Tina Modotti, viewer and viewed

Tina Modotti, viewer and viewed

Devotees of communism evoke a grim picture of stern and ascetic men and women in sparsely furnished rooms, free of bourgeois luxuries. And then there is the glamorous Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and political revolutionary. An exhibition of 35 of her photographs now on at New York’s Throckmorton Fine Art gallery, “Tina Modotti: Under the Mexican Sky“, recalls the life and talent of this rare seductress.

Modotti was 16 when she left Italy for California, where she began her transformation from factory worker to bohemian ingénue. In Los Angeles, she met and modelled for Edward Weston, a pioneer of photography, who soon became her lover and mentor. He left his wife to be with Modotti, and in the early 1920s they ventured to Mexico, a country then brimming with artistic and political excitement.

Still reeling from a decade-long revolution, Mexico’s politics were volatile. Painters and muralists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros had joined with a host of radicalised expatriates to help lead the struggle for political and social reform. Modotti embraced this fusion of art and politics, and collaborated with the muralists in creating work with political intent. But Weston had little time for art in the service of politics. He rejected what he described as “too much sentimentality over the proletariat. Too much deification of the Indian.”

Taken between 1923 and 1930, Modotti’s sepia-tinted portraits of Mexican workers and expatriate revolutionaries are indeed romantic—beautiful, sturdy and idealistic. Yet we get the sense that her subjects aren’t merely symbols—vacant and projection-ready—but real people. These photographs feel intimate and real.

Modotti could be heavy-handed in her political messaging, as with the still life “Bandolier, Corn and Sickle” (1927) and “Hands of a Washerwoman” (1928). But her elegant modernist compositions compensate for any overt symbolism. We are left with arresting shapes, forms and textures, the kind that are familiar to Weston’s fans.

With time, Modotti’s life grew more difficult and her health deteriorated. After she was falsely accused of helping to assassinate her Cuban revolutionary boyfriend, Julio Antonio Mella, she was expelled from the country. She lived in exile in Europe, and eventually made her way to Spain during its civil war. After the collapse of the Spanish Republican government in 1939, she returned to Mexico under an alias. In 1942, while riding in a taxi after a friend’s party, she suffered a heart attack and died. There were rumours of murder—was it the Stalinists? Her lover, Victorio Vidali? But most attributed her death to the hardships she had endured.

“Tina Modotti: Under the Mexican Sky” is on view until March 6th at Throckmorton Fine Art in New York City

Via More Intelligent Life