another category of contemporary art worth mentioning is the journal, especially the photographic journal. Tichý kept a journal covering two decades, which allows us to follow the period, environment, fashion and lifestyles of the time, as well as the women and girls. This is not an impersonal social documentary, but a very subjective take on everyday life.
The “Tichý phenomenon” is sometimes branded curatorial manipulation, i.e. an artificial accentuation and free interpretation of original work with the aim of drawing attention to the curator rather than the artist. This is not so in this case. We can regard the entire process of work with Tichý’s photographs, i.e. the selection, exhibition, inclusion in photographic publications, etc., as legitimate work with an archive, which is another one of the most highly exploited strategies of contemporary art. The incorporation of “found” pictures into new contexts, situations and installations is an integral part of almost every exhibition, and not only photographic exhibitions. Family albums, transparencies from antiquarian books, postcards, etc. are all grist for the mill. The resulting value added, as it were, makes for an unexpected market success.
We would find a simila rrevaluation/recasting of a work from diary entry to artistic artefact in the case of many different artists, where what used to be of documentary value becomes an exhibited artwork. As far as global photography is concerned a parallel example to the work of Miroslav Tichý would be the pictures of prostitutes by John Ernest Joseph Bellocq, taken for his own edificationattheturnofthe19th and 20th centuries and which were discovered in the seventies by the photographer Lee Friedlander. Since then they have often been displayed in galleries. These pictures have also been damaged. Sometimes the emulsion is scratched, albeit for other purposes, for instance to make the model’s face unidentifiable.Theresultis an impression of authenticity and brutal honesty, inscribed in interpretations of the work by the viewer and by time. We might findanotherexampleinThomasRuff,whoexhibited pictures taken from pornographic pages similarly to the way that Miroslav Tichý photographed them. Here too the original intention is completely changed. However, while Ruff himself deliberately recasts his pictures as art works, in the case of Tichý this is the role of the curator.
The processes outlined, by which a romantic genius is transformed into an obsessive creator of photography, some of which is exceptional by virtue of its simplicity, rugged visual brutality, and exquisite period associations, are not important for most viewers. A knowledge of these processes does not have to change the feelings which we experience when looking at Tichý’s photography, but should help us understand its essence. It should not necessarily deprive us of our fascination with these photos, but should elucidate the mechanisms of this fascination.
Robert Silverio is a historian and theoretician of photography and head of the Department of Photography at FAMU in Prague.
Miroslav Tichý (*1926 – †2011) is a photographer who studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (1945-48), and from the 1960s has focussed exclusively on photography. He lived in isolation in his native town of Kyjov.
Tichý has had solo exhibitions at Paris’s Centre Pompidou (2008), the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (2008), the Brno House of Arts and Zurich’s Kunsthaus (2005) among others. He most recently presented his works at the Forms of Truth project at the Prague City Gallery (2010-11). Among the many who have written about Tichý’s work are Roman Buxbaum, Richard Prince, Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Harald Szeemann and Pavel Vančát.
MIROSLAV TICHÝ, MT Inv. no.: 2-250, courtesy of the Tichy Ocean Foundation.
At Miroslav Tichý‘s house, 1989, photo: Roman Buxbaum.
MT Inv. no.: 6-12-34;
MT Inv. no.: 3-023;
MT Inv. no.: 5-6-222. Courtesy of the Tichy Ocean Foundation
MT Inv. no.: 3-8-151.
Helena Musilová is a historian of photography. She works at the National Gallery in Prague and at the Department of Photography of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU).