Why are we so drawn to Miroslav Tichý's photographs ? What is it that fascinates us, that keeps us from averting our eyes, but then pursues us, haunts us in our dreams ? What is this muffled oppression that emanates from them ? Why do they give rise to an unrivaled enthusiasm, a pleasure, a wonderment ?
They are however not photographs that seek to be attractive, to attract or seduce, like so many others. For Tichý, they weren't even meant to be shown, they were piled up on the floor, in his house, in a mess, as a simple result of his strolls, his obsessions, with no deliberate artistic intentions, they were simply created for his own satisfaction.
So take a good look at them, these photographs, see how the are badly done, under or over-exposed, blurry sometimes, often showing grease stains, spattered with dust, damaged by an excess of bromide, coverers with streaks, sometimes a little moldy (if we close our eyes, can't we smell their bitter scent ?) ; in one, a fly was captured in the print, others have their cardboard frame nibbled at by mice. The image is thus invaded by parasites, ghosts, creating a second film that is inserted in our vision. Like Gianfranco Sanguinetti said, Tichý?s photographs are similar to his socialist Moravian beauties : neither waxed nor deodorized.
But carefree, spontaneous, impudent, solar and, most of all, real.
It would be easy to give in to the temptation to talk about the Tichý phenomenon, his life, his strangeness, his discovery, his invention, his market, but, when we are faced with his photographs, they don't let us escape, they don't allow us any digression, they force us to talk about Tichý?s art and nothing else.
Mostly because these photographs are of women, of beautiful and desirable bodies, which take their place in a history that Tichý (former Fine Art student in Prague, we so often forget) knew well, and that we have also been brought up on, the history of representation - and celebration - of the woman's body along the years, from the Venus of Brassempouy to Titien's Venus of Urbino and Ingres' Odalisque. And this is what Tichý?s photographs are, a final chapter in the woman's body idolatry in art.
But there are no models here, no pose sessions in the workshop : these photographs aren't honest, they aren't the result of a contract between artist and subject, almost all have been stolen, secretly taken. They were the loot of a clandestine roaming, an urban appropriation a drift that some would call psycho-geographic. Tichý wandered in the streets of his town, marauding, always on the watch, waiting for the right and worthy prey to enter his field of vision.
To study his films is a particularly interesting exercise because we can see his progression, his hunt, his twitches, his crushes, his disappointment as well when the body he followed from the back turned out to be uninteresting from the front. "I am an observer, he would say, I observe as conscientiously as possible". And then he would only print "the image that resembled the world".
Of course it is voyeurism, and we can already hear the loud complaints of virtuous protesters. Of course, these photographs were stolen, of course, mainly these diverted women weren't willing (or, at best, they didn't care about this harmless bum without any aggressiveness : a lot of them thought this was joke and that his pre-historic cameras couldn't work). Of course, it's an obsession : Tichý's pleasure was all in this search, this tracking, this voyeurism. Besides his daylight wanderings in the streets of Kyjov, he would also hide out at night behind blinds to catch nurse-students undressing in their dormitories or watch soft-porn shows on the Austrian television he managed to receive. Guilty pleasure ?
Rebellious pleasure in any case, scandalous pleasure. Tichý was, by essence, a rebel from the day he quit his Fine Art school after the communists (who'd recently come to office after the Prague Coup in February 1948) banned nude women models from drawing classes. Military service, prison, commitment in a psychiatric hospital didn't succeed in putting him down, setting him straight? His rebellion wasn't so much political as moral, social : long and dirty hair, shaggy beard, wearing rags, refusing to work, he was the ultimate socialist anti-hero. He shook standards - capitalist as much as socialist but always puritanical and politically correct - on sex, on the relation to women. He didn't fear representing himself as a scandalous sexual anarchist (though not in his life which seemed to be rather chaste, but in his art). ANd, similarly to how he escaped the socialist society, he remained, in 1990, on the fringes of capitalist show business, of the invention of his work, refusing shows (most of which were made against his will) and speculation. He had better to do, following his solitary path.
But this rebellious pleasure is also an impossible, forbidden pleasure. Look at these bathers wearing bikinis, sunbathing ; in almost every photograph, a wire fence stands between the photographer and the young woman, between desire and pleasure. It is of course the fence of the open air swimming pool in which the "perverse bum" couldn't enter, but it is also a separation from the desired object, a barrier against desire, a workaround from taking action, a deprivation of sex in a sense? According to Dali, one said in Spain, that masturbation caused blindness (and not deafness) : could photography have been for Tichý a workaround to the risk of masturbation ?
This is why we have to accept his voyeurism, and own ours : every artist is a voyeur, every watcher as well, and "the woman is the only subject capable of reminding man of his nature". And the magical aspect of this exhibition, and its setting acting as a trap for a voyeur, puts the works at a distance, only allows to discover them gradually, with difficulty, is that, by the time we get out in the street, we will all look at the beauty of the first woman who passes by, with the same eye as Tichý's, with the same desire, at the same time revolutionary and innocent. Wont' we ?
Miroslav Tichý (1926 - 2011), after studying painting in a one Art school in Prague, and various troubles with communist authorities, retreated to the little town of Kyjov in moravia. When the workshop where he painted was confiscated, he started working with photography, wandering almost everyday in the streets, with cameras of his own making. Printing a very small amount of photographs (with a custom-made enlarger as well), improving them form time to time with a pen stroke, framing them sometimes, he would then leave the prints on the floor of his rundown house, without showing them to anyone. After a first failed attempt in 1989 / 1990 by the Czech-Swiss psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum (who claimed ownership of many of his prints) to show his work in the "art brut" context, Tichý was truly discovered by the great curator Harald Szeemann during the Sevilla Biennial in 2004. The following years, at the age of 78, he received the Discovery Award during the Rencontres d'ARles. Since then, he has been shown in many Museums (Kunsthaus Zurich, Centre Pompidou, MMK Francfort, ICP New-York, Center for Photography in Moscow, Prague City Gallery, Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim), mainly without his approval. All photographs presented here come from Tichý's legitimate heir (and sole holder of the copyright) Jana Hebnarová.