Reviews of Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Clarkson N. Potter & Tina Modotti: A Life by Pino Cacucci

Reviews of Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Clarkson N. Potter & Tina Modotti: A Life by Pino Cacucci

By  Stephen Schwartz
Tina Modotti (1896–1942), Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times, was once known as “Edward Weston’s mistress and model during his crucial Mexican period, [who] was also an accomplished, if minor, photographer in her own right.” Today, however, she is probably better known than Weston, at least in the universities.

Born in Italy, raised in San Francisco, and morally tarnished if not murdered in Mexico, Tina Modotti has become an icon of the academic Left: a kind of junior partner to Frida Kahlo. Unlike Kahlo, she does not bear the cachet of physical handicaps or such extra assets, for a representative of the fabled “other,” as Kahlo’s Jewish background. But Modotti has an item in her biography that has made her as appealing to tenured revolutionary fantasists: Modotti was a full-time functionary of the Stalinist movement during the 1930s.

No amount of campus- or museum-based idolatry can promote Modotti’s art above the “minor” level identified by Mr. Kramer. Still it is useful to study the life of Tina Modotti because she stands as perhaps the best representative of all those personalities of the 1930s whose ideals, for those who truly possessed them, were betrayed, and whose lives were ruined by Stalinism. These two books demonstrate the extent to which the Modotti cult has grown, while also showing the limitations of American publishing. Each book, in its own way, is an appalling product.

Patricia Albers’s offering is by far the worse. Its author communicates her limitations in the opening pages; while describing Modotti’s death, she writes that her heroine’s “last flickering perceptions are of darkness, solitude, and drift.” It is hard to prove such a claim wrong, but it would be interesting to have it sourced.

Mrs. Albers writes in only one mode: gushing enthusiasm. Every event in this book—which covers some of the most terrible episodes in twentieth century history— is treated as if it were a party with great refreshments and wonderful favors. Mrs. Albers brings to the story of Tina Modotti, art photographer and secret police agent, the sensibility of a suburban matron hosting a reception for a visiting feminist professor. This is, perhaps, appropriate, or at least authentic, in that Modotti has become a heroine precisely to that elite class which, for three generations in the industrialized nations, has dealt with its neuroses by making up roles as Third World revolutionaries.

Mrs. Albers had the good fortune to locate a trunkload of papers held by the survivors of Modotti’s early companion, the San Francisco artist Roubaix de L’Abrie Richey, nicknamed “Robo,” and she has used these materials to pad the first third of this book. But the portrait she paints is an unwittingly unpleasant one, and the reader is fed with pompous generalities and clichés, often based on pure speculation.

Thus, we are told of the young Tina’s reaction to Italian setbacks in World War I,

the military debacle had cut off communication with the family in Italy, leaving Tina, [her sister] Mercedes, and [her father] Giuseppe frantic with anxiety. Was Tina also experiencing guilt that she had been absorbed in playacting as her loved ones suffered? If so, it was not the last time she would anguish over the thought of art making in the face of human affliction.

Tina Modotti was a deceiver born, who, in her adolescence in the North Beach section of San Francisco, learned two dangerous things. One was that she was a good actress; the other was that such talents might be better turned to seducing and controlling friends and acquaintances than to pursuing a real stage career before audiences that knew they were audiences and that she was only acting.

For the rest of her life she acted out characters: as an aesthete—“Madame de Richey”; as the photographic assistant and disciple of Edward Weston; and as a Stalinist terrorist. She played each of these with sure instincts for the right gesture, consummate attention to detail, and, above all, an extravagant sense of drama. But each remained a role; she never matured beyond play-acting. She was an aesthete when poses about the “Religion of Art and Beauty” were already discredited by the carnage of the First World War. She was a photographer who never grew beyond imitation of Weston. And while she claimed, with her Stalinist peers, to be a proletarian revolutionary, she was mainly a bureaucrat. But, of course, it might also be said that the Stalinist Comintern only played at revolution, and that the intellectuals who flocked to it were all, in one manner or another, poseurs.

The depiction of Modotti’s early relationship with the distinctly weedy Robo Richey is drenched with the aesthetic posturing to which they both surrendered themselves. This was a pose that at the time they assumed it, in the late 1910s, was overripe. Some twenty-five years had passed since the heyday of the great San Francisco artistic rebels—“Les Jeunes,” which included the typographer Porter Garnett, the versifier Gelett Burgess, and the essayist and novelist Frank Norris—but Modotti and Robo acted as if The Yellow Book had just appeared on the stands and Oscar Wilde were about to drop in for dinner.

After Modotti has written her tenth or twentieth letter to Weston offering him rose petals and acclaiming the beauty he had brought into her life, one really wishes she, rather than Frida Kahlo, had been hit by a streetcar. But Modotti was soon to move from her delirious aesthetic self-indulgence to the Stalinist nightmare of the political will to power.

She went to Mexico, first with Richey but later with Weston, whom she had met while working as a model. Weston taught her to take photographs, but her early productions were undistinguished. We are told that Richey published drawings in Gale’s Magazine, a radical journal issued in Mexico City in English, but research on such a topic, which might have produced a valuable contribution, is too much for Mrs. Albers. Instead she coos, “the pair relished the bravado of seeing Robo’s signature on the cover of a Communist magazine during the period of the so-called Red Scare, when U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was unleashing raids on suspected radicals.”

Richey died of smallpox in Mexico City, leaving Modotti to commandeer Weston’s salon, already dominated by Communist intellectuals, and which thanks to her soon included the American Comintern agents Bertram and Ella Wolfe. This circle included the prominent artists and activists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. Modotti attached herself to Rivera as well as Frida Kahlo. Modotti also joined a Mexican neo-futurist avant-garde group, Los Estridentistas, And, influenced as much by their interest in technological images as by the revolutionary chatter swirling around her, Modotti began producing “modernist” photographs of an openly propagandist character.

She was following fads, without evincing real artistic strength: she went easily from portraits of Weston, still posing in the manner of a turn-of-the-century dandy, to floral studies to stagey images of workers and peasants in struggle. The latter fascination, however, led to her involvement with one of the most shocking events in the history of Stalinism: the assassination of Julio Antonio Mella, a Cuban-born Communist whose real name was Nicanor McPartland. Mella was Modotti’s lover. He was not her first sexual-political attachment as she had already been the lover of one of Stalin’s most fearsome terrorists: a shark-like fellow-Italian named Vittorio Vidali.

Even today, the killing of Mella remains an unhealed wound, exemplary of the impact of Stalinism. Mella had gone into exile in Mexico after a flamboyant career leading the revolutionary opposition to the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. Mella had become a prominent Communist but was sympathetic to Trotsky, a quote from whom appears on the sheet in his typewriter in a famous photograph of the machine taken by Modotti. That photograph (Mella’s Typewriter or La Técnica, 1928) appears as an illustration to this book without elucidation by Mrs. Albers.

Mella was shot on January 10, 1929, while walking with Modotti, who was clinging to him. The bullets passed through him but missed her, exciting the suspicion of Mexican detectives. During the ensuing investigation, she demonstrated her theatrical talents to the maximum. Photographs taken in the aftermath of the crime show her transformed from the determined, dominating personality visible in her “family pictures” with Richey and in Weston’s portraits into a trembling, naïve child-woman. Rivera and others declared that Mella had been killed on orders from Machado, and the Mexican police cleared Modotti of involvement. But intraparty Communist gossip, from the moment of Mella’s death to the present, has insisted that Mella was killed for his Trotskyism—the first individual in the world to be executed for that infraction.

Mella became a deathless symbol of Communism in Latin America, and the controversy over his murder has been especially troublesome in Cuba. With the conquest of power in 1959 by Castro’s radicals, whose relations with Cuba’s official Communists were rocky at best, it was widely expected that the Machado government archives would be opened and the debate settled forever. But no such disclosure occurred. The conflicting versions of the Mella death were revived earlier this year, on the seventieth anniversary of the assassination, A considerable quarrel erupted on H-DIPLO, an internet discussion group on diplomatic history administered at Michigan State University. Cuban functionaries strove mightily to deny any claims that Mella might have fallen afoul of Stalinist orthodoxy. In a typical comment, Carlos Alzugaray, a high official with Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote “If it is of course essentially pernicious that ‘official’ history prevails in a country, it is also counterproductive and non-historigraphical [sic] to adopt the exact opposite position. By the way, I am sure that it is not only Cuba or the Soviet Union and the former socialist countries where ‘official’ history is practiced.”

This discussion, if it may be called that, went on for some time until the entry into it of a Russian historian, Victor Kheifets, who had access to the Moscow archives. Kheifets demonstrated that, although the Cuban officials still denied it seven decades later, Mella had been expelled from the party. But the Russian historian also opined that final blame in his death could not be assigned. He wrote, “Machado’s motive to kill Mella was strong enough … however, the case isn’t proven yet… . If we want to find the direct proofs of Machado’s responsibility, Cuban archives in Havana should be checked once more.”

The Mella case is only one in a fairly long list of unresolved deaths of Communist dissidents outside the Soviet Union—the roster includes an American woman, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, whose disappearance from New York in 1937 has never been explained, but which stimulated Whittaker Chambers to make his break with the Soviet secret “organs.” Nevertheless, regardless of the obstacles to a final elucidation of the Mella affair, one thing is sure: after it, Tina Modotti committed herself, willingly or otherwise, to the clandestine Stalinist apparatus for the rest of her days. And she never again publicly, or in secret Communist documents, alluded to Julio Antonio Mella.

Modotti was deported from Mexico in 1930, to a Germany in which the Communist movement was still powerful. Vidali, the sinister secret police agent, became her permanent companion and seeming protector. The next twelve years saw the eventual abandonment of photography as she graduated to propagandistic writing and then to administrative responsibilities in Russia itself, leavened by secret courier assignments abroad. She was recruited to work in the so-called International Defense for Class War Prisoners, known in the U.S. as the International Labor Defense. This body controlled a money-laundering and political espionage network of considerable extent and effectiveness. Characteristically, Mrs. Albers handles this reality with a chirpy, upbeat tone.

Mrs. Albers is equally problematic in dealing with the horrors of Stalinism. She baldly states certain facts: that the assassination of Soviet number two Sergei Kirov, in 1934, led to “years of monstrous carnage and terror;” that Vidali and Modotti themselves fell under suspicion; that during the Spanish Civil War, in which Vidali was a prominent figure, the anti-Stalinist leader Andreu Nin, head of the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (POUM), was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by Soviet agents. She even points out that Modotti was involved in the murder of a dissident Communist who had come from Brazil to fight in the Moscow-controlled International Brigades, Alberto Bomilcar Besouchet. Besouchet’s death came about because he had been associated with the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston, who was the ex-wife of the French surrealist and Trotskyist poet Benjamin Péret. Péret was also in Spain, and, like Orwell, barely escaped Stalin’s henchmen.

Yet as devastating as such revelations should prove to those who idealize Modotti and other 1930s Communists, Mrs. Albers remains largely unmoved. “Tina most likely never set eyes upon Alberto Bomilcar Besouchet,” writes Mrs. Albers. “Blinded by tyrannical self-discipline, desperation to win the war, and a belief in the value of correct ideology, the woman who braved hails of gunfire to save children’s lives sacrificed Alberto Besouchet (and no doubt others) for what she believed to be the good of the cause.”

From this point onward, the narrative assumes a rather somber cast. For Mrs. Albers it is all merely a tragic end to a life of festivities; and indeed, the fall of the Spanish Republic in 1939, made inevitable by Stalin’s aggressive drive for control of the Loyalist side, saw considerable tragedy. Modotti and Vidali escaped to Mexico. But Modotti’s time was short, very likely because the best description for her situation is an old cliché: she knew too much. On January 5, 1942, she attended a party at the home of a prominent German Communist exile. Late that night, she took a taxi home, but arrived at a hospital instead. There she died. The medical report listed the cause as a heart attack. Almost immediately, the rumors that circulated at the time of Mella’s death were repeated; this time Vidali, who did not attend the funeral, was charged with her elimination. Mrs. Albers refuses to examine this possibility at length, writing that such accusations “are buttressed only by conjecture and circumstantial evidence.”

The author of the second book on Modotti, Pino Cacucci, a convinced anti-Stalinist, goes further: he notes that, in the similar death of the anti-Stalinist Victor Serge, the victim’s friends in Mexico City “maintained that in the 1940s the [local union] of taxi drivers was controlled by the Communist Party, which had used them to keep order at demonstrations and to carry out punitive missions.” This charge is supported by the recent documentary releases, from the National Security Agency, of the decrypted KGB communications known as Venona.

Cacucci’s book could have provided an excellent antidote to the weaknesses of Mrs. Albers, were it not disfigured in another way. Put simply, his book, which first appeared in Italian, has been murdered by inept translation and a complete lack of fact-checking. To list all the misspelled names, misattributed facts, and other mistakes in this edition would require a separate review. But Cacucci, at least, understands the full horror of Modotti’s life, a life devoted to power over others.