Moravia Unveils Its Most Famous Unknown Photographer
Portrait of a man: Moravia unveils its most famous unknown photographer Gallery Review By Tony Azuna For The Prague Post May 31st, 2006
Tichý's blurry, evocative images have attracted international attention.
When a new star arrives on the international art scene, the Czech Republic is generally not the first to know about it. Still, when an 80-year-old photographer from Kyjov who is gaining acclaim in the West remains unknown in his own country, something is obviously amiss.
The mysterious oeuvre of Miroslav Tichý has created a sensation in prestigious circles abroad; last year he had a huge retrospective in Kunsthaus Zurich, and since then has had solo exhibitions at high-end galleries in New York City, Berlin, Antwerp and London. This would be remarkable for any artist, let alone one who only started to get noticed a few years ago — first at the Seville Biennial in 2004, and then at last year's prestigious art festival in Arles, when he received the Discovery Award.
The current extensive exhibition of Tichý's photographs, drawings and paintings in Brno is his long-overdue debut in the Czech Republic, not counting his limited participation in group exhibitions of Brno painters in 1956 and 1958. Miroslav Tichý was born in Nětčice (now a suburb of Kyjov) in 1926. He studied drawing and painting at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts between 1944 and 1948, dropping out of school when the communists took over. After finishing compulsory military service, he stopped painting and became an outcast, best-known for his wild, unkempt appearance and dirty clothing, in particular a long coat that he wore in all seasons. Because of his unstable mental condition, Tichý was not able to hold a job. But he was vocal about his politics, openly showing disdain for the communists. As a result, he was routinely arrested (particularly each May 1), and spent a total of eight years in prison. He was also in and out of mental institutions. A psychiatrist who treated Tichý during this time, Harry Buxbaum, was also a former neighbor and friend from Kyjov. They remained friends even after Buxbaum emigrated to Switzerland in 1968. Through the 1960s and '70s, Tichý continued his drawings (mostly of women), but he showed these to no one. And he began taking random photographs. He wandered the streets of Kyjov, snapping the beautiful and banal. He particularly enjoyed capturing on film the women he encountered: in the shops, at bus stops, sitting in the town square, walking down the street. In the summer, like a voyeur, he shot women and girls at the swimming pool or sunbathing in their yards in bikinis or in the nude. Tichý took most of his photos secretly, with the camera hidden under his long coat or by an oversized sweater. They are all distinguishable by their lack of professional composition and the blurriness of the image. Nevertheless, they capture a state of naturalness, a complete unawareness of the camera. In 1981, Roman Buxbaum, Harry's nephew, began returning to Kyvoj to visit his grandmother, in the course of which he became friends with Tichý. Buxbaum was fascinated by Tichý's photos and drawings, which he found thrown around with total disregard, many corroded or crumpled, caked in dust for years on the floor. Some had chintzy frames colored by the artist; sometimes he would even draw highlights on the photo. Tichý's equipment was equally decrepit. Since he had no money, he used plastic Russian cameras, and later made his own from cardboard scraps and assorted refuse. His handmade cameras worked remarkably well; some even had extendible lenses. Mostly with these, he amassed a secret archive of the women of Kyjov, all the legs and bodies of daughters and wives immortalized in a blur. In the 1990s, Roman Buxbaum began writing articles about Tichý's work and eventually organized an exhibit in Germany. But the work remained obscure until only a few years ago. What it finally hit, it hit big. Tichý's untitled photographs have been purchased for the public collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As part of the events for his opening in Brno, the acclaimed modern composer Michael Nyman performed a solo piano concert with Tichý's images overhead. However, as if to underscore the irony of Tichý's fate in his homeland, a recent issue of Photo Art featured photos by young, unknown Czech photographers, among which is a shot of a wild-eyed old man in long beard and tattered clothes. The black-and-white shot, by Jaroslav Březina, is most certainly of Miroslav Tichý. Yet it is simply titled Portrait of a Man.