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A Miroslav Tichy original

I like reading about people like this- the life of "losers" behind the Iron Curtain. The latest one I came across is photographer (anti-photographer?) Miroslav Tichý, who lived in the Czech Republic during the communist period.
I often wonder what his life would have been like if the Communists had not taken power. Would Tichý have remained at the Academy or would he have left for Paris? Would he then have ever discovered photography? We shall never know. But, as Harald Szeemann said when he first looked through Tichý’s originals, “Intensity will always find its medium.” - Roman Buxbaum, on his friend Miroslav

Tichy was harassed, sent to state psychiatry clinics and probably subjected to electro-shock therapy, like Limonov in Russia at around the same time. Tichy wasn't executed or sent to a camp, but policemen watched him (and arrested and beat him on one occasion), and he was subjected to a trial where they attempted to convict him of poor hygiene (he got off), and he was tossed out of his attic studio (after it was nationalized...) and forced to live on a meager pension.

One detail accounts of Tichy's life always gloss over is that little pension. The fact that someone was able to not work for fifty years, and was still given chances to participate in the official art world, and rebuffed them at every opportunity, and was hated by the state, but went on creating idiosyncratic art he didn't show to anyone, is all because of that pension. If the Communists hadn't taken over in 1948 there would have been no Tichy to speculate over. He would have had a career in the gutter or in a dead end job. He would have had no education, and no support. In the article above, there is a breathless account of Tichy being rounded up on May Day and driven to a clinic to spend time out of the public eye so he wouldn't disrupt the proceedings. In other words, for one day, he's treated like the homeless or the poor are treated every day in a city like L.A. or Sao Paulo: cleaned out of sight, if they don't resist, and if they're lucky. It's also worth noting that in order to put him on trial the authorities had to try to trump up charges based on his hygiene- and not on the fact that he was behind on his rent, or scamming benefits, or a vagrant. Because most of the traditional legal clubs with which outsiders and the poor are traditionally beaten in capitalist countries didn't exist, because the structure of society was different in a real way.

Of course it's not defensible to harass outsiders or the poor in Moravia or Los Angeles. Tichy should have been left alone. And political control over the arts should have been relaxed, and real democracy should have been allowed to flourish in Eastern Europe. That didn't happen for various reasons, and now all of these states have collapsed. But Tichy's photographs, thanks to his pension, persist.

Tichy's career came during the years of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the stagnation period, when the state's repressive apparatus was relaxed, the growth rate came down a bit, and the economy settled into the ossified form that would sluggishly persist until the plunder of privatization in the 90s. Definitely after the terror, but with many of its remnants still there, and with a socialist economy that was supposed to provide for everyone, but was unresponsive to many new needs. His frankly minor troubles with the law, and the smallness of his pension, are the echo of the Stalinist terror and the Khrushchev-era promise of 'cornucopism,' both of them attenuated considerably.

A portrait of the artist. Lookin good!

A fellow traveler of Tichy's, however, had a more drastic career, with higher highs and a fatal low. Leonid Dobychin was a provincial accountant who aspired to being a writer. He was apparently very well-read, even though he had no formal education in literature and next to no contact with fellow artists. He was private, weird, bitter, all of the things that are not marketable or endearing. His art even has a similar leering quality to Tichy's- his short story "Encounters with Liz" is about a frustrated, alienated protagonist catching glimpses of a beautiful New Woman about town, heading into the communal bath-house (a place where Tichy would have hung out with his camera), buying fruit in the street, shouting slogans with fellow cadres, etc. The protagonist is on the sidelines. Sort of like Olesha's sleepy, unmotivated Kavalerov (cavalier, knight) from Envy, except with a harder edge, less humor and a much more, uh, scattered perspective (when Dobychin was denounced his similarity to Joyce was used as evidence against him!)

Dobychin was trained in statistics and would have stayed a statistician probably his whole life except for the Revolution, which established a writers union and allowed him to relocate to St. Petersburg, write full-time, and gain access to publishing houses and a circle of writers in Leningrad who would keep his memory alive after his stress-induced suicide. His body was pulled out of the Neva river a few months after a meeting of the Writers' Union in 1936 at which he was harshly criticized. Dobychin was in the first wave of artistic purge victims, probably because his obvious depression and cynicism, his discussion in not-entirely-negative terms of the past, as well as his intricate style, were unsuited to the emerging Stalinist society, which would promote trash like Cement over the wilder, more experimental works of the 20s. Again, the Tichy paradox rears its ugly head: we are free to speculate about and mourn over the career Dobychin was prevented from continuing, but we have to acknowledge that the Writers Union gave us a Dobychin to mourn over in the first place. Unconditional support, freedom to relocate, access not only to knowledge but publishers and the time to write freely, the real conditions of freedom of speech, were all possible for that short period after and because of the Bolsheviks seizure of power. Even for someone who was probably opposed to the Bolsheviks and major parts of the world they had created. Someone who refused to participate in the new culture of enthusiasm. This is the socialist form of "I don't agree with what you say, but I'll defend your right to say it" with the added qualifier that "the right to say it" means "the time and the resources and the support" to say it.

Support for the Dobychins and the Tichys of the world is probably the best criteria of how real a society's commitment to art and culture is.

Ultimately, for its immense flaws and short duration, that fuller understanding of the freedom of speech and of the arts is still a powerful idea, worth revisiting in the wretched era of video game music acapella on Patreon, ad-supported 'criticism' and sweet, fawning young artists standing hopefully next to their student pieces at a gallery show.

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