18 – 27 August 2015
What did Miroslav Tichý photograph?
From the 1950s to 1986, Tichý took thousands of surreptitious photographs in and around Kyjov, in the Czech Republic. With his wild hair and ragged clothes, locals viewed him as a harmless eccentric — but in many ways his art can be seen as a subversive act in response to a totalitarian regime.
Originally a student at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, Tichý was regarded as a promising modernist painter until the imposition of Communist rule in 1948, when the authorities insisted its students followed Social Realist modes. Tichý refused and quit the faculty, though the regime kept him under surveillance and made periodic attempts to ‘cure’ him — forcing upon him short stays in psychiatric facilities. In the 1950s, he began to focus on photography, using an array of crude homemade cameras.
Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011), Untitled, circa 1950s-1980s. Gelatin silver print in artist’s frame. Image: 8⅞ x 5½ in (22.4 x 14.1 cm); framed: 23⅞ x 18¼ in (60.6 x 46.4 cm).This work was offered in our Focal Points online sale, 18-27 August 2015
Tichý’s hometown became his studio, and as in an academy life-drawing class, female bodies became his subjects. As Harald Szeeman, the first curator to take an interest in Tichý, explains, ‘The more you look, the less naïve it becomes; when you listen to what he says, what fun he has in breaking all the rules, without giving a damn about the result.’
One of Miroslav Tichý’s many crude, homemade cameras. Courtesy Foundation Tichý Oceán
Why should we be interested in these seemingly rough images made by a loner on a homemade camera?
Tichý aspired to traditional photographic values, composition and contrast, yet imperfections were an important part of his work. ‘The flaws are part of it,’ Tichý said. ‘That’s the poetry. To achieve that, first of all you need a bad camera.’ He built his contraptions from scrap — cardboard tubes, tin cans and the like — sealed with tar, and operated by bobbins and dressmaker’s elastic. He cut lenses from plexiglass — even devising his own telephoto lens.
Negatives were blemished by dust in the camera or stained by processing errors. After printing, Tichý cut off unwanted sections to improve the composition, drew lines to emphasise contours, decorated margins and mounted favourite images on cardboard.
‘These chance encounters, fleeting moments captured on film, have a distinctive Baudelairean flair,’ says Christie’s specialist Amanda Lo Iacono. ‘Indeed what we find so captivating about Tichý’s work today is how the artist acted as the quintessential flaneur, whose practice became inseparable from his way of life.’
Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011), Untitled, circa 1950s-1980s. Gelatin silver print on paper in artist’s frame. Image: 8⅜ x 4¾ in (21.2 x 12 cm); framed: 23⅞ x 18¼ in (60.6 x 46.4 cm). This work was offered in our Focal Points online sale, 18-27 August 2015
Tichý seems to have had little ambition in terms of fame...
Quite. Tichý had no room to store his works and no interest in titling, let alone cataloguing them; for years, he simply scattered them around his home. This only changed in 1981 when a former neighbour, Roman Buxbaum, returned from his family’s Swiss exile. Buxbaum collected and preserved the works, in return receiving bundles of images. ‘For a long time I was the only one he showed and gave his photographs to. We looked through them together,’ Buxbaum recalled. ‘Tichý leafed through them and gave me this one or that one, depending on what I liked.’
Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011), Untitled, circa 1950s-1980s. Gelatin silver print, ink and paper on board in artist’s frame. Image: 12 x 9½ in (30.6 x 24.2 cm); framed: 23⅞ x 18¼ in (60.6 x 46.4 cm). Estimate: £600-800. This work was offered in our Focal Points online sale, 18-27 August 2015
How did he come to be regarded as an important artist?
Buxbaum was keen that Tichý gained wider recognition, and his breakthrough came in 2004, with the completion of a documentary, Miroslav Tichý: Tarzan Retired. Harald Szeeman also entered his collection of Tichý’s work into that year’s Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville, comparing his style to the German master Gerhard Richter’s photorealist work. In 2005, Tichý’s work went on to win the New Discovery Award at Arles. His life and practice have been cited as an inspiration to artists including Thomas Ruff, Jonathan Meese and Fischli & Weiss, and musician Michael Nyman.
Buxbaum set up the Tichý Oceán Foundation to promote the artist’s work, helping to secure further shows at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Zurich Kunsthaus. The artist’s renown has continued to grow, notably with a 2009 solo show at New York’s International Centre of Photography, his first in North America, titled after the documentary. Tichý passed away two years later, aged 84, though his art continues to ask questions about content, form and creation.
Main image at top: Miroslav Tichý. Courtesy Foundation Tichý Oceán
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