May 18, 2022

How radical photographer Tina Modotti’s work has stood the test of time

Modotti’s modern clichés remain decisive for the style, Madonna being a collector. Yet she traded in her camera in 1931 to serve the Moscow Communist Party.

Tina Modotti’s black and white photos could very well be hung in singer Madonna’s living room. The American superstar is one of the most prominent collectors of Modotti’s work of the 1920s. Madonna, indeed, sold a Mercedes to finance the first retrospective of Modotti’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1995.

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After all, the two women have Italian origins and a family history of immigrating to the United States in common. For both, their talent and ambition made them social climbers.

Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera

Photographs of roses, interiors or a baby within Modotti from the 1920s had a huge influence on photography.

Although they are now almost 100 years old, they remain timeless in their simplicity and elegance.

Modotti was born 125 years ago in August 1896 and is known for being a modern woman who has determined her own path in life.

She was heavily involved in political events from her age and photographed the protests of Mexican farmers in the 1920s, before joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. At the same time, Modotti was a sought-after upper-class portrait painter. wealthy country.

In 1930, she was expelled from Mexico, her adopted country, for political reasons.

She mingled and mingled with Mexico’s artistic elite. Young Frida Kahlo and her partner Diego Rivera, both also artistically and politically active in Mexico, belonged to Modotti’s circle of friends.

When she died suddenly at the age of 45, 80 years ago, her Chilean friend Pablo Neruda, writer, anti-fascist and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote a poem about this loss.

Sexual independence instead of marriage

“In her relationships, her sexuality and her career, she has made difficult choices – sexual independence instead of marriage, political engagement instead of personal security, revolution instead of art,” writes Margaret. Hooks in her biography “Tina Modotti: photographer and revolutionary”.

From 1930, Modotti worked from Moscow for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by dictator Josef Stalin. She even ended her career as a photographer to work full time for the party.

Later, the party sent him to Spain, along with her lover, the agent of the Italian Communist Party Vittorio Vidali.

There, both were active under false names, supporting the Republican Brigades against fascist dictator Franco during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

An exhibition after his death

She reportedly stopped using her camera in the years leading up to her sudden death on January 6, 1942 in Mexico.

But her artistic work remained popular, and a first exhibition was held in Mexico City shortly after her burial in March 1942. “Tina, the militant fighter, was not long in her grave when Tina Modotti, the photographer, was resuscitated ”, writes Hooks in his biography of Modotti.

And although he was denied entry to the United States in the 1930s as a Communist, his elegant and graceful photographs can still be seen in many museums and exhibitions in the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The social climber

Modotti was born in Udine, Italy on August 17, 1896. Her father, a mechanic, immigrated to the United States in 1906. Modotti, whose full name was Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, began working in a factory in l age 12 to support his family.

In 1913, when she was barely 17, Tina traveled to the United States and worked as a seamstress in San Francisco. She has worked as an actress in the city’s Italian community, even appearing in several silent films.

In 1918, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband, the Canadian poet Roubaix de L’Abrie Richey. It was there that she met influential American photographer Edward Weston in 1921. She posed for his photos and eventually the couple fell in love.

Modotti and Mexico

Modotti traveled to Mexico with Weston for the first time the following year, where many intellectuals and supporters had stayed since 1910 following the Mexican Revolution and ensuing social upheaval. Her husband, however, died suddenly of smallpox.

This first visit to Mexico in 1922 was decisive for the development of Modotti’s life and work.

Modotti returned to Mexico several times and during his visits Weston taught him the basics of Modernist photography.

It was here that Modotti began photographing Diego Rivera’s murals.

In 1926, she and Weston separated and he returned to his family in the United States.

After Weston left, Modotti’s most productive period as a photographer began, according to Margaret Hooks. In addition to photographing Mexican folk art, Modotti has worked as a photojournalist for the Mexican magazine “El Machete”. These photos have become some of his best-known photographs.

Modern photos with a political message

But the country’s well-to-do and prominent upper class were also among his clients: Modotti made his living by painting their portraits. She also took a number of photos for fun: of lilies, women and their children, abstract lines of wooden scaffolding and telegraph poles.

In Mexico, she had a relationship with the Cuban revolutionary in exile Julio Antonio Mella from 1928. In 1929, he was shot dead while walking next to her on the street. The trial surrounding the murder served to discredit Modotti’s reputation, claiming that his lifestyle and political activities were immoral.

This horrified Mexican elites who had until then been happy to hire him for portraits.

In 1930, she was expelled from Mexico and went to Europe.

Political work instead of photography

She spent several months in Germany in 1930 where her works were exhibited, but she did not gain a foothold in this increasingly fascist country.

Without money, she ended up accepting the invitation of the Italian Communist Vittorio Vidali to come to Moscow and devote himself to working for the Communist Party, first in Paris, then in Spain.

After the victory of the Spanish dictator Franco, Modotti returned to Mexico in 1939. In Mexico City, the 45-year-old man now lived in isolation, with meager income and little contact with old friends.

On January 6, 1942, while returning from dinner, she died suddenly in a taxi. A doctor later determined that heart failure was the cause.

Thanks to the support of prominent fans like Madonna – and the fact that her works were simply ahead of their time, Modotti’s legacy lives on.

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