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.

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