Retrospective of Photographer Tina Modotti at Kunst Haus Wien

Retrospective of Photographer Tina Modotti at Kunst Haus Wien

VIENNA.- The photographer Tina Modotti, who was born in 1896 in Udine, Italy and died in 1942 in Mexico, was one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century. She became famous as a result of the photographs she created in Mexico in the 1920s and her involvement in the revolutionary movements of her time.

The exhibition at KUNST HAUS WIEN offers an overview of significant areas of her photographic work, which has yet to receive the tribute it deserves: her portraits and studies of plants, her images of the revolutionary movement of the 1920s in Mexico, her marionette photographs, her famous series on the “Women of Tehuantepec”, and a selection of little-known vintage prints of photographs that Modotti made of Diego Rivera’s murals.

KUNST HAUS WIEN Director Franz Patay comments: “The biography of Modotti, one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century, and her arresting photographic series, convey an impression of the atmosphere in Mexico in the 1920s, when painters like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were alive and artists and intellectuals from many countries of the world came together and involved themselves in the

revolutionary movement.” The path of Tina Modotti’s life took her from Italy to California, Mexico, Berlin, Moscow, Paris, Spain and back to Mexico. Other artists who were important in her life included the photographers Edward Weston, Johan Hagemeyer and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the author B. Traven and the poet Pablo Neruda.

“Within a few eventful years, Tina Modotti created a photographic oeuvre that shows a striking development from early, formal approaches to a photographic style that was the outgrowth of social commitment. The expressive power of Modotti’s photography arises from her individual pictorial language and her unmistakable humanity, which went far beyond her dedication to political causes,” says Andreas Hirsch, Curator of KUNST


“By some, Tina Modotti is seen as the heroine of the workers’ movement, by others as a classical femme fatale. Still others consider her a kind of ‘Joan of Arc with a camera’, as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes,” relates Reinhard Schultz, Curator of Galerie Bilderwelt Berlin. “It is, however, undisputed that she was an extraordinarily dedicated woman, admired and loved by artists and intellectuals.”

Edward Weston’s Influence
Tina Modotti’s photographic oeuvre was created over a relatively short period of time and almost entirely in Mexico in the 1920s. She learned her craft from the American Edward Weston, who later became famous for

his “pure photography” – in exchange for keeping house for him.

Just as Modotti and Weston dissolved their private relationship a step at a time, Modotti also rapidly

emancipated herself from her teacher as a photographer and developed her own form of artistic expression. Two pictures in the exhibition illustrate this development particularly well: Both Weston and Modotti photographed the tent of a Russian circus. Whereas Weston’s pictorial composition focused on the structures of the tent roof, Modotti also integrated into her picture some of the people sitting inside the tent.

Portraits and Social Documentation
Tina Modotti very soon began to focus her photographic work on the people of Mexico and the conditions in which they lived. Her portrait photography clearly shows the antithesis between the well-to-do families – whose portraits were usually commissioned works – and the campesinos and their children, who lived in poverty. Modotti increasingly devoted herself to social documentation, which took her to such places as the slum Colonia de la Bolsa.

Photographer of the Revolution
Tina Modotti’s increasing involvement with the Communist Party of Mexico (CPM) and later with International Red Aid (MOPR) also found expression in her photography. After the formal studies of buildings and plants that had dominated her early works, she now – in addition to documenting the work of the revolution – created emblematic still lifes with hammers, sickles, sombreros, guitars and cobs of corn.

Photographer of Murals
From 1928, Tina Modotti and the author B. Traven prepared a project devoted to the documentation of Mexican mural painting. During this time she worked very closely with Diego Rivera. Her photographs of murals are more than mere reproductions of the art works. Modotti deliberately plays with the architecture surrounding the murals, emphasises certain details, or includes the artist in the photograph – thus staging and interpreting the works of art. A special section of the exhibition, with approximately 60 little-known vintage prints, is devoted to Tina Modotti’s work as a “photographer of murals”.

The Fateful Year 1929
In 1929, several important milestones converged in Modotti’s career as a photographer, and other events occurred that seriously affected her private life. In January, her lover, the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, was shot and killed before her eyes in the open street. In a media campaign, she was accused of having been involved in the assassination. The exhibition presents important photographic portraits of Mella as well as a legendary photograph of his typewriter.

On a journey that Modotti undertook in August 1929, she created the famous photographs of the women of Tehuantepec. Modotti’s photos of the American puppeteer Louis Bunin were taken in the same year. At the end of 1929, her first and probably most important solo exhibition was held at the National Library in Mexico City.

There are only a few photographic works by Tina Modotti from the period following her expulsion from Mexico in 1930. These were made in 1930 in Berlin, where she was unable to establish herself commercially as a photographer. During her stay there, the photographer Lotte Jacobi hosted an important last exhibition of Tina Modotti’s works. According to Pablo Neruda, Tina Modotti later tossed her Graflex camera into the Moskva River when she was living in Moscow.

Documentation in the Exhibition
Many artistic and revolutionary personalities crossed Tina Modotti’s path. In a special documentary section integrating historical material, the exhibition attempts to trace some of the interplay of reciprocal influences and impulses in the artistic and revolutionary subcultures of the 1920s and 1930s between Mexico and Europe.

Points of Contact with Austria
Modotti came into contact with Austria twice in her life: Her early years took her to Carinthia, where her father, a mechanic, temporarily found work, first in St. Ruprecht near Klagenfurt and later in Ferlach. In 1933 she was sent to Austria by MOPR to provide aid after the clashes between the paramilitary socialist organisation “Schutzbund” and the military in the February Uprising.

Films in the Exhibition
Tina Modotti began her career as an actress on the stage and in silent films. As part of the exhibition, two films will be shown: In the Hollywood production “The Tiger’s Coat” of 1920, directed by Roy Clements, she played the role of Maria de la Guarda, her first – and only – leading role in a feature film. The documentary “Tina Modotti – Photographer and Revolutionary” was produced in 1981 by the public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) and still represents a milestone in the documentary investigation of the life and work of Tina Modotti.