Tina Modotti

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Tina Modotti
Tina Modotti - Edward Weston,.jpg
Tina Modotti photographed by Edward Weston in 1921
Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini
August 16 (or 17) 1896
Udine, Italy
Died January 5, 1942
Mexico City, Mexico
Nationality Italian
Known for Photography

Tina Modotti (August 16 (or 17) 1896 – January 5, 1942) was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist for the Komintern.

Early life[edit]

Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Friuli, Italy.[1] In 1913, at the age of 16, she immigrated to the United States to join her father in San Francisco, California.[1]

Acting career[edit]

Tina Modotti in the film The Tiger's Coat (1920)

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.[2]

In 1918, she entered into a relationship with Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey. Originally a farm boy from Oregon named Ruby, the artist and poet assumed the more bohemian name Roubaix. Modotti 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.[2]

The couple entered into a bohemian circle of friends. One of these fellow bohemians was Ricardo Gómez Robelo. Another was the photographer, Edward Weston.

Photographic career[edit]

Some[who?] have suggested 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 favorite model and, by October of that year, his 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. 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. On July 29, 1923, Modotti set sail for Mexico City with Weston and his son Chandler, leaving behind Weston's wife Flora and remaining three children. She agreed to run Weston's studio free of charge in return for his mentoring her in photography.[3]

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. Together they opened a portrait studio in Mexico City and were commissioned to travel around Mexico taking photographs for Anita Brenner’s 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 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. In Mexico, Modotti found a community of cultural and political "avant-gardists". She became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. 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. Indeed, her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929 was advertised as "The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico".

Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital's bohemian scene, and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. 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.[2]

Life as an activist[edit]

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. On January 10, 1929, Modotti's comrade and companion Julio Antonio Mella was assassinated, ostensibly by agents of the Cuban government. 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[4] — 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).[4][5]

As a result of the anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government, Modotti was expelled from Mexico in February 1930, and placed under guard on a ship bound for Rotterdam. 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. Traveling on a restricted visa that mandated her final destination as Italy, Modotti initially stopped in Berlin and from there visited Switzerland. 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.[4] 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 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. She worked with Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune during the disastrous retreat from Málaga in 1937. In April 1939, following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym.


In 1942, during a visit by her close friend, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, Modotti died from heart failure 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[edit]

  • "The Abundant Earth", The National Agricultural School, Chapingo, 1926[6]
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"
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.

Photograph exhibitions[edit]

Modotti's work was rediscovered in the United States when 90 vintage prints were exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996. 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.

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. The largest exhibition of her work opened at Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna on June 30, 2010. 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.



During this era, actresses frequently were expected to provide their own costumes and for these movies Modotti, a skilled seamstress, provided "garish plaid travel ensemble, satin cloak, bejeweled brassiere, feathered beret, harem pants, tie-dyed shawl, and batiked gown."


  1. ^ a b J. Paul Getty Museum. Tina Modotti. Retrieved September 12, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c Arias-Jirasek, Rita, ed. (2008). Women Artists of Modern Mexico: Mujeres artistas en el México de la modernidad/Frida’s Contemporaries:Las contemporáneas de Frida (in English/Spanish). Alejandro G. Nieto, Christina Carlos and Veronica Mercado. Chicago/Mexico City: Frida National Musum of Mexican Art/museo Mural Diego Rivera. ISBN 9781889410050. 
  3. ^ Richard Norton Gallery. "Tina Modotti". Retrieved 23 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Hooks, Margaret. Tina Modotti, photographer and revolutionary. London: Pandora, 1993. ISBN 0-04-440879-X
  5. ^ Argenteri, L. (2003). Tina Modotti: Between art and revolution. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300098532.
  6. ^ http://www.wikiart.org/en/diego-rivera/the-abundant-earth-1926

Further reading[edit]

Books on Modotti
  • Albers, Patricia, Shadows, Fire, Snow – The Life of Tina Modotti, Clarkson Potter, 1999 ISBN 0-609-60069-9
  • Argenteri, Letizia. 2003.Tina Modotti: Between Art & Revolution New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09853-7
  • Cacucci, Pino, Tina Modotti; A Life, St. Martin's Press, New York, NY 1999 ISBN 0-312-20036-6
  • Constantine, Mildred, Tina Modotti – A Fragile Life, Chronicle Books, 1993 ISBN 0-8118-0502-6
  • Hooks, Margaret, Tina Modotti, Photographer and Revolutionary, Harper Collins, London 1993 ISBN 0-04-440879-X
  • Hooks, Margaret, Tina Modotti, Master of Photography, Aperture, NY 1999, ISBN 0893818232.
  • Hooks, Margaret, Tina Modotti,Phaidon Press, London 2006, ISBN 0714841560.
  • Lowe, Sarah, Tina Modotti; Photographs, Harry Abrams, Inc., Publishers NY, 1995 ISBN 0-8109-4280-1
  • Noble, Andrea, Tina Modotti: Image, Texture, Photography, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, ISBN 0-8263-2254-9
  • Poniatowska, Elena, Tinísima, Ediciones Era, Mexico. 1996. ISBN 968-411-305-6.
  • Stourdze, Sam (ed.), Patricia Albers, Karen Cordero Reiman, Tina Modotti and the Mexican Renaissance, Jean Michel Place Editions, Paris. 2000. ISBN 2-85893-557-2
  • Brenner, Anita, Idols Behind Altars – Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots, Dover Publications Inc. Mineola, NY 2002 [reprinted from 1929 edition] photographs by Modotti and Weston. ISBN 0-486-42303-4 (pbk.)
  • Herrera, Hayden, Frida – A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Harper Colophon Books, New York, NY 1983 ISBN 0-06-011843-1
  • Marnham, Patrick, Dreaming With His Eyes Open – A Life of Diego Rivera, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2000 ISBN 0-679-43042-3 (refers to 1998 edition)
  • Miller, Throckmorton, et al. Tina Modotti – Photographs, Robert Miller Galley, NY, NY 1997 ISBN 0-944680-52-6
  • Naggar & Ritchin, Mexico Through Foreign Eyes – Visto por ojos extranjeros 1850 – 1990, WW Norton and Co., NY, NY 1993 ISBN 0-393-03473-9
  • Rochfort, Desmond, Mexican Muralists, Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1998 ISBN 0-8118-1928-0
  • Warren, Beth Gates, Margrethe Mather & Edward Weston – A Passionate Collaboration, WW Norton & Co. NY, NY 2001 ISBN 0-393-04157-3
  • Wolfe, Bertram D. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, Stein & Day Publishers, NY, NY 1963 ISBN 0-8154-1060-3 k. ed.)

External links[edit]