17 April 2010

On Miroslav Tichy

In The Nation this week is this essay by Jana Prikryl reviewing an exhibit of work by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy at the ICP in NYC. I know of the famous emigré Czechs - Koudelka and Kratochvil - but had never heard of Tichy who labored on, to the point of mental instability, under the communists. Indeed, while Koudelka has become notoriously peripatetic, Tichy retreated to haunt a single small village. More precisely, it seems, he haunted the women of the village.

The review is odd, as is the work being reviewed. Prikryl first notes what she calls "Tichy's sublime indifference to politics." But she also describes his life in the late 1950s and early 1960s:
Around this time he became certifiably eccentric, and his abnormality, anticipating in reverse the period of Czech "normalization" following the Prague Spring, manifested itself in a few ways. He was certainly a confirmed dropout and recluse. He stopped changing his clothes and mended his coat with wire until it acquired the worm-eaten texture of something out of a Tim Burton movie. [. . .] These habits alone would have been enough to make his life difficult in Communist Czechoslovakia: not only was his appearance a rebuke to the rather conservative socialist ideal of the clean, honest worker but his habits seemed to advertise a radical independence. Barely eating, barely washing, making whatever he needed, going nowhere he couldn't walk--he simply declined to participate in any exchange that would link him to society. Before every May Day parade, the police would lock him up in an asylum so that the sight of him wouldn't embarrass party officials passing through town; early on, before she died, his mother always packed him a little suitcase for this annual excursion.
Tichy may not have articulated his life as self-consciously as, say, Havel (in terms of "living in truth") but it is hard to see anyone asserting radical independence under a totalitarian regime as indifferent to politics. And later still Prikryl calls attention to and contests the distinctly political interpretation of his work that the ICP curators apparently present. It is not that she exactly denies that interpretation. She simply thinks it is, at best, too "arid and clinical." Having not seen the work it is impossible to say much other than the show seems like it would be worth the trip.
P.S.: You can find another review of the Tichy exhibit here in The New York Times. It notes similar "political" themes in his work: "Clearly Mr. Tichy admired legs, and backsides, often cropping the image to show just the lower body. But he did more than ogle. Many photographs show conspiratorial pairs of women: gossiping, telling secrets or otherwise staking out bits of privacy in public." I lifted the two images (both untitled and undated) in this post from The Times review.

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Blogger Tom White said...

It's a fascinating show for certain, and Tichy's camera gear shows he may have been 'mentally unstable' but he was also extremely clever (the old borderline genius/madman artist archetype then). I like a lot of the work but I do find it amusing that people seem to go out of their way to avoid the 'dirty, unwashed man with homemade cameras stalks beautiful women' take on the work. Perhaps that would destroy his art world status.

21 April, 2010 13:24  

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