Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti: photographer, model, muse, actress, activist, spy

Tina Modotti (1896–1942) was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist, that despite dying young, led an intensely full and impassioned life.

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Portrait of Tina Modotti, by Edward Weston

Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in 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.

1923
1923

Attracted to the performing arts supported by the Italian émigré community in the San Francisco Bay Area, she 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.

Modotti Tiger's Coat Modotti had shot

Often playing the femme fatale, her movie career culminated in the 1920 film The Tiger’s Coat, directed by Roy Clements. (If you can set aside the 45 minutes to watch the entire film, it really is quite luscious.)

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 never officially married.

Tina Modotti and
Tina Modotti and Roubaix “Robo” de l’Abrie Richey, c. 1921

The couple entered into a bohemian circle of friends, and it was through this group that Modotti was introduced to the photographer, Edward Weston.

Portrait of Edward Weston, by Tina Modotti, 1924
Portrait of Edward Weston, by Tina Modotti, 1924

Modotti was first exposed to the art of 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. It was through her relationship with Edward Weston that she developed as an important fine art photographer and documentarian.

Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, 1924
Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, 1924

By 1921, Modotti was Weston’s lover. That same year, Robo was persuaded to come to Mexico with a promise of a job and a studio. He left for Mexico in December 1921, and perhaps unaware of his affair with Modotti, he took with him some of Weston’s prints, hoping to mount a join exhibition in Mexico. Modotti was on her way to Mexico to join Robo when she received word of his death from smallpox on February 9, 1922. Devastated, she arrived two days after his death. In March, 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.

Tina Modotti, Glendale, California, 1922, by Edward Weston

She sustained a second loss with the death of her father which forced her return to San Francisco later in March 1922. In 1923, she 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.

Weston and Modotti, on the ship to Mexico, 1923
Weston and Modotti, on the ship to Mexico, 1923 (photo attributed to Chandler Weston)

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.

Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo, 1928
Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo, 1928

 

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo march with the artists, on May 1, 1929
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo march with the artists, on May 1, 1929 – photo by Tina Modotti

 

A beautiful, rare moment captured by Tina Modotti: Frida Kahlo laughing, with singer Chavela Vargas
A beautiful, rare moment captured by Tina Modotti: Frida Kahlo laughing, with singer Chavela Vargas

Between 1924-1928, Modotti took hundreds of photographs of Rivera’s murals at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. Her 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.

"The Abundant Earth," mural by Diego Rivera,1928 - photo by Tina Modotti. Modotti also served as the model for the work.
“The Abundant Earth,” mural by Diego Rivera,1928 – photo by Tina Modotti. Modotti also served as the model for the work.

In 1926, she and Weston were commissioned by Anita Brenner to travel around Mexico and take photographs for what would become her influential book Idols Behind Altars.

Anita Brenner, Weston, Charlot, Idols Behind Altars
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, all with whom she would eventually become romantically linked: Xavier Guerrero, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali.

"Worker's Parade," 1926
“Worker’s Parade,” 1926

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.

"Chitarra, Sickle, Cartridges," 1927
“Chitarra, Sickle, Cartridges,” 1927

 

"Boys Of The Raft," 1927
“Boys Of The Raft,” 1927

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”.

"Hands Of The Puppeteer," 1929
“Hands Of The Puppeteer,” 1929

In 1927, Modotti had begun a relationship with the Communist leader, Xavier Guerrero. Guerrero was sent to Moscow, Russia, for a year to take part in political party training. 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, the essence of which was reflected in her work.

"Woman With A Flag," 1928
“Woman With A Flag,” 1928

Late in the night, on January 10, 1929, Modotti and Mella were walking in the street after a meeting at the offices of Red Aid, when Mella was assassinated in front of Modotti. She was immediately arrested but later released and cleared of his murder.

Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti
Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti

 

Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti
Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti

 

Julio Antonio Mella, dead - photo by Tina Modotti
Julio Antonio Mella, dead after an assassin’s bullet – photo by Tina Modotti

 

Tina Modotti being questioned by police immediately after the assassination of her friend and lover, Juan Antonio Mellas
Tina Modotti being questioned after her arrest by police immediately after the assassination of her friend and lover, Julio Antonio Mellas

The Mexican government tried to implicate Modotti in the murder, even releasing nude photographs of her by Edward Weston, to try and generate public opinion against her. Muralist Diego Rivera played a very active role in defending her and exposing the Mexican government’s crude attempt to frame her. It is unclear whether Mella was murdered by the dictatorial Cuban government, if his death had been brought about by Trotsky-Stalin Communist Party feuding, or by combination of these mutual interests. It is widely speculated however that he died by the notoriously bloody hand of Vittorio Vidali .

Vittorio Vidali, 1936, Barcelona
Vittorio Vidali, 1936, Barcelona

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.

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1929, Modotti at one of her last exhibitions

During the next few years she engaged in various missions on behalf of the Workers International Relief organizations 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. Following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym.

1927
1927

On January 10, 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 many 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 rumored 400 executions.” The official autopsy suggests that she died of natural causes (namely congestive heart failure), though it is not clear who sponsored the autopsy. Suspicions have persisted to this day that she was indeed murdered by Vidali in the service of the communists. Oddly, her death certificate listed her occupation as “housewife,” something she, most certainly, was not.

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Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City. Poet Pablo Neruda composed her epitaph, part of which can also be found on her tombstone, which 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.”

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Edited from:

Julio Antonio Mella, activist, communist revolutionary. (Havana)


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