Biography

Modotti, Tina (1896-1942), Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist. She was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Udine, Friuli, Italy. In 1913, at the age of 16, she immigrated to the United States to join her father in San Francisco, California.Attracted to the performing arts supported by the Italian emigre community in the Bay Area, Modotti experimented with acting. She appeared in several plays, operas and silent movies in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and also worked as an artist’s model. In 1918, she married Roubaix “Robo” de l’Abrie Richey and moved with him to Los Angeles in order to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. There she met the photographer Edward Weston and his assistant Margrethe Mather. By 1921, Modotti was Weston’s favorite model and, by October of that year, his lover. Modotti’s husband Robo seems to have responded to this by moving to Mexico in 1921. Following him to Mexico City, Modotti arrived two days after his death from smallpox on February 9, 1922. In 1923, Modotti returned to Mexico City with Weston and his son Chandler, leaving behind Weston’s wife and remaining three children. Modotti and Weston quickly gravitated toward the capital’s bohemian scene, and used their connections to create an expanding portrait business. It was also during this time that Modotti met several political radicals and Communists, including three Mexican Communist Party leaders who would all eventually become romantically linked with Modotti: Xavier Guerrero, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali.

By 1927, a much more politically active Modotti (she joined the Mexican Communist Party that year) found her focus shifting and more of her work becoming politically motivated. Around that period, her photographs began appearing in publications such as Mexican Folkways, Forma, and the more radically motivated El Machete.

In Mexico, Modotti found a community of cultural and political avant guardists. She became the photographer of choice for the blossoming Mexican mural movement, documenting the works of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Her visual vocabulary matured during this period, such as her formal experiments with architectural interiors, flowers and urban landscapes, and especially in her many lyrical images of peasants and workers. Indeed, her one-woman retrospective exhibition at the National Library in December 1929 was advertised as “The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico.” She had reached a high point in her career as a photographer, but within the next year she was forced to set her camera aside in favor of more pressing concerns.

During this same period, economic and political contradictions within Mexico and indeed much of Central and South America were intensifying and this included increased repression of political dissidents. On January 10, 1929, Modotti’s comrade and companion Julio Antonio Mella was assassinated, ostensibly by agents of the Cuban government. Shortly thereafter an attempt was made on the Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Modotti — who was a target of both the Mexican and Italian political police — was questioned about both crimes amidst a concerted anti-communist, anti-immigrant press campaign, which depicted “the fierce and bloody Tina Modotti” as the perpetrator. (A Catholic zealot, Daniel Luis Flores, was later charged with shooting Rubio. José Magriñat was arrested for Mella’s murder.)

As a result of the anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government, Modotti was expelled from Mexico in February, 1930, and placed under guard on a ship bound for Rotterdam. The Italian government made concerted efforts to extradite her as a subversive national, but with the assistance of International Red Aid activists, she evaded detention by the fascist police. Traveling on a restricted visa that mandated her final destination as Italy, Modotti initially stopped in Berlin and from there visited Switzerland. She apparently intended to make her way into Italy and to join the anti-fascist resistance there. However, in response to the deteriorating political situation in Germany and her own exhausted resources, she followed the advice of Vittorio Vidali and moved to Moscow in 1931.

During the next few years she engaged in various missions on behalf of the International Workers’ Relief organizations and the Comintern in Europe. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Vidali (then known as “Comandante Carlos”) and Modotti (using the pseudonym “Maria”) left Moscow for Spain, where they stayed and worked until 1939. She worked with the famed Canadian Dr. Norman BethuneMálaga in 1937. In April 1939, following the collapse of the Republican movement in Spain, Modotti left Spain with Vidali and returned to Mexico under a pseudonym. (who would later invent the mobile blood unit) during the disastrous retreat from

Modotti died from heart failure in Mexico City in 1942 under what is viewed by some as suspicious circumstances. After hearing about her death, Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali had orchestrated it. Modotti may have ‘known too much’ about Vidali’s activities in Spain, which included a rumoured 400 executions. Her grave is located within the vast Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City. Poet Pablo Neruda composed Tina Modotti’s epitaph, part of which can also be found on her tombstone, which also includes a relief portrait of Modotti by engraver Leopoldo Méndez:

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.