Tina Modotti (1896-1942)
A tragic and heroic life dedicated to beauty and justice.
Assunta Adelaide Luigia (Tina) Modotti was a beautiful woman, a minor star of the theater and silent film, and a political radical. She was born in Italy in 1896 and lived in San Francisco (1913-1918), in Hollywood, in Mexico City of the 1920s, in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, in Berlin during the Weimar period of the early 1930s, in Moscow during its Stalinist era (mid to late 1930s), and in Mexico City again until her death.
For a brief seven years, Tina Modotti also was a celebrated photographer. She made still-life photographs into political symbols, and flesh-and-blood women and working-class men into emblematic monuments. Her photographs acquired fame in the art world as well as within political circles, appearing on the cover of The New Statesman and on the walls of union halls and even the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. She also became notorious for her flouting of bourgeois morality and her fabled liaisons with a series of men: artistic bohemians in her early years, then major political figures later in her short life. Her most famed love affairs were with the photographer Edward Weston and the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella.
Her photographic career was brief: when she had to choose between art and devotion to the Communist cause, Modotti chose the cause. "I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art," she wrote. She supposedly learned her craft from Weston, though there is some evidence she also learned it as a child in her uncle’s photography studio in Udine, Italy. Modotti and Weston met in California while she was working on a film in Hollywood. They moved in the same circles, and a friendship grew that included her husband, the poet and illustrator Robo de Richey, whom she had met in San Francisco and with whom she moved to Los Angeles. After Richey's untimely death five years into their marriage, Modotti and Weston moved to Mexico City in 1923.
Mexico, emerging from its bloody ten-year revolution, was fashioning its rebirth and was exciting at all levels. Through Modotti's vivacity and facility for language, she and Weston soon became part of the avant-garde in Mexico City and counted leading artists and writers -- including Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, Jean Charlot and David Alfaro Siqueiros -- among their friends. Modotti’s photography was an instant sensation in Mexico and she was credited with capturing the spirit of its new incarnation.
Weston returned to his wife and children in California in 1926, but Modotti was in her element and chose to stay. She established a studio and earned a fine reputation as a photographer. Modotti made art with a political purpose. But she never allowed the content to dominate form or aesthetic theory to undermine meaning. Her haunting images employed a modernist technique similar to Weston’s, but moved out of his art-word lexicon to paint a respectful, loving portrayal of Mexico's common people. She and her work were beloved there. Even before her politics became the dominant force in her life, she was already demonstrating a deep political world-view in her photography.
Modotti was eventually forced to leave Mexico. The government had kept her under surveillance for her highly public and personal connections to the international Communist party and its leaders; in 1927, she had joined the Mexican Communist Party. She began to take photographs for El Machete, the radical paper on assignment for which many of her most famous “propaganda” photos were taken. Then tragedy struck: the shocking assassination of her lover, handsome Cuban revolutionary fighter Julio Antonio Mella (the “Che” of his era), who died in her arms, gunned down in the street. What followed was a bizarre attempt by Mexican prosecutors to frame Modotti for his murder – though evidence suggests that his death was either Communist Party punishment for Trotskyist “tendencies” or, more likely, a secret assassination by agents of Machado, the Cuban dictator whom Mella was attempting to overthrow. Modotti was cleared of suspicion, with the help of friends like Diego Rivera. But in 1930, the increasingly rightward-leaning Mexican government was battling the Left and arrested her again, this time on suspicion of involvement in an attempted assassination of the country’s president, and she was deported.
Modotti went to Berlin, which in 1930 was embroiled in the rise of Hitler, and where she was unhappy; after a few months, she moved to Moscow with the shadowy figure who was her partner for the rest of her life: Vidali (aka Carlos Contreras), a fellow Italian. Shortly thereafter she quit photography and threw herself into working exclusively for the Party -- some suspect, as a spy for Stalin. (Whatever the truth of that rumor, she was certainly a loyal Stalinist until she was disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and declined to renew her Party membership.) Moscow didn’t really work out either, and she traveled on missions to Paris and, later, to Madrid and Republican Spain. By 1935, she was gone from Moscow completely and fully based in Spain.
During the Spanish Civil War, Modotti emerged as a leader, heading the Red Aid, rescuing wounded soldiers, organizing medical relief, at considerable personal risk. In 1939, with the crushing of the Republic and the ascendancy of dictator Francisco Franco, she was in exile again. The United States refused her asylum in April 1939, but Mexico allowed her to return. Disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact, she didn’t renew her membership in the Mexican Communist Party. Not long after, she died, alone in the back of a taxi after leaving a dinner party with friends in Mexico City, at age 45.
Art historians have called Tina Modotti "the best-known unknown photographer of the 20th century.” Throughout her short life, she counted among her friends and co-workers, among many others, Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, American writer John Dos Passos and Russian revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai. A poem written by Pablo Neruda on the occasion of her tragic death is engraved on her grave stone. Modotti's photographs were often documentary in nature, what Carleton Beals called seeking the "perfect snapshot." As a prominent Communist, a lifelong anti-fascist and internationalist, as well as a Spanish Civil War nurse, a partner to equally extraordinary men, and friend to the most creative minds of her generation, she led an extraordinary life, shrouded in political conviction, struggle, glamour, and mystery. Even her sudden and premature death remains ambiguous: did she die of heart failure worsened by altitude, or was she assassinated by Soviet agents, known to be operating at the time in Mexico City with a rumored lab able to disguise its toxins as natural causes?