Men Reading El Machete, Tina Modotti (1924)

Men Reading El Machete, Tina Modotti (1924)

Artist: Tina Modotti (1896-1942) synthesised the aesthetics of modernist photography with a Marxist belief in history. She lived in Stalin’s USSR, took part in the Spanish civil war, and was finally, some say, assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents (or perhaps she really did die of a heart attack) in Mexico City in 1942.

Modotti was born in Italy, migrated to California, worked as a theatre actor, flirted with Hollywood, travelled to Mexico, stayed, joined the Communist party, and shot brilliant, high-art propaganda/documentary images. She learned her powerful, composed style as apprentice to the American Edward Weston, a pioneer of photography as modern art. The two came to Mexico as lovers; when he returned to California, she stayed.

Weston’s photographs are monumental, frozen wonders, at once real and abstract, each carrying such a terrible weight of image that nature seems to have arranged itself for his camera. Modotti brilliantly and apocalyptically associates this heightened reality with revolution and proletarian destiny; she is not just a romantically “radical” artist, but a specifically and didactically communist one.

Subject: Radicalised Mexican workers reading El Machete, published by the Communist party, which used Modotti’s photographs.

Distinguishing features: We do not need to see their faces. They are not individuals; they are the proletariat. The future does not belong to the bourgeois self. The future is collective. Their hats form an abstract composition of circles within circles, intensified by the hot monochrome sun, wheeling in darkness, like bright stellar phenomena. The light sublimely picks out the wrinkled, landscape-ridged surface of the newspaper. Almost at the very centre of the composition is the hammer and sickle, a black icon.

The hats are agrarian, and evoke the romantic guerrilla heroes of the Mexican revolution that began in 1910. The light on the hats is intense, the absence of the men’s faces glaring, the arrangement startlingly geometric. The hats suggest, with their circles within circles, the cogs of industry, the wheels of progress, the industrial rather than rural proletariat, a symbolic transformation of reality into Marxist myth similar to that violently carried out in the Soviet Union during this period.

Above all, Modotti associates the destiny of the people with abstract, purified, pared-down art. In the intense, more-than-real poetry of this image, we glimpse the revelation, the apocalypse of historical inevitability as she sees it; there is something mystical about this picture.

The radical art historian TJ Clark wrote of this image: “This is a world, and a vision of history, more lost to us than… kings ripping blood sacrifice from their tongues.” This is not immediately obvious, as we can easily share the revolutionary romance of Modotti’s image – but now it is just that: romance. The fervent belief this image documents belongs to another time and place, when a world revolution seemed to be happening; when workers gathered in the street around the beacon of the hammer and sickle, and when the aesthetic Marxist Modotti could assert that beauty is communism, communism beauty.

Inspirations and influences: Modotti was friends with Frida Kahlo.

Where is it? Private collection.

By Jonathan Jones

The Guardian