Miroslav Tichý began taking photographs in the 1960s, continuing until the late 1980s, accumulating an expansive archive of images. Tichý originally studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he was an esteemed painter and draughtsman, taking a lively modernist approach to his artwork. In 1948, with the adoption of communism in Czechoslovakia, artists were enforced to produce work in the socialist realism manner, which Tichý determinedly rejected. In opposition, he and like-minded alumni formed an artist collective, the Brněnská Pětka (Brno Five), staging subversive exhibitions, which attracted continuous state surveillance. In 1957, the artist suffered a mental collapse - he was prone to psychological breakdowns from a young age - and this led to his removal from mainstream society, moving back to his small hometown, Kyjov. He became a non-conformist, eccentric character, half-conscious, half-delusional to his subversive outsider situation.
The artist devotedly wandered the streets, compiling a meticulous photographic archive of Kyjov. He mainly photographed the local women; the curvaceous contours of a body in motion, captured moments of sartorial revelation, smooth calves truncating from underneath full skirts, and remote utterances muttered between intimate sororities. He honoured women in bikinis, becoming a regular of the periphery of the local swimming pool, photographing from the other side of the fence, the metal mesh dissecting the surface of his images. He worked with a homemade camera that he fashioned from used materials, such as shoeboxes, rubber bands and tin cans, complete with makeshift telephoto lenses, polished with toothpaste and ashes. Tichý would then print on a homemade enlarger. He would subsequently adorn certain prints with pencil marks, highlighting the contours of a form, or decorating the edges with coloured cardboard borders, until the works were spilled scatteringly onto the floor, some used as beer mats, some nibbled by rats.
Tichý was an unobserved observer. His approach follows in the tradition of street photography; individuals roaming with lightweight cameras, shooting unsuspecting subjects, recording private moments occurring in public spaces. His photographs present the potential voyeuristic nature of the camera. His continuous contemplation of the female form refers his work to the tradition of high art, where the female nude is seen as the visual culmination of aesthetics. Tichý both celebrates and subverts the pictorial tradition of the nude. The oft focus, careful observation and caressing light provide the photographs with a painterly quality. Yet simultaneously their haphazard compositions and degraded surfaces distort the female form, reminding the viewer of family snapshots. Tichý reveals that the female nude can easily cross the thin line between nudity and nakidity, eroticism and illicitness, spilling into the realm of the pornographic. The ideology of realism, which imbues the photographic image, results in the increased sexualisation of the depicted body, reinforced by the tactile, fetishistic qualities latent in a photograph, diminishing the proximity between subject and viewer.
Tichý was fulfilling a scopophilic urge, whilst fuelling a subversive protest against the Soviet- satellite regime. His move from painting to photography permitted a continued individual artistic endeavour. Photography was less threatening to the Czech authorities than abstract painting. It was dismissible as an innocuous form of amateur documentation. Tichy positioned himself as the town eccentric, and as an outsider he was able to withdraw into the background, his ensuing invisibility providing him with the freedom to assume the role of an observer. His anonymity was an act of political and artistic intent.
The artist’s compulsive collecting of images mimicked the Czech government’s extensive surveillance regime. His archiving acted as a parody of the state’s obsessive observation, carried out with a seemingly inadequate caricature of a camera. The mechanism’s simplicity of conviction and the irreverence, with which he treated his images, becomes a satire of the inherent complexity and futility of a large government surveillance regime. Tichý was a dissident spy, persistently surveyed and incessantly surveying.
Tichý’s experience parallels the heightened state of surveillance and voyeurism that characterises our modern society. The exhibitionism we encounter in these photographs is now a constant impulse, in an age dominated by the accessible and intrusive nature of the Internet and CCTV. The difference between Tichý’s photographs and the plethora of images today, are that his photographs were not intended for public dissemination, but were driven by a private desire for visual and dissident pleasure. The aesthetic of Tichý’s photographs clash with the unsoiled lucidity of digital imagery, his photographs have been touched, not retouched. The grainy quality, the curled edges, the pencil marks, and the yellowing paper all characterise these images. They are structured by their limitations and their imperfections, and above all the presence of the artist himself. His circumstances, his persona and his idiosyncratic approach to photography all mark the final physical object, visually manifesting the reveries of a peeping dissident.
Miroslav Tichý’s photographs have only come to the public attention in the fast five years; inaugurated by his inclusion in the 2004 Seville Biennial, by eminent curator Harald Szeeman. Since 2004 several major international venues have mounted exhibitions, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2008) and International Centre of Photography, New York (2010).
This show has been organised in collaboration with Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne.
Miroslav Tichý died on 12 April 2011, aged 85.