Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Miroslav Tichy and the ongoing impulse

There's a section towards the end of Jonathan Dee's 2010 novel The Privileges that reads like a bad Paul Auster extract (and there's enough of that about). A character, Jonas, goes on the hunt for outsider art: 'The rule of thumb seemed to be that the further a particular artist's own mind had pushed him toward society's border, the more you could charge for his work. It was revolting and thrilling at the same time.'

With the help of an expert, Jonas tries to separate the real deal from fraudsters: '...outsider art is overrun by thieves and hacks and opportunists and corrupters... The difference here is that the artists themselves can't be corrupted by it.' He's advised a good test is to meet the artist and, in this case, the artist turns out to be a true wacko, someone with a 'total absence of self-consciousness'.

It's a definition that could apply to Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy, who died last year aged 85. A student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague he suffered first when the communists came to power in 1948 and then, in 1957, when he had a mental breakdown.

He moved back to his hometown, Kyjov, and began taking pictures using homemade cameras. I'll leave it to a biography for the Wilkinson gallery, which hosted an exhibition of his work soon after his death, to take up the story: '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... 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.'

'He honoured women in bikinis' according to the gallery or, as writer Geoff Dyer has it: 'he spent the 1960s and '70s perving around Kyjov.' The local swimming pool was a favourite haunt - from the outside of the mesh fence - or, if not that, a line of bras hanging to dry would do.

There's something of Victorian artist Edward Linley Sambourne here, who would hang around in Kensington taking pictures of schoolgirls using a camera that took pictures at a right angle to the direction in which it was pointed. Dyer links Tichy's pictures with an unrequited summer of longing in Paris, images that are no doubt conjured again in these hot days. The oddest part of Tichy's pictures is that there's something nostalgic about his unguarded moments, of unlikely hairstyles and retro costumes.

Like the artist in Dee's book, Tichy was apparently oblivious to his own work: he used a homemade enlarger to print his images, sometimes scribbling in the detail. Then he might use them as beer mats or drop them onto the floor, where they were nibbled by rats.

Monday, 7 May 2012

'I'd had enough of photography'

Earlier this year Dutch publisher Parvenu released an English catalogue of the work of Marianne Breslauer. Originally published in 2009 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the German photographer's birth, Marianne Breslauer - Photographs focuses on nine years of serene work from 1927 to 1936.

At the age of 20, Breslauer went to Paris to study photography under Man Ray who decides she has nothing to learn from him but extends her the use of his studio. In photographing the banks of the Seine and the Jardin du Luxembourg, she inevitably invokes Jacques Henri Lartigue (there's also something of his albums here), Ilse Bing, ubiquitous Atget and, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Her work tends to series: best of all is a set taken at an art auction, Vente S&S, attended by Pablo Picasso and Ambroise Vollard, among others. The spirit of two shots of Berlin's Lützowbrücke (1930) is revisited from 1932-36 when Breslauer photographs the same Amsterdam canal: two shots have the same laundry hanging on the same boat with the same car parked alongside (there's even a reverse shot from the canal side, though this time it's a different boat decorated with different laundry).

Circus, Berlin 1931 is a series of six pictures of the same androgynous child; a year later, writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach is similarly androgynous in two striking portraits. The portraits become increasingly mature, from the cover shot (Ruth von Morgen, Berlin 1934, pictured) to delicate images of Oskar Kokoschka and Albert Barnes, but the key to her oeuvre must be the self-portraits.

In an essay, Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat make a great deal of a 1929 image the photographer took of herself, looking askance, hair pulled over one eye. In 1933 she is naked in a dressing gown and again not looking at the viewer but into her camera, which looks out at us (and at her). She is the only nude in the book in a manner reminiscent of another young prodigy, Francesca Woodman - in such short careers, the catalogue of both inevitably leans on student work.

The changing situation in Europe notwithstanding, Breslauer seems to have felt she had exhausted all she could achieve as a photographer and laid down her camera some time around 1937. 'If I had worked longer in this area, I would have gone into film,' she said. 'I'd had enough of photography.' The final snaps here date from 1938, and there's Breslauer, again in her housecoat, partially exposed, but bearing her camera.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The collaborators?

As well as racism and anti-semitism, a familiar charge levelled against Georges Remi (Hergé) is one of collaboration. When the Allies liberated Brussels in September 1944, the Belgian creator of cartoon hero Tintin was arrested as a traitor and questioned.

Hergé had decided to stay in Belgium following the country's invasion by the Nazis, and continued to produce comic strips for the German-run Le Soir newspaper. During World War II, he retreated into the apolitical fantasies of The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure (recently made into a film by Steven Spielberg, of course) and The Seven Crystal Balls.

The Shooting Star (1942) is undoubtedly anti-semitic but its apocalyptic atmosphere can surely only have been informed by the arrival of the Nazis, while the pre-war King's Ottokar's Sceptre is decidedly anti-fascist (though only Tintin in America and The Black Island were banned by the Nazis).

Nevertheless, the first form of official pardon for Hergé came as late as 1958, when he was met by the Belgian ambassador on a visit to London. According to biographer Harry Thompson, the author 'remained bitter at the treatment meted out to those who - as he saw it - had stuck with Belgium in her hour of need.'

One of the reasons Hergé gave for remaining in the country was because his beloved king (Leopold III) had also stayed and, indeed, urged his subjects to work as usual. Another possibility may be that Hergé was not disposed to living in another country, as was the case with German Hans Fallada - real name, Rudolf Ditzen - currently much celebrated for Alone in Berlin and A Small Circus.

Fallada had any number of opportunities to leave Germany during the Nazis' rise, but decided to stick it out. In 1944 he wrote: 'I am a German, I say that today with pride and sorrow, I love Germany, I don't want to live or work anywhere else in the world. I probably couldn't live or work anywhere else.' (Quoted in Jenny Williams' biography More Lives than One.)

His novels show a fine judge of the human spirit, though whether his political judgement was so sharp remains open to question. In November 1937 he accepted an approach to write a novel 'dealing with the fate of a German family from 1914 until around 1933'.

When Fallada brought Iron Gustav to a close in 1928, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, intervened to ensure the writer fulfilled the detail of his contract, which meant Fallada had to cover the rise of the National Socialists. Williams writes: '[Fallada] later tried to justify his capitulation in the following terms: "I do not like grand gestures, being slaughtered before the tyrant's throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way."'

He may have found some sympathy from Vasily Grossman, the Russian celebrated for Everything Flows and Life and Fate, his massive novel centred on the battle for Stalingrad. For three years from 1943, Grossman contributed to an astounding narrative of Jewish massacres in Poland and the Soviet Union - informing some of Life and Fate - and yet, in 1952, he signed an official letter condemning Stalin's Jewish doctors for a plot to kill the dictator.

Perhaps only someone who has experienced such extremes can write, as Grossman does in Life and Fate: 'Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian state depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and worldwide triumph of the dictatorial state is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian state is doomed.'