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The Exploitation of "Outsider Art": Miroslav Tichy

Art & Revolution

The first appearance of Miroslav Tichý in the world of art – if one excepts the infrequent exhibitions of his paintings in Czechoslovakia when he was young (of which Milan Chlumsky speaks in his essay) – was in 1989, under the auspices of Roman Buxbaum, a Czech psychiatrist based in Zurich who had discovered Tichý’s works several years previously during a trip to Kyjov, where the artist and members of the psychiatrist’s family lived. At the time, Buxbaum’s discourse was very clear and marked by his profession and his interest in art-based therapy (which he practiced in his Königsfelden clinic in Zurich) and outsider art (he gave presentations at the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich on the art made by mentally ill patients)

The Critical Reception of Miroslav Tichý

By Marc Lenot

In the Zephyr Gallery of Contemporary Photography, housed within the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, there’s an exhibition of the photographs Miroslav Tichý (until 26 May).[1] It presents Tichý’s unpublished photographs; they are unpublished because, unlike those exhibited in the majority of preceding expositions, they do not come from the Tichý Oceàn Foundation. Many of these photographs are more intimate, more personal, than the others. But the work of the exhibition’s curator, Thomas Schirmböck, and those who have accompanied him in this adventure (myself included), have permitted one to write an account of Tichý, one based upon real research work and interviews, that is quite different from the clichés circulated until now. Unfortunately, the catalogue is only available in German. With the agreement of the Kehrer publishing house, which I thank, I publish here – in three parts – the original version (written in French) of my contribution to that catalogue, but without the bibliographical notes (the substantive ones appear herein as footnotes).

An Unsuccessful Attempt at Formatting a Discourse

“If you want to be famous, you must do something worse than anyone else in the entire world” (Miroslav Tichý)

An artist is suddenly discovered, invented, propelled to the front of the stage; exhibitions, books and critics contribute to his renown, and the market follows suit. Little by little, a discourse is created around him, elaborated, by curators, authors of catalogues, critics, professional newspaper writers and bloggers, and, finally, to a lesser extent, by historians and university scholars. The goal of this essay is to analyze the reception of the works of Miroslav Tichý in these different circles since his abortive debut in 1989-1990, but especially since his appearance in the world of contemporary art from the end of 2004 until today. This analysis aims at identifying the dominant and normative discourse that has essentially determined this discovery, as well as locating the other discourses that, either due to poetry or distrust, rigor or distance, have distanced themselves from that norm, at first in slightly eccentric milieus and then by more experienced authors. This analysis will develop in three phases: first, the construction of the discourse about the artist; then its formatting; and finally his liberation from it.

1. The Discourse in the Process of Construction:
Between outsider art [art brut] and contemporary art

The first appearance of Miroslav Tichý in the world of art – if one excepts the infrequent exhibitions of his paintings in Czechoslovakia when he was young (of which Milan Chlumsky speaks in his essay) – was in 1989, under the auspices of Roman Buxbaum, a Czech psychiatrist based in Zurich who had discovered Tichý’s works several years previously during a trip to Kyjov, where the artist and members of the psychiatrist’s family lived. At the time, Buxbaum’s discourse was very clear and marked by his profession and his interest in art-based therapy (which he practiced in his Königsfelden clinic in Zurich) and outsider art (he gave presentations at the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich on the art made by mentally ill patients). This discourse appeared clearly in the note that Buxbaum drafted for the first exhibition of Mirek Tichý’s photographs in Cologne[2] as part of an exposition of outsider art titled Von einer Wellt zu’r Andern (“From One World to Another,” a dialectical expression coined by the German-speaking Swiss outsider-artist Adolf Wölfli). Four of the six curators of this exposition were psychiatrists.[3] Buxbaum wrote a long introduction about art and psychiatry, as well as eight of the thirty one-page-long notes about each of the artists (including the note about Tichý). In that introduction, as well as in the three-page-long article that Buxbaum had published a year earlier in the “Bild und Seele” (“Image and Soul”) special issue of Kunstforum, Tichý is presented as an integral part of outsider art, as an outsider,[4] a marginal. Emphasis was placed on his physical appearance and his hair and clothing, on the shack in which he lived, his handmade equipment and his entanglements with the authorities. Due to his photographic practices (which had no counterpart in outsider art) and his studies at the Prague Art Academy (which were supposedly incompatible with the status of outsider-artist), he was also presented as a marginal among the marginals (Ein Außenseiter unter den Außenseitern), but the content of the discourse was still clear and incontrovertible when it came to Tichý’s status as an outsider-artist. That status conformed to the customary schema of such an artist: a psychiatrist with an interest in art[5] discovers an artist who is ill but a genius, whom the doctor describes as “a caveman.” To make it work, Buxbaum placed the emphasis on the man and his equipment, thereby only presenting a partial version of the context in which he evolved (insisting on the psychiatric and police-related repression from which Tichý had suffered and minimizing any information that could, on the contrary, demonstrate his belonging to a circle of artistic friends and Moravian intellectuals), neglecting his artistic education (incompatible with purist definitions of outsider art) and minimizing the importance of his processes and subjects.[6]

One can hardly speak of a “critical reception” of this first exposition, which – with the exception of an important review in the widely-read journal Stern, in which the journalist Christian Krug presented eight “mentally ill” artists (five of whom had had their works displayed in the “From One World to Another” exhibition) under the title “The Art of the Mentally Ill: Images from a Cuckoo’s Nest” – seems to have had little impact. In the straight line of the exposition’s discourse, these artists, and Tichý in particular, were strange: under the title Einsam (“Loner”),[7] Tichý appeared in a two-page photograph taken by Hans-Jörg Anders; in it, he looked hairy, bearded, and dirty, and he was holding one of his homemade cameras; a miniscule reproduction of one of his photographs was relegated to a corner of one of the pages. Of the eight artists, Tichý (and Johann Hauser, depicted playing with a child’s doll) appeared to the most “bizarre,” and his photographs were the most neglected (the majority of the other artists had one of their works reproduced on a full-page). One preferred to display his tool instead of his photographs, thus putting the emphasis on the person instead of his work. The extent of the coverage (twenty pages, trips taken by the journalist and the photographer to the residences of each of the eight artists) showed the magazine’s interest in the subject, but this interest remained purely journalistic, simple reporting with a light perfume of voyeuristic oddness, without the least critical distance or even any analysis.

For the next fourteen years, despite Buxbaum’s efforts to make Tichý’s works known, nothing happened: neither an exposition nor an article in the press appeared. The introduction of Tichý into the heart of outsider art had failed; the myth had not taken. The seminal exhibition that first recognized photography as an integral part of outsider art, Create and Be Recognized,[8] held in San Francisco in 2004, didn’t include Tichý, even though an authority in matters of outsider art, Roger Cardinal – inspired by Buxbaum’s essay of 1989 in Kunstforum, which was his only source of information about Tichý – had mentioned him in his essay “Outsider Photography,”[9] which was part of the exhibition catalogue, and had (on page 16) even reproduced one of Tichý’s photographs. Significantly, Cardinal placed his emphasis on Tichý’s “illicit eroticism,” and kept the photographer in the field of myth, even in the field of magic, but outside the doors of the museum and the universe of contemporary art.

Between 1990 and 2004, Tichý’s works fell back into oblivion and were not recognized artistically. The emphasis placed on the constitutive parameters of the “outsider art” schema – a marginal existence, singular equipment and resistance to a repressive political context – was revealed to be inadequate. The minimization of his apprenticeship didn’t allow his inscription as an artist in the filiations of art history; the lack of attention to his methods dispossessed him of all conceptual interest; and the lack of emphasis on the subjects of his pictures deprived his work of much interest. His specificity as a pioneer of outsider photography wasn’t enough to generate sustained attention by the art world. He himself withdrew from it. Confronted with Tichý’s reluctance, the positioning of him on the field of outsider art had ended in an impasse. The impotence of this schema to create either critical or economic value was patent.

In the spring of 2004, Tobia Bezzola, curator at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, drew the attention of Harald Szeemann[10] (Bezzola had been Szeemann’s assistant between 1993 and 1995) to Miroslav Tichý’s photographs, which he had discovered by chance in the storehouse of the Judin Gallery, where Buxbaum had placed them. Szeemann decided to include Tichý among the sixty-two artists whose works would be shown at the Séville Biennale of 2004, thus bringing him into the ground floor of contemporary art. In both his short appearance in Buxbaum’s film and in the lines of his short introductory text in the Biennale’s exhibition catalogue, Szeemann puts emphasis on the complexity of Tichý’s methods, which were irreducible to the limited definitions of either naïve or outsider[11] art, on the importance of his methods and his transgression of the rules, and on his ambivalence concerning reality and illusion. This radical change in discourse found in the note on Tichý in the Séville exhibition catalogue, which was authored by Hans-Joachim Müller,[12] tells a story that is quite different than that of outsider art, given that it makes the subject matter – the female body, obsessively photographed[13] – the central element of the narrative, doesn’t minimize Tichý’s apprenticeship or his passage through the Beaux-Arts, and examines his creative processes, all the while recognizing the absolute impossibility of categorizing them.[14] This opening of the discourse liberated Tichý from reductive confinement in outsider art (both Szeemann and Müller use the term “naïve”) and made possible an opening for critical discourse about his works, which were henceforth regarded as entirely unique works of art, with their shadowy zones, creative mysteries and genius.

The best example of this opening up of the discourse about Tichý is the text that Marta Gili, then the head of the photography department at Caixa, wrote after having seen his photographs at the Judin Gallery’s booth at the ARCO fairgrounds in Madrid in February 2005. Titled “To Love, No More, No Less,” her text put the emphasis on the relationship between the artist and his models, on the tensions “between desire and its representation, between love and its frustration, and, finally, between life and death,” and on “the representation of desire as a means to lighten the suffering that it provokes.” Thus she privileged the sensitivity of his glance in his methods, rather than the narrative of his marginality. She was the one who in July 2005 proposed that Tichý win the Arles Discovery Prize for Photographic Encounters, which he (then 78 years old) did in fact win, thanks to the votes of the professionals associated with the jury.

Following two exhibitions of Tichý’s works in photography galleries in New York and Berlin in the spring of 2005, several articles appeared in the press (Stern, Die Zeit, The New York Times, and The New Yorker) and several blogs. Adam Soboczynski’s article in Die Zeit was particularly indicative of the change that was taking place: he told the story of the visit to Tichý’s place by the Berlin-based gallery owner Mathias Arndt, made under the auspices of Buxbaum, who furnished explanations and a narrative; but Tichý withdrew, not without some ambiguity. With respect to the exhibition and sale of his photographs, Ich habe die nicht freigegeben. Roman hat mir die Bilder abgenommen. Ich habe damit nichts zu tun. (“I did not give my approval. Roman simply took them. I had nothing to do with it.”)

In fact, Roman Buxbaum, through the Tichý Oceàn Foundation,[15] which he had set up in Lichtenstein, was in possession of the vast majority of Tichý’s photographs and pieces of equipment, and, with great energy, successfully took on the promotion and commercialization of his works. Exhibitions were organized, all or almost all of them under his auspices and with his participation, and Tichý’s popularity grew. With these ends in mind, Buxbaum worked to normalize the discourse about Tichý, and, after 2005, made his discourse about Tichý the dominant one, even if other, divergent discourses were quietly emerging.

2. The Formatted Discourse: The Mythical “Beautiful Story” of Miroslav Tichý

In the first museum catalogue devoted to Tichý, published on the occasion of an exhibition of his photographs at the Kunsthaus Zurich, the most important text (18.5 pages long, published in German) was written by Roman Buxbaum and titled Miroslav Tichý, Tarzan in Pension (“Miroslav Tichý, Tarzan in Retirement”). Amended and revised versions of this text would later appear in almost all of the catalogues published on the occasion of exhibitions of Tichý’s photographs: at the Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo in 2007 (26 pages in English and 24 pages in Japanese); at the Beijing Art Now[16] Gallery in Beijing and then in Shanghai in 2007 and 2008 (12 pages in Chinese and 16 pages in English); at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2008 (9 pages in French); at the International Center of Photography[17] (ICP) in New York in 2010 (8 pages in English); and at the Moscow House of Photography in Moscow in 2012 (22 pages in Russian). This text also appeared in several books about Tichý: the one published by the Torst publishing house in Prague in 2006 (17 pages in English, 14 pages in Czech); the one published by the Walther König publishing house in Cologne in 2008 (26 pages in English); and, of course, in the one published by the Tichý Oceàn Foundation in 2006, in which it was almost the only essay (17 pages in English).

To demonstrate the omnipresence of this discourse: a quick count shows that, in the ten essential publications (the nine already mentioned, plus the book by Sanguinetti, to which I will return), Buxbaum’s text represents 55 percent of the critical remarks, 210 pages out of a total of 378 (not including biographies, bibliographies, title pages, tables of content, colophons, etc.). Except for the catalogues published by the two most important institutions (the Pompidou Centre and the ICP, in which its “weight” is the lightest: 29 and 25 percent of the total, respectively), Buxbaum’s text is always the longest of the essays, sometimes by far (almost 90 percent of the Chinese and Japanese catalogues). I believe that this is a unique example of the discourse on an artist being dominated by a single author.

If one extends the analysis to all of the books devoted to Tichý (not counting group shows), Buxbaum’s text represents 45 percent of the entirety (215 pages out of a total of 472). In fact, a shorter text by Buxbaum – two pages long in English and German, and three pages long in English and Czech – also appears in the catalogues for Artists for Tichý – Tichý for Artists,[18] exhibited in Passau, Germany, and Brno, the Czech Republic, respectively, in 2006.

The only catalogues in which Buxbaum’s text does not appear were either small volumes (published on the occasion of exhibitions at Magasin 3 Museet in Stockholm in 2008, the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin in 2008, and the Gallery Pascal Polar in Brussels in 2012) or catalogues published on the occasion of group shows (at the Fotomuseum in The Hague in 2010-2011 and the Artibus Foundation in Ekenäs, Finland, in 2006). And of course it didn’t appear in the catalogue for the exhibition by Gianfranco Sanguinetti in Prague in 2010-2011, to which we will return.[19]

How should we interpret the omnipresence of Buxbaum’s discourse in publications about Tichý? First of all, it indicates the extensive promotion of Tichý’s works that Roman Buxbaum has undertaken. For all the curators, he is the holder of these works, an obligatory point of passage, and it seems difficult to them to mount an exhibition that doesn’t have the support of the Tichý Oceàn Foundation (and yet that was precisely what the MMK in Frankfurt, Pavel Vančát in Brno, Kyjov and Krakow, and Sanguinetti in Prague managed to do). One could almost say that dealing with Buxbaum provides the curators with an everything-included “package”[20] that is intended to facilitate their work: Tichý’s photographs and camera equipment, on loan from the Foundation, as well as Buxbaum’s text (and the film that he made). But this omnipresence also and especially indicates the need for a “beautiful story” that allows the visitor and reader to gain access to Tichý’s works, which are supposed to be uninteresting or incomprehensible without this narrative mediation.[21] In it one finds all the incantatory ingredients by which to construct a fascinating mythology: suffering and repression under Communism; the marginality of the anti-hero; and the proximity to mental illness. And this “beautiful story” has often played a seductive, if not an anesthetizing role: everyone or almost everyone – even the author of these lines – has let himself be taken in by it, hardly questioning the tableau painted by Buxbaum because it seems so clear, coherent and attractive; everyone or almost everyone has at first taken it as a revealed truth; everyone or almost everyone has succumbed to how easy it is. Certainly each person has kept in mind that Buxbaum’s discourse also has an important legitimizing and self-justifying function that gives the best role to the discoverer; to the benevolent promoter of the man’s works; to the one who has been very close to the photographer ever since Tichý taught little Roman, the nephew of his best friend, to take a photograph using a pinhole camera; to the one who took care of Tichý in his old age and helped him financially. At the same time, the facts that Tichý didn’t want to speak or show himself, nor to exhibit or sell his works, seems to construct a counter-myth that allows him to remain, indifferently negligent, at the margins of his success, just as he had been at the margins of the Communist system. As a result, in the vacuum that was thus created, no one had the information, knowledge or facts (or not enough of them) to dare to doubt or question the “beautiful story.” It was a very coherent and skillfully orchestrated construction.

It is certain that an attentive and polyglot reader could compare the nine different versions of Buxbaum’s text and see within them an evolution towards more [self-] legitimatization, as well as several internal contradictions. For example: the episode of Tichý’s imprisonment, which is mentioned in the film (2004) and the Zurich version of the text (2005), subsequently disappears, no doubt as because reports about it were too unreliable. On the other hand, Tichý’s refusal to be considered as an outsider-artist (thus undermining the approach proposed in 1989-1990) only appears after the book published by Walther König (end of 2008) and does so with a reference[22] to “Files from the psychiatrist clinic in Opava,”[23] even though these same files, cited by the Pompidou catalogue several months earlier, appeared to say nothing about this subject. But lacking other sources, one could hardly go deeper and engage in serious historical research (which can be partially done today due to the testimonies collected for the current exposition and presented in its catalogue). Moreover, Buxbaum took great care to disarm possible criticisms by specifying that he wasn’t writing “an academic overview of his works” because he didn’t have “the required objectivity” and was “quite incapable of it”; he was only writing a “subjective history.”

This “subjective history” also allowed Buxbaum to explain why Tichý refused to participate in exhibitions of his works and receive [visits from] representatives from the world of art,[24] and why Buxbaum himself was the only possible intermediary, which was something that he, in response to criticisms, explained at great length in a pro domo[25] declaration made in the next-to-last version of his text, which was published in the ICP catalogue.

If we now examine the other writings about Tichý, whether they are catalogue essays or articles in the press, we can distinguish several types of reactions: texts that are inspired by the “beautiful story” and expanded upon it; texts that returned Tichý to the perspective of the art history and contextualized his works, without being too preoccupied with that story; and infrequent texts, which became more numerous after 2010, that put that story into question and did real research into and offered independent reflection upon Tichý’s work. (We will return to the last of the three types in the third part of this essay.)

The first type principally includes Anglo-Saxon critics and curators[26] (I do not understand the reason for this correlation): Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s essay “The Artist with the Bad Camera” (reprinted four times: in the book published by Walther König, the ICP catalogue, the Pascal Polar catalogue, which translated it into French, and the MAM catalogue, which translated it into Russian) applies her own aesthetic and critical interpretive lens [grille de lecture] on the basis of the formatted narrative. Brian Wallis does the same in the ICP catalogue by putting the emphasis on “the mysteries of everyday life” and adopting all the points of view suggested by Buxbaum’s text (and thus including several inaccuracies). Tessa Praum (Magasin 3) hardly distinguishes herself by comparing Tichý to Julia Margaret Cameron,[27] nor does Yonit Aramowitz (The Hague Fotomuseum) when she questions the relationship of Tichý (and Gerard Fieret and Anton Heyboer)[28] to women. One could have a similar reading of more poetical essays, such as the one written by the artist Richard Prince and published in the ICP catalogue or my own semi-fictional address to Tichý, which was published in the Pompidou Centre’s catalogue. All of these texts, which are of varying quality and interest, easily subscribe to the mythology of Tichý created by Buxbaum: in the case of Gisela Steinlechner, they go as far as canonizing it.[29]

Many of the texts about Tichý, which in general come from art historians and curators rather than critics, attempt to inscribe his work in history by constructing a cultural legitimacy for him, instead of being principally preoccupied with his personal history. It was Tobia Bezzola who, in Zurich, first compared Tichý’s works with those of the great painters of nudes (his essay was titled Der Meister der weiblichen Halbfigur[30]) and, as he says, he was the first to demonstrate that this “perverse bum” [Tichý] was in fact a great artist. Then there were the two curators at the Pompidou Centre who did real historians’ work: Clément Chéroux situated Tichý within the amateur aesthetic, alongside Sigmar Polke, Diane Arbus and foto povera.[31] Quentin Bajac analyzed the critical reception of Tichý up to 2008, and compared it to the reception of Atget and Lartigue, placing his emphasis (in an original way) on Tichý’s proximity to surrealism (territories of surprise, spectral eroticism, automatisms, revelation of a world to be discovered) and his relationship with protest or, rather, marginal art in Eastern Europe. Using the works of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Georg Simmel, Fatima Naqvi eloquently developed a more philosophical conception of the amateur. In the book published by Torst, Pavel Vančát had already begun to question the dominant discourse (“Upon closer inspection Tichý is not what he might appear to be at first sight”[32]), to be interested in Tichý’s pictorial works, to study his circle of friends, and to define it [Tichý’s oeuvre] as “conceptual lyric.” Clint Burnham (published by Walther König) linked Tichý to the Beatnik[33] movement (to William S. Burroughs, in particular) and pictorialism. I might also mention here two of my own texts: one about the invention of the artist that appeared in the journal Études Photographiques,[34] in which I try to analyze in a critical way the manner in which Tichý has been presented to the art world, first in the framework of outsider art, then within contemporary art; and one about the inscription of Tichý in the line of the flâneurs, drifting and vagabondage (this essay first appeared in English in the book published by Walther König and then, slightly revised, in French in the catalogue published by Pascal Polar). I might also mention the text on Tichý’s “samurai” filiations that was also published by Pascal Polar and the essay by Ianthe Bato and Myrte Langevoord (published by the Fotomuseum in The Hague) that definitively differentiated Tichý from outsider art, as well as from Fieret and Heyboer. Finally, the text by Shunji Itô, published in the Japanese catalogue (it has never been translated into English because Buxbaum found it “shocking”), attempted a psychoanalytic approach to Tichý’s desire and sexuality. The essays in this second group, which, in general, are more solidly written than those in the first one, constitute a foundation for the study of Tichý. (It should be noted that, except for my EHESS dissertation,[35] it seems that there has been very little properly scholarly work on the subject.[36]) If these essays have only been moderately inspired by Buxbaum’s discourse and have neglected it in their analyses, they have, nevertheless, tacitly accepted his mythology, which they only question in a very marginal way. Their principal objective is to place Tichý on equal footing with the artists to whom they compare him, to make him an artist “like the others,” a peer [un pair] and not a marginal.

If we consult the press and the blogs, we essentially find informative articles about Tichý; even the majority of those who make critical judgments based themselves on the standard narrative discourse. Of course, this is the case with Buxbaum’s article in Modern Painters[37]; with my blogged article (I too was captivated by his “beautiful story”) that reviewed the exhibitions in Zurich[38] and at the Pompidou Centre[39]; with the majority of the articles in the international press, among which there were (among others) Barry Schwabsky in Artforum, Andrea Rizzi in El Pais, Tsuzuki Kyoichi in ARTiT, Joanna Pitman in The Times, Brigitte Ollier in Libération, Geoff Dyer in The Guardian, and Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. (One could easily double or triple the entries in this list of references to Tichý.)

Nevertheless, starting from 2006, certain bloggers begin to express doubts about Buxbaum’s formatted discourse and even about Tichý’s very existence. Between 17 May[40] and 24 June 2006,[41] Sarah Wichlacz was perhaps the first to question the veracity of this discourse in response to a commentary by Brian Tjepkema,[42] a young, marginal, Canadian artist who had known Tichý well and presented himself as his disciple, thus allowing a different discourse about the photographer to emerge. The blogger Barnaby Bretton relayed these very questions in an article published on 27 June 2006,[43] which elicited a commentary from Tjepkema[44] that asked Bretton to consider Tichý as an artist and not as a marginal or a voyeur, and that questioned certain “historical” elements, such as the eight years he supposedly spent in prison. In an even more radical fashion, Glenn Ruga, in an article titled “Tichý: The Unabomber of Photography”[45] and published on the website of the 2010 New York Photo Festival[46] on 3 April 2010, questioned the creation of Tichý as an artist, alleged that he was the pure mythical construction of the curators of the International Center of Photography, and declared that he was neither a genius, an artist nor a great photographer.

As for the reality of Tichý’s very existence, and the possibility that Buxbaum had fraudulently invented a “false” artist, some have had their suspicions. According to Pavel Vančát, this was the case following the Zurich exhibition of 2005. Subsequently, the very serious Stuart Alexander, Vice-President of the Photography Department at Christie’s in New York, posted the following comment[47] to the blog called 5b4 on 28 July 2007: “Tichý’s work is so good, so unlikely, and so much controlled by Buxbaum that I sometimes have wondered whether or not his entire photographic oeuvre might not be an ‘invention’ of Buxbaum.”[48] The hypothesis of a hoax was also raised by a broadcast from Paris on Radio Libertaire on 12 July 2008 and repeated on the blog of one of the participants in the broadcast, Philippe Jalabert.[49] This possibility had also crossed the minds of some curators (for example, Quentin Bajac, who, confronted with the omnipresence of Buxbaum and the invisibility of Tichý, admits that he posed the question of a possible fraud during preparations for the exhibition at the Pompidou Centre) and artists familiar with such practices, such as Joan Fontcuberta. If no one questions Tichý’s existence any more, these reactions were symptomatic of a certain emancipation of the discourse with respect to the formatting that had been imposed during the years in which Tichý was being discovered.

3. The Liberated Discourse: A Multi-Faceted Truth

No doubt the first thing that disturbed the beautiful, mythological schema constructed by Buxbaum was Worldstar,[50] the film by the German-Czech director, Nataša von Kopp, released in 2006. This director had spent a great deal of time with Tichý, who had taken her into his confidence. Her film is, above all, the portrait of a poetic and creative old man who is confronted with the intrusion of a world that he doesn’t want. Unlike Buxbaum’s film, hers is a friendly and tender treatment, and not an attempt to construct a myth. Several times, Tichý firmly declares that he doesn’t want any exhibitions of his works.[51] The idyllic story of the benevolent discoverer and his protégé cracks open when Tichý denies that he gave his photographs to Buxbaum. “From where does he [Mathias Arndt] get the photos?” Tichý asks. “Those that you gave to me,” Buxbaum replies. “I gave nothing to you,” Tichý retorts. And then, at the end, Tichý declares, “I am happy that Roman’s not coming anymore.”[52]

In fact, the relationship between the two men has irremediably deteriorated. Buxbaum and his collaborators became persona non grata to Tichý, who designated his neighbor, Jana Hebnarová as his agent and universal legatee. (She had taken care of him for years before that.) A polemic began concerning the owner of the copyright[53] to the photographs and the legitimacy of speaking in Tichý’s name. Before becoming a matter for the courts, this polemic was conducted on the websites[54] of the two parties in front of the entire world. While Tichý had been withdrawn his entire life, clearly expressing himself but not wanting to become involved in legal action, the conflict seems to have worsened since his death on 12 April 2011.

Beyond these quite sickening incidents concerning Tichý, a different discourse began to emerge, one less dependent on the [personal] history of the artist (a marginal, persecuted, and then suddenly discovered), one less mythological and more analytical and distant. I myself[55] made a small contribution by analyzing the invention of [the mythology surrounding] Tichý, the objective criteria for his discovery, and the withdraw of the artist when he was faced with “success.” In the same way, the Czech curator Pavel Vančát – who organized an exhibition in Krakow that set Tichý’s photographs within the pictorial context of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s – completed background work on his works, his influences and his anchoring in the history of art. One could also mention here the long article in The Nation by Jana Prikryl,[56] written on the occasion of the exhibition at the International Center of Photography. In it, the author denounces the simplification of the discourse about Tichý.

Several authors had already broken away from the dominant discourse to propose a more independent vision, one that was less dependent on the personal history of Tichý. This was the case with authors who were also artists (as one could no doubt expect), such as the photographer David Bailey, the painter Jérémy Liron,[57] and the writer Vincent Gille,[58] each of whom have expressed a very personal and delicate vision of Tichý’s works without being too preoccupied with the narration of his history. There have always been a very few articles that, without necessarily challenging “the beautiful story,” have done true critical work on the subject of Tichý’s photographs. Here one might cite Clint Burham’s article in Camera Austria, which places Tichý in the landscape of contemporary photography; the blogger Olivier Beuvelet,[59] who links Tichý to Cézanne and Impressionism; and R. Wayne Parsons,[60] who, in the pages of The New York Photo Review, asked if one should “do a Faulkner,”[61] that is to say, if one should get rid of the prejudices generated by this “beautiful history” and only be interested in Tichý’s works.

This growing autonomy of the discourse in the face of the myth of the “beautiful story” finally manifested itself in a resounding way with the exhibition in Prague organized by Gianfranco Sanguinetti at the end of 2010. Its catalogue was the first work on the subject to adopt a literary and empathetic approach to Tichý and his works. Sanguinetti’s text, “Forms of Truth,”[62] returned – six years later – to the inspired emphases of Hans-Joachim Müller and Marta Gili. Initially written as a personal address to Tichý, it unfolded over 15 pages in 19 paragraphs, each one ending in an instance of incantatory litany: “In this lies is the strength of Tichý’s work”; “In this lies the beauty of Tichý’s work”; “In this lies the universality of Tichý’s work”; then the rigor, the defiant challenge, the revolution of the aura, the eloquence . . . [63] One of the most eloquent paragraphs was, no doubt, the fifteenth, which, concluding with the phrase “This is why Tichý’s art is best appreciated by the person who is not a professional critic,” reproached critics for being too frequently “depilated or deodorized,” which is not what Tichý’s women are, just as his photographs are, in Sanguinetti’s words, “musty-smelling.”[64] This vigorous and inspired text spoke of pleasure and freedom, of the poetry of evasion and scandal, and concluded with these words: “Tichý’s art is so awkward to get a grip on and understand that today people prefer to carefully sidestep the issue and talk about ‘the Tichý phenomenon’ rather than about Tichý’s art. This is what I absolutely wanted to avoid doing. The all-prevailing spectacle of today is only in its element among phenomena because its can manipulate them, produce them and harvest them at will. Having come to know and like Miroslav Tichý well, with this text I simply want to repay the debt of acquaintance towards the man and his art.”[65] It was precisely this situationist[66] refusal of the phenomenalization of Tichý[67] that founded the new critical dimension of this essential text. Another critical approach that is worthy of interest and just as anti-mythological was Gilles Rouffineau's contribution to the collection of essays entitled Minor Photography: Connecting Deleuze and Guattari to Photography Theory.[68] Rouffineau established a parallel between the “minor” photography of Tichý and the “minor” literature of Kafka, which Deleuze and Guattari have analyzed[69]: a deterritorialization followed by an insistent and repeated reterritorialization (in Tichý’s case, his return to Kyjov and his appropriation of the place); a position of passive resistance to the political universe (Tichý’s dimension as Socialist anti-hero); the collective dimension of the project (in Tichý’s case, beyond his apparent solitude, his integration into networks of solidarity and his expression of the collective desire that underlies a lazy hedonism liberated from Communist austerity).[70] For Rouffineau, Tichý’s precariousness at the threshold of disappearance, his radical, “minor” position (in the Deleuzean-Guattarian meaning of the word), and the simplistic poverty of his means led him to a “becoming-intense” (as this is defined in their book Mille Plateaux), to the status of a “maverick,”[71] an independent [franc-tireur], which Tichý seems to have consciously assumed with a distance tinted with caustic humor.

The shared point of these recent works is that they approach Tichý’s works in an independent, distanced and rigorous way, without the obligatory passage through the mythical phenomenon narrated by Buxbaum in all of his previous works. For them, it is not a matter of denying the specificity of Tichý’s history in a postmodern logic; rather, it is a matter of relativizing it and not making it the unique means of access to his works, however seductive that might be. If other authors have already more or less distanced themselves from what I have described as the dominant discourse, today the critic can free himself from it and finally begin to build a solid critical edifice, to which the present work attempts to contribute.

XXX

In conclusion, it appears clear that there cannot be a single discourse about Tichý. In the same way that he defied the canons of the photographic image, he also – through his withdrawal – defied the canons of the critics. Not expressing himself about his works, he left free reign to the most diverse interpretations. Passively rebelling against the stranglehold on his works (as he had previously distanced himself from Communist power), he prevented – through his discreet but tenacious presence – the emergence of a dominant, mythological discourse about his works. Perhaps it is unavoidable that, in the case of silent artists, their “discoverer” tries to monopolize the discourse about them. In particular, this is often the case when it comes to outsider art, where the presumed weakness of the artist never seems capable of counter-balancing the dominant discourse of the psychiatrist or the curator. But, in the end, such attempts at domination can only be doomed to failure, faced with the possible expansion of the discourse, the emergence of contradictory biographical information, and the wealth of analyses and studies. This is precisely what has happened with Miroslav Tichý.

 

[1] Translator: the title of the exhibition is Die Stadt der Frauen, an allusion to La città delle donne (“The City of Women”), the title of a film by Fellini.

[2] Mirek is a familiar and childish diminutive of Miroslav. It was especially used in the texts that presented Tichý as an outsider-artist (Buxbaum sometimes used it, as well). On the other hand, in the texts that place Tichý within contemporary art, he has always been designated by his “adult” first name: Miroslav.

[3] In addition to Buxbaum, there was Hansgeorg Ließern (from the Art and Psychiatry Society), Johannes Meyer-Lindenberg (President of the German Society for Psychiatry and Neurology), and Manfred in der Beek. The other two curators were the Zurich-based gallery owner Pablo Stähli and the art critic Klaus Honnef.

[4] Translator: English in original.

[5] It doesn’t seem that Buxbaum had ever cared for Tichý in a professional capacity, and it is doubtful that Tichý ever accepted such care. Nevertheless, in his next-to-last text, Buxbaum presented himself (for the first time) as Tichý’s psychiatrist: “As his psychiatrist, friend and biographer . . .” (Catalogue published by the International Center of Photography, note 29, page 316). [Translator: the quote from Buxbaum was English in original.]

[6] For more on this subject, see my dissertation, “Invention et retrait de l’artiste. L’exemple du photographe tchèque Miroslav Tichý,” published by Culture Visuelle on 8 March 2010.

[7] Each of the artists were given a simplistic keyword that was supposed to characterize them: Manish, Göttlich, Arm, Blöd, Isoliert, Teuer and Nervös. [Translator: Manic, Godlike, Poor, Dumb, Isolated, Costly and Nervous.]

[8] Translator: English in original.

[9] Translator: English in original.

[10] Always interested in marginality, Harald Szeemann had written an essay titled und siegt der Wahn, so muß die Kunst: Mehr inhalieren for the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition in Cologne in 1990 (pp. 68-73). In it, he didn’t mention any of the artists whose works were shown, and it isn’t certain that he had even seen the exhibition. Nevertheless, in the film made by Buxbaum in the summer of 2004, he declared, “I was fascinated right from the start, but I awaited a good exhibition.” One can suppose that, if he had known about Tichý’s work before then, Szeemann would have displayed it earlier, for example, at the Lyon Biennale of 1997 (“The Other”) or the Venice Biennale of 2001 (“The Plateau of Humanity”), at which his works would have held their own next to those of Eugene von Bruenchenhein and Arnold Odermatt.

[11] Translator: English in original.

[12] This unsigned note (p. 260 of the exhibition catalogue) was reproduced several times, and attributed to Harald Szeemann, in the books that were published under the auspices of the Tichý Oceàn Foundation – the Japanese and Chinese catalogues, the books published by Walther König and the Foundation itself – but not in the more independent catalogues published, for example, by the Kunsthaus Zurich, the Pompidou Centre and the International Center of Photography. If it seems obvious that Szeemann approved this text, he was, nevertheless, not its author. Identified by the colophon of the Séville catalogue, the author was the critic Hans-Joachim Müller. This information, which was furnished to me by Tobia Bezzola in an interview conducted on 17 October 2008, was confirmed by Müller in his book Harald Szeemann Exhibition Maker, Ostfildern-Ruit (Germany), Hatje Cantz, 2006, pp. 150 and 153.

[13] “. . . one of the strangest and most moving contributions to the artistic depiction of bathers, the sublimation of desire in the history of Western art.”

[14] “. . . a space for which we have no categories of explanation, comprehension or even description.”

[15] In Czech, “Tichý” means “silent” or “peaceful,” from which comes the play on words [Pacific Ocean] in the Foundation’s name.

[16] Translator: English in original.

[17] Translator: English in original.

[18] Translator: English in original.

[19] Let us note that the catalogue published by the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt on the occasion of its exhibition (8 March to 3 August 2008) was supposed to include essays by Andreas Bee and Udo Kittelmann (and not Buxbaum’s text), but, for reasons that have never been explained, these texts did not in fact appear in it.

[20] Translator: English in original.

[21] One could enlarge this critique with the writing of an “enacted biography” described by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in Die legende vom künstler; ein geschichtlicher versuch, their magisterial study of the heroification of the artist as a magician. [Translator: first published in 1934, this book has been translated into French as La Légende de l’Artiste, Un Essai Historique, which is how it is cited in this text, and into English as Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment.]

[22] Here one could, incidentally, pose the question of respect for medical secrets, since Tichý was still alive when these texts were published.

[23] Translator: English in original.

[24] To my knowledge, the only curator who demanded to meet Tichý and get his agreement on an exhibition was Tobia Bezzola, to whom, in 2004, Tichý responded “Do it if you want, it is ridiculous. I want nothing to do with it.” Markus Landert, director of the Cantonal Museum of Thurgovia, met Tichý on 16-17 August 2003, but decided against mounting an exhibition. Unless I am mistaken, before [the exhibitions mounted by] Pavel Vančát and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, all of the other curators were content to put their trust in Buxbaum.

[25] Translator: Latin for “self-serving.”

[26] Translator: English in original.

[27] Translator: A British photographer (1815-1879) who photographed celebrities.

[28] Translator: two Dutch painters who, like Tichý, were born in the mid-1920s.

[29] Cf. “Der Mann Mit Der Kamera,” published in Fotogeschichte #119, 2011.

[30] Translator: German for “The Master of the Female Half-Lengths,” which was the name given to an anonymous Dutch painter (or group of painters) active between 1525 and 1555.

[31] Translator: a collective founded in 2005 by Yannick Vigouroux, who uses toy cameras. In Italian, foto povera means “poor photo.”

[32] Translator: English in original.

[33] Translator: English in original.

[34] “L’invention de Miroslav Tichý,” Études Photographiques #23, May 2009.

[35] Invention et retrait de l’artiste. L’exemple du photographe tchèque Miroslav Tichý, written while at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales [EHESS] and published by the Culture Visuelle blog on 8 March 2010.

[36] There was a dissertation written about Tichý in Czech by Barbora Chytilová in 2010.

[37] Translator: Roman Buxbaum, “The Shock of the Old,” Modern Painters (July/August 2005).

[38] Miroslav Tichy (15 August 2005).

[39] Miroslav Tichy à Pompidou (25 June 2008).

[40] Miroslav Tichý (17 May 2006).

[41] Miroslav Tichý (Painter and Photographer) Revisited (24 June 2006).

[42] Miroslav Tichý (no date).

[43] Miroslav Tichý (27 June 2006).

[44] Miroslav Tichý (26 June 2006). [Translator: scroll down to read it.]

[45] Translator: English in original.

[46] Translator: English in original.

[47] Stuart Alexander said... (28 July 2007)

[48] Translator: English in original.

[49] Miroslav Tichý: Une fabrication? (17 July 2008).

[50] A film about an old man with no needs and a remarkable past, facing the hype as an artist against his will.

[51] In particular, he says to the Berlin-based gallery owner Mathias Arndt, “I’ll make no exhibitions. Nowhere. Do you understand?” and “I don’t want an exhibition with my pictures in Kyjov.” When Buxbaum says to him, with respect to the exhibition in Zurich, “And that was your first exhibition,” Tichý replies, “That was your exhibition!” [Translator: all quotes were in English in the original.]

[52] Translator: all quotes were in English in the original.

[53] Translator: English in original.

[54] Buxbaum’s Tichý Oceàn Foundation and Hebnarová’s Miroslav Tichý: Photographer.

[55] Wanting to meet Tichý for my research and having asked Buxbaum, in vain, for access to him for more than a year (he had told me that this was impossible because Tichý had become senile and didn’t see anyone), I finally was able to spend three hours with him on 17 and 19 April 2009. My commentary on these meetings, dated 2 May 2009 and posted to the Jana Hebnarová’s website, was as follows:

“Writing an article about the invention of Miroslav Tichý, i.e. his discovery by the art world (published in Issue 23 of the scholarly review Etudes Photographiques), I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet Mr. Tichý on April 17 and 19, 2009. Having been told earlier that he was too old, often drunk, and senile, and that he would be unable to sustain a conversation and unwilling to meet anyone, I was happily surprised to be welcomed by him and to be able to spend a total of three hours with him. My visit to Kyjov was thus very fruitful and pleasant, and it allowed me to bring perspective to my research work. On learning that I was French, Mr. Tichý welcomed me with the Roxane love poem from Cyrano de Bergerac, which he knew by heart. He demonstrated during our discussions wide cultural interests and a solid knowledge of European literature, especially poetry, which he is fond of reciting. We talked in French and in German, a bit in English, and, when he was tired or unable to express his thoughts in a foreign language, he went back to Czech, which was translated into English for me. Mr. Tichy appeared to me not only of a sound mind, but as a very bright, cultured and articulate person, with a strong sense of humour. While his physical health is that of an 82-year old man (he has difficulties walking because of osteoarthritis in the knees), there is no doubt that his mental health is excellent, even if, not surprisingly at his age, he easily gets tired. Although he was a bit reluctant to enter into much of a discussion with me about his creative process and his photographic work, he was more than willing to tell me many anecdotes from his past and to narrate parts of his life story, such as his studies at the Fine Art Academy, his military service or his stay at the ‘madhouse’ (as he called the psychiatric asylum where he spent some time). About some subjects, he was very vocal, and was particularly angry with Dr. Roman Buxbaum (who has been the discoverer of Tichý’s work and its promoter for more than twenty years), saying that he has refused to see Dr. Buxbaum for several years now and that he is taking legal action against him (Mrs. Hebnarová, who has known Mr. Tichý since she was a child living in the house next door and has always been close to him, is not only his devoted caretaker, but also his sponsor and his agent, defending his interests in court). The versions of some facts given by Dr. Buxbaum on one hand, and by Mr Tichý and Mrs Hebnarová on the other hand, conflict in several respects, and I am neither able, nor empowered to tell right from wrong. What I can say is that Mr. Tichý appeared to me during this visit as very articulate and clear in his mind, neither senile nor abused or under influence, and as well taken care of by Mrs. Hebnarová and her family.” [Translator: English in original.]

[56] Extravagant Disorder, The Nation, 3 May 2010.

[57] Miroslav Tichý (9 July 2008).

[58] Corps de dame: Les yeux du désir: Les Photographies de Miroslav Tichý.

[59] Tichy, taches, toucher. . . (22 September 2008).

[60] Miroslav Tichy, New York Photo Review, 17-23 March 2010.

[61] Translator: “William Faulkner was of the opinion that the personality and presence of the artist should fade away to nothingness, leaving only his work to speak for itself. Faulkner’s perspective is invaluable in evaluating the exhibition of photographs of Miroslav Tichy now on view at ICP […] So, what remains when we do a Faulkner on this exhibition and strip away the personality quirks, personal tragedies, mythic elements of the artist-hero, political complications, etc.? There is a good handful of superb images.”

[62] Translator: Miroslav Tichý: Forms of Truth (Kant, 2011). A bilingual edition (French and English); French to English translation by Richard Drury. See as well my review of this book: Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s Miroslav Tichý: Forms of Truth (9 October 2012).

[63] Translator: For the purposes of concordance, here I have called upon Richard Drury’s translations of Sanguinetti’s French into English, instead of translating these phrases on my own.

[64] Translator: this is Richard Drury’s translation of Sanguinetti’s French into English.

[65] Translator: Richard Drury’s translation of Sanguinetti’s French into English. To evaluate its quality, I hereby provide the original French, and then my rendering of it. Enfin l’art de Tichý est si incommode à assumer et à comprendre, qu’aujourd’hui on préfère prudemment glisser sur le sujet et parler de ce qu’on appelle déjà ‘le phénomène-Tichý’, plutôt que de son art. Voilà exactement ce que je ne voulais pas faire. Le spectacle dominant est à son aise seulement parmi les phénomènes, car il peut les manipuler, les produire et les récupérer à son aise. “Finally, Tichý’s art is so inconvenient to accept and understand that, today, one prudently prefers to pass over the subject quickly and speak of what one already calls ‘the Tichý phenomenon,’ rather than of his art. That is exactly what I do not want to do. The dominant spectacle is only at its ease among phenomena, because it can manipulate them, produce them, and recuperate them at its ease.”

[66] Translator: Gianfranco Sanguinetti was a member of the Situationist International, a grouping of revolutionaries that existed in Europe and America between 1957 and 1972.

[67] Translator: for Sanguinetti’s situationist refusal of the phenomenalization of Guy Debord, one of the founders and perhaps the best-known member of the Situationist International, see his letter to Mustapha Khayati dated 10 December 2012.

[68] Translator: English in original. Edited by Mieke Bleyen, this book was published by Leuven University Press on 19 October 2012.

[69] Translator: Kafka: Pour une litterature mineure (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1975), translated into English by Dana Polan as Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

[70] Translator: hopefully the reader will forgive me for this “editorial” remark, but it is patent that Rouffineau’s critique (such as it has been summarized here) is not an attempt to confront Tichý’s art, but a regression to the obsessions with Tichý’s personal life, only this time they are dressed up in a “post-modern” vocabulary, which, unlike Buxbaum’s mythology, is neither clear, coherent nor easy to understand.

[71] Translator English in original.

(Written by Marc Lenot and published in three installments by Le Monde between 25 and 27 February 2013. Translated from the French and, where necessary, the German by NOT BORED! on 1 March 2013).

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