Tina Modotti was a gifted and visionary photographer. She was also, amongst other things, a Hollywood ﬁlm actress and a revolutionary. Madonna recently coughed up $165,000 for one of her photographs and a bio-pic of her life is planned. As a new exhibition of her photographs opens in Edinburgh, Amanda Hopkinson considers Modotti’s charmed. yet painfully short-life.
he story of Tina Modotti’s life has made her into a legendary heroine: part Muse in her luxuriant physical beauty and the charismatic inspiration she gave to other artists (most notably the giant of American photography Edward Weston); part revolutionary figurchead. in her commitment to the cause of the Communist Party. Spanish Civil War. and Stalin’s Soviet Union; part Scarlet Pimpernel in the help she gave to overseas exiles (and. at times, even street beggars), whom she untiringly rescued and too often became deeply emotionally involved with; and. finally. part artist as one of the 20th century’s most notable yet underrated woman photographers.
Born in 1896 into abject poverty, Modotti was working in a factory by the age of twelve. At seventeen, she left her home in Friuli in North ltaly and travelled to San Francisco and Los Angeles where she succeeded in entering the burgeoning Hollywood film industry as an actress. Whilst there. she met and fell in love with a Frenchman Roubaix de l’Abrie Richcy (Robo), a poet whose 24-year-old pseudo sophistication complemented her teenage freshness.
It was Robo who introduced her to Mexico. where he died suddenly of smallpox in 1922. a scant two years after their marriage. but the country had already made its mark on Modotti. not only with its exotic scenery and the utterly different way of life but through the artistic excitement of the Muralist movement and its ' ‘grand triand’ of exponents — Diego Rivera. Alfaro Siquieros and Clemente Orozco. The painter Frida Kahlo became a close friend and inspiration, as did the American photographer Edward Weston who doubled-up as both mentor andloven
In the 1920s Mexico was in the midst of an enormously creative period that sought to translate the colossal social gains of the 1910—20 Mexican Revolution into popular art forms. Suddenly, everything was art — the indigenous weaving and embroidery of the Indians sported by Frida and Tina; the semi- precious stones and silver that Indians had long worked into jewellery and that hitherto Europeans had spurned as native ornaments; the intricate carvings and painted tiles in rural homes.
lfthe major movements in ‘Revolutionary Art’ were to return to the people who had hitherto been the elitist and exclusive preserve of the rich — through the new architecture and murals accessible in wide public buildings and spaces — then other art forms could also contribute. Not since the Florentine Renaissance had there been such a spate of populist art forms that sought to teach an illiterate people their own history and evoke a radical future. Photography was inherently the most democratic of forms with its infinitely reproducible image and inextricable link to daily reality. Modotti joined the communist weekly newspaper El Machete as a photographer. At the same time, she fell for the painter Xavier Guerrero, then for the Cuban revolutionary Julio Mella (who died in her arms,
B The List 6-19 Oct 1995
assassinated by agents of the Cuban dictator Machado. in January 1929).
In December of that year she staged her first major exhibition at the National Autonomous University. built and decorated by radical architects and muralists. lt covered the whole spectrum of Modotti’s work to date — arguably the whole spectrum of photographic disciplines available in a period still preceding the invention of the 35mm small-format camera. the zoom or panoramic lenses. Although the consciousness- raising goal of the exhibition was directly political, Modotti had conceded nothing of her artistic perfectionism. The social reforming zeal ofearly US photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine was matched by her heart-rending denunciations of living conditions in the rapidly expanding poor city barrios. The clear lines of the Modernists and. particularly. of the Bauhaus school were echoed by Modotti’s delight in
simple or sensuous shapes — the fine stripes of
telegraph wires or the gentle curves of a Calla lily.
Least marketable were her Communist propaganda photographs. Whether documenting the Muralists’ painting or rendering their portraits she brought the same depth of field to black and white images and the same impeccable detail. She elevated the anonymous to the symbolic, as with her classic photograph of an indigenous woman standing, half-wrapped in her red flag. gazing into the future.
She created ‘absent portraits’. as with that of her murdered lover. Mella whose typewriter (displaying a text of Trotsky‘s) in close-up represents his creative mark on history. Accomplished ahead of her time in poster photography. Modotti carefully assembled the sickle, the ammunition belt and the guitar (or, in other compositions. an ear of corn. a sombrero or a machete) into emblems of both internationalist solidarity and quintessential mericanismo. Despite the sloganeering message of the impoverished labourer crouched in his rags beneath the slick advertisement for ‘elcgant dress for gentlemen’ in lz'leganza e poverta. or the striking workers crowded around their weekly copy of [5/ Machete, it was here, for her. that the personal and political fused and for us. her most striking work was accomplished.
In 1942 Hoy, the traditionalist daily newspaper, headlined Modotti as ‘The Communist Mary Magdalen’. By her beauty and talent and the aura of radicalism and tragedy she bore, Modotti was already as much of an icon in her life as her work in its artistry. She died on the eve of the feast of Epiphany, on the 5 January 1942, of a heart attack in a taxi taking her home, as ever, from a political reunion with close friends and comrades. She had not even the taxi fare of two pesos (20p) in her purse, but had already haggled it down to her last reamining peso. But she never reached home.
Tina Modotti: Her Life and Photography at The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 8 Oct—19 Nov.