“If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”
So said Miroslav Tichý. It was the late Harald Szeemann’s “discovery” of this (now) 84 year old photographer’s work in 2005 that has placed him at the center of the art world’s focal plane. Szeemann curated a show at the 2004 Seville Biennale, which was awarded the “New Discovery Award” from the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, followed by shows in Zurich, Frankfurt, London, Paris and now the ICP. The high profile dealers, a Foundation, and Museum exhibitions followed close behind.
The nature of Tichý’s work, and the circumstances of his life, navigating the boundary between insider and outsider, seems perfectly aligned with Iconophilia’s six mythologies of twentieth century art: Obsessive/compulsive behaviour. On the boundaries of taste and rationality. Sex and instability. Rejection of the academy. Melancholia and isolation. Cantankerous and evasive communications. Szeemann explained it thus:
“One of those incredible stories. A story about blurred, underexposed photos and homemade cameras. A story about the bodies of women, taken pictures of with the eyes of a confessed voyeur, who sneaks a look through the fence of the men’s bath to get a glimpse of the ladies and who puts up with the ubiquitous fence pattern inscribed on the obscure bodies of his victims by the measures of decency. Maybe one of the weirdest, most touching contributions to the gallery of “bathers“ that has sublimed all the longing for bodies in the occidental history of art. The incredible story also has its rift, the rupture that simply occurs without a cause there. Miroslav Tichý is not naive. He had studied at the academy of arts in Prague and was an avant-garde painter in the Fifties, not without risk in communist Czechoslovakia. He was in jail for eight years, but yet he had his entourage that admired him. Until it simply occurred: the rift, the rupture, the becoming of an outcast, of somebody who belongs nowhere. For a while, Tichý kept on painting; then he built his first camera, refining the prototype in whichever way the yield of scrap allowed for. Ever since, he has been hunting, taking pictures of that he used to paint: women. How should we call that, here, in the context of art? The breakthrough of an impulse? Obsession? The art of a misfit? How should we call pictures, the author of which remains unknown, hidden in subconsciousness? The incredible story plays deep down inside, and yet far out, in a dimension for which we have no category of explanation, of comprehension, not even of description.”
To see how Tichý’s work is seen as a challenge to his avant-gardist contemporaries, read Jana Prikryl’s perceptive review of the ICP exhibition, in The Nation, where the random effects of Tichý’s method is compared to that of the late Czech master of the avant-garde, Milan Knizak, who said of his own working habits: “From time to time I pressed the button…. I didn’t use the automatic, I didn’t focus the picture, etc…. Some parts came out clean, some not. As in life.” And yet Prikryl finds qualities in Tichý’s work that are missing in Knizak: “The handful of his [Knizak’s] photographs reproduced in the catalog Out of Eastern Europe: Private Photography look merely accidental and discomposed.”
Alas you only have two days to get to New York’s ICP to catch the retrospective of the 84 year old Miroslav Tichý’s work. If you miss it, you can read the Karen Rosenburg review in the NYT here, or Sanford Schwartz in the NYRB here, or follow this link to the Tichý Foundation to see more, and find references like Szeemann’s text above. Or this link to Michael Hoppen Gallery. Or his “apprentice” Brian Tjepkema’s website here… Or the film Worldstar… Enjoy the trail…