TINA MODOTTI: LIFE, ART, AND REVOLUTION
PART I INTRODUCTION
Tina Modotti was an artist whose photographs, above all, captured the lyrical beauty inherent in shape and structure. Her eye for planes, lines, curves and shadows, together with her recognition of the importance of the void, or space, in a composition, make her work - from portraits to still lifes - unique.
Modotti’s oeuvre is not large; she could, it may be argued, be seen as primarily a neophyte, since she gave up her work during the political tumult of the 1930s - gave it up just as she had achieved true independence of vision, and greatness was within reach.
Tina Modotti sacrificed her work to the times she lived in; driven by fervent anti-fascism, she became a tireless worker for the Communist cause. Perhaps inevitably, the relentless infighting, factionalism and revanchism ground her down. Urged to work for the Party, Modotti’s artistic photographic work was scorned and she was advised to take a photojournalistic approach. Instead, she lay down her cameras, and continued to work for what was, to her and many others living in the shadow of Hitler, Franco, Mussolini and their host of imitators, the only hope of social justice.
Tina Modotti was
a woman whose physical beauty and much-remarked gentle charisma
made her an object of admiration and curiosity for men and women alike. Her affairs were legendary, especially when
viewed in the context of the
1920s. Having gained her first taste of public attention
portraying dusky exotic femmes fatales in
ART AND LIFE
How do you draw the line between the artist and his or her works? Do you draw it at all? Can the artist be judged by how well he or she contributes to the furthering of a cause, or how he or she adheres to or challenges the social mores and conventions? Tina Modotti is a particularly good subject to look at when considering these questions. Her extraordinary life is very difficult to ignore: the curiosity she arouses hungers for fulfilment.
What is the role of the artist? To create works of art: things which are used to entertain people and to satisfy the need of the artist to create the works.
The artist in capitalist society is as much a worker
as any other. This was recognised
by the social theorists of the early nineteenth century.
Charles Fourier, the French Utopian socialist, believed that
creative work is part of “Work” i.e. labour, and as such is available
to all. Fourier believed that full human self realisation
was only found in the world of work (
The young Karl Marx agreed with Fourier in this, arguing against the growing specialisation of social and vocational roles in capitalist society and the division of labour, as described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. In The German Ideology Marx and Friedrich Engels said that
The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of the division of labour. ...In a communist society there are no painters but at most people who engage in painting among other activities.
(Marx and Engels, The German Ideology Works V, 47)
While Fourier’s ideas for Utopian communities (“Phalanxes”) never saw full fruition, his ideas survived (though Marx rejected them as “frivolous” in his maturity) and were frequently resurrected, particularly in “Bohemian” circles.
PART III TINA MODOTTI: WORKER’S CHILD
Tina Modotti was born
into a working class family in
But by the turn of the
nineteenth century, population pressures, coupled with he influx of
new ideas meant that even people from an apparently idyllic place
like Udine wanted something more form their personal lives than the
ability to endure as their forefathers had done.
And so Guiseppe Modotti, Tina’s father, moved first to
With the father gone, Tina, aged twelve, left school and entered the capitalist world by going to work in a silk-textile factory to help support the family. Her youngest sister recalled that
She used to work six hours a day in a silk factory, and whatever her duties were, her fingers were always swollen and sore. One night in early winter, our fire and candles had gone out,, as it would often happen. My mother and I were waiting for Tina, clinging to each other in order to keep warm... Our main concerns throughout our childhood was to have something to eat.
When she was fourteen,
the eldest sister left to join the father in
Escape for Tina Modotti meant a third-class passage to the United States, to San Francisco as Guiseppe gradually sent for the members of his family. Once there, she immediately found work as a seamstress at I. Magnin. The work was the same old sweatshop labour, but the enterprise itself was a very modern and innovative one: the department store.
As a working woman in Little Italy, Tina Modotti was exposed to radical political debate, much of it imported from Italy, some of it home grown; dominant among these were in IWW, the anarcho-syndicalists. Tina Modotti later recalled her father and uncle, socialists, hotly debating unionism and opposition to W.W.I. (Hooks 19)
LOOKING AT TINA
What initially took Tina Modotti out of this sphere and set her on course to break into a totally new life was the same thing that has throughout history afforded most women such opportunities: the luck of having remarkably good looks.
Tina Modotti, as the many photographs of her attest, was a very attractive woman. As a teenager, she welcomed the opportunity to work as a model for I. Magnin and to become involved in Little Italy’s amateur theatre scene, where her beauty earned her the title of “the pretty signorina” in reviews and advertisements. She also started to work as an artist’s model (Hooks 26), a move which was to have far reaching implications.
Like many women who suddenly find themselves being elevated from their socially low status by the luck of biology and the prevailing tastes of the times, Tina initially gloried in her new-found opportunities, though the time would come when she would see it as a trap. She was constantly portrayed as a femme fatale and mistress of various men, including Diego Rivera, though actual evidence is thin. By 1930 she was saying in exasperation
Here in the US everything is seen from the “beauty” angle - a daily here spoke of my trip and referred to me as a “woman of striking beauty” - other reporters to whom I refused an interview tried to convince me by saying they would just speak of “how pretty I was” to which I answered that I could not possibly see what “prettiness had to do with the revolutionary movement.”
(Letter to Weston, March 1930, quoted in Hooks 205)
LOS ANGELES: THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
In 1918 Tina Modotti
and Richey moved to
Tina turned to the nascent
film industry, drawing on the natural charisma of her physical beauty,
the experience of acting in theatre, and her own growing intellectual
interest in artistic forms. At
Tina was also determined
to educate herself so she could hold her own in the salons of
And so Tina “eagerly devoured the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, as did most of her circle.” (Hooks 36) Her letters, many of which survive, attest to her rapid fluency and literary talent in writing in English; she also translated from Italian and Spanish into English, and edited her husband’s work.
Because of her experience
as a proletarian breadwinner, and her exposure to real politics in
the Italian community - an increasing number of whose members were
fleeing from Mussolini - Tina Modotti was early on drawn to political
radicalism as more than just a salon culture affectation.
Her husband Richey, despite his middle class American upbringing,
was also drawn to it, more from a Utopian perspective, and was the
first of the couple to become actively involved: he began to contribute
as an illustrator to an English-language Mexican revolutionary magazine
(Gale’s) which had a following in
Part IV TINA MODOTTI: THE STEPS TOWARD...
Acting and artistic modelling provided Tina with her bread and butter: by putting her self on show, to be posed and juxtaposed, manipulated, unique yet malleable. Arguably the greatest photographic portraits of Tina are those by Edward Weston. Weston’s “The White Iris” is an incredibly sensual study of soft light, which delicately kisses Tina’s face and throat, and the flower she holds to her cheek, while the shoulder and breast recede softly into the shadows.
Tina Modotti gave Edward Weston her sensual and vibrant beauty, out of which he created some of his finest work. In return he gave her something of incalculable value: the help and encouragement to be a photographic artist in her own right. 
Even in the rarefied
We take it for granted today that a woman with an eye for images can take up a camera and snap away and, with a great deal of talent and experience, may become a great photographer and certainly may make a living. Not so in 1922 (nor in 1952, 1962 and even twenty years ago it was not common).
On the one hand, according to critics like Linda Nochlin, the institutions that make up our social superstructure made it very difficult for women to access the means of production and promulgation of her work. (Nochlin 145 - 176) On the other hand, as Thomas Berger explains, Woman has throughout art history been the object surveyed, imprinted upon, seen through male gaze, even with her own eyes. (Berger 45 - 64) The “ideal” spectator is male.
Additionally, Modotti came to photography under the wing of her lover - though their sexual relationship appears to have been brief. Her training and influences were guided from the male perspective. This has been the lot of most female visual artists throughout history, making it more difficult for them to find their own true and personal perspective.
Where does this leave the woman artist? In difficulties.
To deny the traditional perspective and create a new one is the challenge.
Tina Modotti sought to do this with her photographs of rural
Tina Modotti, camera in hand, became a producer of creative work, not just a component part of it. Already alienated from acting (Weston remarked, vis-à-vis her career, that “ the brains and imagination of our movie directors cannot picture an Italian girl except with a knife in her teeth and blood in her eye” Hooks 49), she must have looked at the man behind the camera, as she posed, all radiant flesh, and thought “I want to be THERE.”
And so the working man’s daughter and former sweatshop toiler took up the tools to become one of the great female photographers of the twentieth century. If that category seems damning by faint praise, after all, there have not been many great woman photographers, let it be said that a number of her photographs can stand among the greatest photographic works produced this century.
Part V LIFE AND WORKS: THE NARRATIVE OF TINA MODOTTI
In April 1996, in the
centenary of her birth, the
Italian Cultural Centre in
The Tina Modotti exhibition was narrative in every respect, from its structural arrangement to the nature of the films themselves.
These fall into two broad
categories: Tina Modotti the subject and Tina Modotti the artist. The photographs of Modotti in
The photographs he made of her at this time reflect the intensity of their feelings for one another. His nude studies particularly show the depth of passion for her. He was enthralled with her body, probably made more desirable because they had less physical contact, and certain of the images he made are almost pornographic in their objectivization. (Hooks 86)
In contrast to these pieces are Modotti’s own portraits of people, particularly those of women, and of the Mexican peasants she photographed during her travels in the country. Here even the most wretched are invested with a dignity that is no less passionate.
Photographs from the Modotti exhibition considered in detail:
Johan Hagemeyer Tina Modotti
One of several close-up portraits of Modotti that Hagemeyer
made during her visit to her family in 1921.
At this time Modotti was working in
Edward Weston Tina Modotti
By this time Tina had already taken up photography and was Weston’s assistant and partner as well as his muse. This photograph positions Tina in time and place: in the doorway of their home, dressed soberly and wrapped in a shawl. It is a deliberately unglamorous portrait: she looks off to the right, ignoring the camera, concentrating on something else. A tree casts dappled shadows over the whole frame. We are walking past, seeing this woman at her front door. She could be anyone.
Tina Modotti Calle
Modotti’s apprentcehsip to Weston seems to have begun with portraits, but soon she was doing still lifes. This close up still life of two calla lilies against a wall is symmetrical almost to the point of being stylised; the lilies seem almost non-natural, non-organic, as though they are sculpted or constructed. This photo contrasts interestingly with the next -
Tina Modotti Roses
- which shows full blown roses, heads crushed together, petals at the point of bruising. Unlike the callas, this is an intimate portrait, close up. The flowers take on an sexual, clitoral quality, swollen and soft, infinite layers or labia of petals curling back to reveal their infinity.
Tina Modotti Convento di Tepotzotlan
Taken in the same year as the still lifes, Modotti’s spatial study owes much to the teaching of Weston, yet is entirely different from his photographs. Seen from a darkened foreground, the series of arched doorways open up, but only to reveal the next one. A staircase leads up back into darkness. Sunlight floods in from the left side, but we don’t know what lies there. It is a photograph of absences, with the hint of impending presences.
Tina Modotti Cooling Tank
This is an interesting photograph which is worth looking at for a while. The cooling tank is shown only in detail, a small section of its vastness. It takes up nearly the whole frame, eradicating the landscape and surroundings. A perfect triangle is formed by the ladder and the pipe, at the top of which perches a man, a worker. He is dwarfed by the structure. The composition is not beautiful nor interesting in the sense of providing information, but its stillness and the looming dominance of the tank give it an eerie dreamlike quality, like an image you pass by without noticing, but then it sticks in your mind for no apparent reason.
Tina Modotti Workman’s
Hands with Shovel
This is one of Modotti’s series of hand studies, which are her most evocative pieces: the gnarled and dusty hands of the working man, the rough and chapped hands of the laundress, the delicate, sensitive hands of the marionette puppeteer. With these pictures the hands act as a synecdoche - parts standing in for the whole, the whole body, the face, the life, the history. The hands, disembodied, are beautiful. And we are forced to look, really look, at the hands of working people. With these photographs Modotti seems to move onto new ground: deliberately looking at working people and their lives, but in a way that is very aesthetic and excitingly non-documentary; contrast with other photographs of the proleratiat from the same period, which are usually photojournalistic.
Tina Modotti Guitar, Sickle, Bullets
With this photograph, Modotti makes her sympathies perfectly clear. The casual arrangement of everyday objects - everyday to a Mexican worker and revolutionary - the grass mat, the guitar, important in Mexican fiesta culture, the bullet belt, to defend the land, and the sickle, symbol of Bolshevism and necessary agricultural tool - make up a powerful composition that says ”this is a People’s revolution, and I know which side I am on.”
Tina Modotti Woman with Flag
Modotti has posed her subject in a heroic mode, reminiscent of the great academic paintings. Interestingly though, the subject is a woman; not a symbolic Delacroix-type woman, breasts bare and lips red and glistening, but a real woman, noble and stern-faced, bearing the flag with pride, sombreness and dignity.
Tina Modotti Woman of Tehuantepec
Modotti made the pictures of the people of rural
Laura Mulvey in her film Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti notes the way Modotti was able to turn the camera that had been turned so often on herself, upon these beautiful Mexican women, and create photographs of them that are not voyeuristic or objectivizing in any way, but instead acknowledge their dignity and suffering.
Laura Mulvey and Peter
Wollen’s Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (28 mins.
1983) takes a didactic, academic
approach to the subject. Their film compares and contrasts Kahlo and
Modotti, two very different artists who lived in
Mulvey and Wollen set
up the contrast by noting that Kahlo’s life was very private, largely
due to her ill health, but her creative work focused on exposing her
personal pain and anguish through self portraits done in the Mexican
Surrealist style. Modotti, on the other hand, lived a very public
private life, at the forefront of movements, openly taking lovers,
acting on the screen and posing for numerous pictures. Yet in her creative work she herself disappears:
she turns her camera upon those whose stories and lives she feels
need to be told, people she has an empathy for, the peasants, workers
and women of
Mulvey and Wollen note Kahlo’s intellectual influences (e.g. Freud and her relation to the surrealists), but fail to reveal or conjecture anything much about Modotti. They note her Communism, but not why she might have been drawn so fervently to it, and what intellectual appeal it may have had. Nor do they discuss the intellectual circle that Modotti and Kahlo moved in, indeed that was how they met.
Ceri Higgins’s Tina Modotti (60 mins 1992) uses dramatic reconstruction as well as commentary. This technique is a bit shaky at times, but is not ineffective. She draws on strong academic support, by including interviews with a number of scholars who have researched Modotti. Unfortunately these are all American; it would have been better to have included Itallian and/or Mexican art historians. The problem is that these art historians, and by extension Higgins herself, want to look at Modotti largely in psychoanalytic terms, making much of her relationships with men like Weston, Mella, Vidali, without considering other factors which may have motivated Modotti.
Both films are more interested
in Modotti’s relationships, especially her sexual relationships, than
in her psycho-social-economic surroundings.
And what surroundings these were: pre-fascist
Part VI TINA MODOTTI: WOMAN, ARTIST AND COMMUNIST
As a photographer, Tina Modotti was unarguably an artist, but her mastery of the camera and printing techniques also qualified her as a craftsperson, a technician. In this she joined a small group of active women photographers who consciously entered a “man’s world.” Modotti, as a woman of her time, was not always comfortable with this. According to Naomi Rosenblum,
Criticising women as “too petty” she claimed that they lacked the ability to become wholly absorbed by any one thing and hence could not be as creative as men - thereby defining creativity in the terms formulated by her male mentor.
(Rosenblum 170, no quotation reference)
It is interesting that Modotti says this, since the socialist-radical view of art that comes out of Fourier and Marx argues precisely against the Romantic idea of the artist as a wholly absorbed precious creator, but sees him or her instead as a fully-engaged, fully involved member of society and the Commune.
Tina Modotti was a committed anti-fascist and it seems clear that her politicisation began early. In seeking a role for herself, she worried that perhaps she might not have enough to contribute.
The new thinking, coming out of revolutionary Russia, discarded Marx’s and Fourier’s concept that art - as an uplifting and pleasurable experience - should be available to everyone, and reinvented the idea of art as an elitist practice, to be pursued by the vanguard of the revolution. In other words, art as propaganda. But propaganda for a new, just, free and possibly perfect society.
Perhaps Modotti was always torn between her desire, as taught by Weston and the artistic circles in which she first moved, to create beautiful and complex images largely for their own sake, to give pleasure, and her own genuine desire to produce something which might be of immediate practical use to the struggle.
The choice must have
been difficult. We know that
she abandoned photography in order to do tireless and often dangerous
work for International Red Aid all over
LIFE, ART, REVOLUTION
Tina Modotti lived in
extraordinary times and, being a
"free spirit always ready for an adventure" (Weston 76), lived these times to the full. A lifetime that spanned the studios of
Her own experience as a worker allowed her to dare to photograph the Mexican peasants and show the sad beauty in their lives of struggle. Her own experience as a model, actress and object of gaze gave her a sympathy in photographing the women of Tehuantepec, giving them a nobility and strength without sacrificing their beauty and femininity. Her extraordinary portraits of hands - workers’ hands recall her sister’s recollection of her own hands, swollen and sore from the silk factory, her hands sewing garments, the hands that wielded the huge and bulky Graflex camera all over the world, the hands that dipped into the photo chemicals...
As a Western artist in the 21st century, I personally find it inconceivable that Modotti could have given up her career as a photographer in order to devote herself to the revolutionary struggle. Given the benefit of hindsight, the idea of an artist toeing the Stalinist line is grotesque. Yet such an attitude is naïve. If one looks at the era, clearly Modotti was not alone in sacrificing her creative self for what she perceived of as the greater good: the struggle against fascism.
In Modotti's case, having
a socialist background and personal experience of working-class life
and anti-fascist struggle, makes it even more clear. However, the
fact remains that many biographies and histories always seek to explain
this transfer of allegiance from art to revolutionary struggle in
psychosexual terms. Modotti's biographers claim that the influence
of her lovers was paramount in her move into photography and then
into Communism. In Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon asserts that it was
the influence of Elsa Triolet (who fulfilled some kind of Oedipus
complex for the poet) that
But more than enough
evidence exists to explain why these and other artists struggled against
fascism - in
As a female artist, Modotti has suffered more than the others in being taken less seriously. The recent revival of interest in her is seen as a "feminist" recuperation, political in its own sense. Yet far more interesting and important in terms of the recent history of art and culture, are the issues of art and life, art and politics, art and human, lived experience. Can a true artist be a true revolutionary, to really try to change the world? Does the creative life allow for such sacrifice? Tina Modotti's life and works make us confront these questions, which are just as relevant today.
Berger, John. Ways of
Brandon, Ruth. Surreal Lives.
Hooks, Margaret. Tina Modotti, Photographer and Revolutionary.
Modotti, A Fragile Life.
Beecher, Jonathan. Charles
Fourier: The Visionary and His World,
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology in Collected Works, V,
Marx, Karl. Capital.
Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A History
of Women Photographers.
Parker, Roszika and Griselda
Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women Art and Ideology.
Nochlin, Linda. Women,
Art and Power and Other Essays.
Weston, Edward. The Daybooks
of Edward Weston. Edited
by Nancy Newhall. Vols I and II.
Rollo, Andrew. The Immigrant
Upraised: Italian Adventurers and Colonists in Expanding
 Tina Modotti was not the only woman Weston tutored and encouraged in photography: Margrethe Mather and Sonya Noskowiak also worked as his assistants, and Noskowiak was his lover for a time. (Rosenblum 169 - 70) Weston does not seem to have been the type to be threatened by women entering his field, but instead freely shared his time and expertise with them. Interestingly, Weston seems to have been a man who was unafraid to dress in women’s close for fun, and to seek a feminine empathy with his friends.