Miroslav Tichy

“Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.” Thus the oft-quoted words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, emblazoned on a wall at the Kunsthaus Zürich to open an exhibition on Cartier-Bresson and Alberto Giacometti that, as it happened, was running concurrently with this first retrospective of much-lesser-known photographer Miroslav Tichý. By the Frenchman’s definition, Tichý’s work is closer to drawing, but this merely underlines the famous aphorism’s limitations.

Textbooks on photographic history invariably narrate the triumph of “straight” photography over late-nineteenth-century pictorialism, whose techniques of shading and blurring are usually said to ape the appearance of painting (this despite the fact that most painting of the period strove for clarity and precision). Tichý, practically reinventing photography from scratch, reconstitutes pictorialism along with it, and not as a distortion of the medium but as something like its essence. What counts for him is not only the image—just one moment in the photographic process—but also the chemical activity of the materials, which is never entirely stable or complete, and the delimitation of the results via cropping and framing. Tichý makes all these aspects visible through their imperfection, not unlike the scratching, clotting, and smearing that Roland Barthes identified as Cy Twombly’s way of making matter “appear” (in the sense of taking the stage) in his paintings.

Tichý’s story is good enough to be distracting, and even has a happy ending. Born in 1926, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in the late ’40s and produced figurative paintings that were, apparently, of a vaguely modernist character. Alienated from the prevailing Communist regime, he turned his back on the official art world to live quietly and poorly in the small Moravian town near Brno where he was born. Sometime in the ’50s he abandoned his brushes and began taking photographs, using homemade equipment—even his lenses were cut from Plexiglas and polished with a mixture of toothpaste and ashes. His generally nonconformist way of life led to run-ins with the authorities; he spent time in prison and in psychiatric institutions, and, in the early ’70s, abandoned his studio after destroying a number of his own works. Most of the images displayed in Zurich—all untitled and of uncertain date—are thought to have been made between this period and 1985, when Tichý ceased making photographs and began to concentrate on drawing. Rumors of his existence occasionally leaked out—Arnulf Rainer sought him out in the early ’90s—but only when Roman Buxbaum, a young former neighbor who had gone on to become a psychiatrist and artist practicing in Zurich, took up his cause did the art world open its doors. Harald Szeemann included Tichý in the First International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville in 2004; his first one-person show took place at Nolan/Eckman Gallery in New York in April, closely followed by this exhibition, comprising some one hundred and twenty works.

Even a glance at Tichý’s cameras—some of which were included in the show—cobbled together using cardboard and salvaged parts, would provide a clue as to what the images look like: Focus is uncertain, depth of field minimal, bleeding light recurrent. And if the images hadn’t been developed messily and cropped unevenly with an eye toward highlighting these “flaws,” the rough treatment they’ve undergone subsequently (whether at the artist’s own hands or thanks to the nibbling of the mice that share his wretched dwelling) would surely have done the trick. Tichý “corrects” certain images by drawing on top of them, by making them flatter, less legible, or anatomically ambiguous. Finally, in many cases, the print is adorned with a colored-paper passe-partout whose childish embellishments would seem guaranteed to place the work beyond the pale of much of the professional art world.

As far as subject matter goes, Tichý’s is consistent, not to say obsessive: Women, or rather women’s bodies, constitute his great theme. Evidently there’s a lot of sunbathing in Moravia, and Tichý makes the most of it. But strolling down the street or waiting for the bus constitute equally noteworthy activities, little matter whether those doing so are plain or pretty, young or old. Each has a gesture, a glance, a pose, something entirely her own. Imagine Garry Winogrand’s portfolio “Women Are Beautiful,” 1975, redone by Edward Steichen with a little help from Anton Giulio Bragaglia and Sigmar Polke. Many of the shots appear to have been taken surreptitiously, hard as it is to imagine this ragged fellow with his outlandish apparatus going unnoticed. The woman observed is often on the other side of a chain-link fence. Yet other images could not have been made without the cooperation of their subjects, and in at least one case, given prevailing sensibilities, this could only have been a prostitute.

In any case, Tichý’s oeuvre surely confirms the truism that it is not the subject but its treatment that makes a work of art, for while his range of subjects may be narrow, the images themselves are remarkably various in composition and mood—each a different meeting of gesture and luminosity. And whatever the artist’s libidinal interest in his subject, the effect of his continuing work on the image is in good part intended to consume that interest and to volatilize that subject. “I am an atomist,” Tichý declares, meaning that his work is concerned with dissolving the apparent solidity of the perceived world. The beauty is not so much in the perception or in its dissolution as in their coexistence.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based critic.