The haunting photographs that Czech artist Miroslav Tichý produced from the mid-1960s through the ’80s are difficult to categorize. A self-taught photographer who demonstrates a near total disregard for the medium’s conventions, Tichý [pronounced TEE-kee] generated thousands of works—some 6,000 survive—most of them unique prints with distressed surfaces and hazy (out-of-focus), dreamlike images. Tichý’s favored subjects were the young women of Kyjov, his hometown in Moravia, about 160 miles from Prague, where he still lives. Surreptitiously taken, the unsettling, voyeuristic shots typically show the unwitting models strolling down the street, lounging in a park or emerging in wet bathing suits from a local public swimming pool.
From a distance, the photos can appear rather like small drawings or etchings. Tichý often added touches of color by hand to the black-and-white prints, and in some pieces, pencil outlines along the contours of the ghostly figures help define and secure them within the ethereal spaces they inhabit. He sometimes further embellished the photos with funky and colorful hand-decorated paper frames. In a feverish period of creativity lasting roughly 20 years, the obsessive-compulsive shutterbug used homemade cameras he fashioned from found materials, such as shoeboxes and toilet-paper tubes, and routinely took 100 photos per day. Without a proper darkroom, he developed the film in his apartment at night, in buckets or the bathtub, and rarely made more than one print from each negative. As is evident from the abject condition of his work today, he willfully mistreated negatives and finished prints alike, tossing them on the floor and jamming them into shelves in his extremely cluttered and dirty living quarters. Untitled and undated, the prints usually bear a layer of dust and grime, which lends the work a rather poignant sense of poetic decay. Scratches and lacy, scalloped trim on some pieces are simply the work of hungry vermin that the artist allowed to infest his home. Despite the crude process of their genesis, Tichý’s works are often as strikingly beautiful and sensuous as they are melancholy and disturbing.
The similarity of his images to certain photoworks by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer and other mainstream European artists has been noted by some critics. But Tichý is just as often regarded as an outsider. Photographers are a rarity in the outsider field, but his images bear close comparison to the erotically charged works of self-taught artists such as Eugene von Bruenchenhein, who obsessively photographed his wife Marie in various states of undress, and Morton Bartlett, who made countless photos of the rather suggestive dolls he created. Unlike those two, however, Tichý was trained as an artist. Soon after World War II, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he studied painting. Though most of his early canvases—colorful modernist studies of the female nude—are lost, the few surviving examples are thematically consistent with his later photographic fixation on women.
After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the school’s curriculum changed dramatically. Tichý grew disillusioned with the program, especially after life-drawing classes with nude models were banned. In subsequent years, his behavior grew increasingly erratic, and he was often arrested for derelict and antisocial behavior; several extended periods were spent in mental institutions. He remained virtually unknown outside Kyjov until 2005, when the late Harald Szeemann presented an acclaimed show of his work at the Seville Biennial, which garnered the event’s “New Discovery” award. Since then, Tichý has occupied an extraordinary place in contemporary photography. Now 84, and having abandoned the medium altogether in the 1990s, he has been the subject of numerous solo shows in Europe and two in New York galleries—at Nolan/Eckman (2005) and Tanya Bonakdar (2008).
By far the most comprehensive Tichý exhibition ever mounted in the U.S., the current ICP retrospective of 118 works would reposition him not only closer to the mainstream but somewhere near the forefront of photography’s avant-garde. Organized by chief curator Brian Wallis, the show also features two large vitrines filled with the artist’s jerry-built cameras—complete with a beer-bottle cap to prevent double exposures—and other homemade equipment, plus a continuously running documentary by Tichý’s friend and biographer, Roman Buxbaum. In the film, shot in the artist’s appallingly filthy home, the wily Tichý asserts that sexual desire was not the motivation for his benignly perverse endeavor. For him, the ideal of feminine beauty is simply a motif, which has a long and illustrious art historical lineage. Using the coarsest photographic means imaginable, he has managed to refresh the tradition with his strange and elegant works.
Photos: Left, Miroslav Tichý: Untitled, n.d., photograph with hand-colored paper frame, 16 by 93⁄4 inches. © Foundation Tichý Ocean. Right, one of Tichý’s homemade cameras. Photo © Roman Buxbaum.