Tina Modotti (August 16 (or 17) 1896 – January 5, 1942) was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist for the Comintern.
Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondiniin Udine, Friuli, Italy. Her mother, Assunta, was a seamstress and her father, Giuseppe, was a mason. In 1913, at the age of 16, she immigrated to the United States to join her father in San Francisco, California.
Attracted to the performing arts supported by the Italian émigré community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Modotti experimented with acting. She appeared in several plays, operas, and silent movies in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and also worked as an artist's model.
In 1917, she met Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey. Originally a farm boy from Oregon named Ruby Ritchie, the artist and poet assumed the more bohemian name Roubaix. In 1918, Modotti began a romantic relationship with him and moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. Although the couple cohabitated and lived as a "married couple", they were not married. Often playing the femme fatale, Modotti's movie career culminated in the 1920 film The Tiger's Coat. She had minor parts in two other films.
The couple entered into a bohemian circle of friends. One of these fellow bohemians was Ricardo Gómez Robelo. Another was the photographer, Edward Weston.
It is supposed that Modotti was introduced to photography as a young girl in Italy, where her uncle, Pietro Modotti, maintained a photography studio. Later in the U.S., her father briefly ran a similar studio in San Francisco. While in Los Angeles, she met the photographer Edward Weston and his creative partner Margrethe Mather. It was through her relationship with Edward Weston that Modotti developed as an important fine art photographer and documentarian. By 1921, Modotti was Weston's lover. Ricardo Gómez Robelo became the head of Mexico's Ministry of Education's Fine Arts Department, and persuaded Robo to come to Mexico with a promise of a job and a studio.
Robo left for Mexico in December 1921. Perhaps unaware of his affair with Modotti, Robo took with him prints of Weston, hoping to mount an exhibition of his and Weston's work in Mexico. While she was on her way to be with Robo, Modotti received word of his death from smallpox on February 9, 1922. Devastated, Modotti arrived two days after his death. In March 1922, determined to see Robo's vision realized, she mounted a two-week exhibition of Robo's and Weston's work at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She sustained a second loss with the death of her father which forced her return to San Francisco later in March 1922. In 1923, Modotti set sail for Mexico City with Weston and his son Chandler, leaving behind Weston's wife Flora and their youngest three children. She agreed to run Weston's studio free of charge in return for his mentoring her in photography.
Together they opened a portrait studio in Mexico City. Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital's bohemian scene, and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. Together they found a community of cultural and political "avant-gardists", which included Frida Kahlo, Guadalupe Marín, Diego Rivera, and Jean Charlot. In general, Weston was moved by the landscape and folk art of Mexico to create abstract works, while Modotti was more captivated by the people of Mexico and blended this human interest with a modernist aesthetic. Modotti also became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Between 1924-1928, Modotti took hundreds of photographs of Rivera's murals at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. Modotti's visual vocabulary matured during this period, such as her formal experiments with architectural interiors, flowers, and urban landscapes, and especially in her many lyrical images of peasants and workers. In 1926 Modotti and Weston were commissioned by Anita Brenner to travel around Mexico and take photographs for what would become her influential book Idols Behind Altars. The relative contributions of Modotti and Weston to the project have been debated. Edward Weston's son, Brett Weston, who accompanied the two on the project, indicated that the photographs were taken by Edward Weston.
In 1925, Modotti also joined International Red Aid, a Communist organization. In November 1926, Weston left Mexico and returned to living in California. It was also during this time that Modotti met several political radicals and Communists, including three Mexican Communist Party leaders who would all eventually become romantically linked with Modotti: Xavier Guerrero, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali.
Starting in 1927, a much more politically active Modotti (she joined the Mexican Communist Party that year) found her focus shifting and more of her work becoming politically motivated. Around that period, her photographs began appearing in publications such as Mexican Folkways, Forma, and the more radically motivated El Machete, the German Communist party's Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), and New Masses.
Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo divided Modotti’s career as a photographer into two distinct categories: "Romantic" and "Revolutionary", with the former period including her time spent as Weston’s darkroom assistant, office manager and, finally, creative partner. Her later works were the focus of her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929, which was advertised as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico".
Life as an activist
In 1927, Modotti began a relationship with Xavier Guerrero, who was a member of the Communist party. Guerrero was sent to Moscow, Russia for a year to take part in political party training, and by 1928 Modotti had met and began a relationship with the exiled Cuban activist Julio Antonio Mella. During this same period, economic and political contradictions within Mexico and indeed much of Central and South America were intensifying and this included increased repression of political dissidents. In 1929, Julio Antonio Mellawas assassinated while walking in the street with Modotti from the offices of Red Aid. Modotti was immediately arrested but later released and cleared of his murder. Shortly thereafter an attempt was made on the Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Modotti — who was a target of both the Mexican and Italian political police — was questioned about both crimes amidst a concerted anti-communist, anti-immigrant press campaign, that depicted "the fierce and bloody Tina Modotti" as the perpetrator (a Catholic zealot, Daniel Luis Flores, was later charged with shooting Rubio. José Magriñat was arrested for Mella's murder).
As a result of the anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government, Modotti was exiled from Mexico in 1930. She first spent several months in Berlin, Germany followed by several years in Moscow, Russia. Traveling on a restricted visa that mandated her final destination as Italy, Modotti initially stopped in Berlin and from there visited Switzerland. The Italian government made concerted efforts to extradite her as a subversive national, but with the assistance of International Red Aid activists, she evaded detention by the fascist police. She apparently intended to make her way into Italy and to join the anti-fascist resistance there. In response to the deteriorating political situation in Germany and her own exhausted resources, however, she followed the advice of Vittorio Vidali and moved to Moscow in 1931. After 1931, Modotti no longer photographed. Reports of later photographs are unsubstantiated.
During the next few years she engaged in various missions on behalf of the Workers International Relieforganizations as a Komintern agent in Europe. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Vidali (then known as "Comandante Carlos") and Modotti (using the pseudonym "Maria") left Moscow for Spain, where they stayed and worked until 1939. She worked with Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune during the disastrous retreat from Málaga in 1937. In 1939, following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym.
In 1942, at the age of 45, Modotti died from heart failure while on her way home in a taxi from a dinner at Pablo Neruda's home in Mexico City, under what is viewed by some as suspicious circumstances. After hearing about her death, Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali had orchestrated it. Modotti may have 'known too much' about Vidali's activities in Spain, which included a rumoured 400 executions. An autopsy showed that she died of natural causes, namely congestive heart failure. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City. Poet Pablo Neruda composed Modotti's epitaph, part of which can also be found on her tombstone, which also includes a relief portrait of Modotti by engraver Leopoldo Méndez:
Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.
Murals by Diego Rivera that include Modotti
- "The Abundant Earth", The National Agricultural School, Chapingo, 1926
In 1926 Diego Rivera's wife Lupe Marín asserted that her separation from her husband was caused by his affair with Modotti, a byproduct of Modotti's nude modeling for him for the murals as "the Abundant Earth" at the National Agricultural School in Chapingo, near Texcoco [1926-27]. Their affair lasted for about a year and he painted her five times in the Chapingo murals, including as "The Earth Enslaved", "Germination", and "Virgin Earth"
- "In the Arsenal", Secretaría de Educación Pública Building, Mexico City, 1928
This painting was part of the break between Modotti and Rivera caused by his expulsion from the Communist Party. The mural depicts Modotti passing out ammunition, perhaps for the revolution of Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, perhaps for the "invasion" of Cuba that Mella was planning at that time hoping to overthrow the regime of General Gerardo Machado, or perhaps just in support of insurrection against injustice everywhere. She is shown gazing at her then lover Mella while Vidali peers over her shoulder. Modotti objected to Rivera’s use of her private life in such a public manner. She wrote to Weston, "Recently Diego has taken to painting details with an exaggerated precision. He leaves nothing to the imagination." The central figure in this painting is Rivera's then lover, the artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo, who had first met Rivera as a school girl in 1922 when he was painting his first mural The Creation in the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, is reputed to have been reintroduced to Rivera in 1928 at a party in Modotti's home, although there are other versions of the tale of their meeting. Modotti hosted Kahlo and Rivera's wedding party on 21 August 1929. The final rift between Modotti on the one hand and Rivera and Kahlo on the other, less than a month later appears to have been political rather than personal. Modotti supported Rivera's expulsion from the Communist party. Modotti's internationalism and her belief that this was best advanced by adherence to the line of the Communist Party of Mexico and the Communist International were deeply held. Later, she explained her decision to abandon photography for political work following her expulsion from Mexico thus (inverting an outlook stated to her years earlier by Edward Weston): "I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art". Rivera's expulsion however started him on a trajectory which was to lead to his later association with Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International.
Select photography exhibitions
In 1996 the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a large scale retrospective dedicated to the artist, entitled Tina Modotti: Photographs. Martha Chahroudi, the museum's curator of photography, organized the exhibit. In order to raise funds for the show, the singer Madonna auctioned off her 1963 Mercedes-Benz. Madonna has become a major collector of Modotti's work. In 2006, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Artorganized an exhibition entitled Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston.
Prior to the presentation of her work in the U.S., Modotti's photographs have been shown in Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, and other countries. In 2010, the largest exhibition of her work, Tina Modotti Photographer and Revolutionary opened at the KunstHausWien in Vienna, Austria. It presented 250 photographs, many never shown before. The exhibition is based on the collections of Galerie Bilderwelt, Berlin and Spencer Throckmorton, NYC and curated by Reinhard Schultz. In 2015 the exhibition Tina Modotti: Photographs of Mexican Murals was organized at the Richard Norton Gallery.
Modotti's photography can be found in a number of public art institutions, including:
- The Museum of Modern Art
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
In popular culture
Modotti was portrayed by the actress Ashley Judd in the 2002 film Frida, about fellow artist Frida Kahlo.
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