Nude, Mexico by Edward Weston photo from Getty Museum Archive
According to an interesting post at the Getty Museum Archive, Edward Weston shot this photo on a Mexico City rooftop in 1924. He was on the roof to shoot clouds, but got distracted by his lover, Tina Modotti, sunbathing.
Another piece to the fascinating puzzle of Modotti’s storied life.
Tina Modotti was born in Italy in 1896. As a child, she worked in a silk factory. At sixteen, she followed her father to San Francisco, where she got another job at a textile factory, and dabbled in theater, labor causes, and fashion design.
In 1918, Modotti married the quiet French Canadian artist Roubaix de l’Abrie (Robo) Richey and moved to Los Angeles. The couple’s giant house was the center of a bohemian scene; Modotti designed and sewed her own outlandish outfits and began acting again. Doors opened easily for her, and she was somewhat startled to suddenly find herself a starlet of the silent screen.
Robo’s studio attracted local artists, including Edward Weston, who asked Modotti to model for him. They fell into a passionate affair. Their relationship pushed Robo to the sidelines, and the painter departed to Mexico to nurse his sorrows. He fell in love with the country. Lured by Robo’s letters, glowing odes to Mexico, Modotti traveled to visit him, but Robo died suddenly of smallpox two days before his wife arrived. Despite the sad circumstances, Modotti also felt the allure of Mexico. She returned a year later with Weston.
In Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera writes:
“Modotti came to Mexico from California in 1923 as the great photographer Edward Weston’s apprentice and companion, and she had stayed on after he left, becoming increasingly involved in communist politics, largely through her successive love affairs with the painter Xavier Guerrero and [Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio] Mella. She was talented, beautiful, tempestuous, and sensitive, and exuded a vibrant strength, somehow managing to be earthy and otherworldly at the same time.”
Modotti’s affair with the charismatic Mella ended in bloodshed when Mella was gunned down on a dark corner in the Centro Historico (just blocks from the Hotel Isabel). Modotti was with him that night; the couple had been walking home from the La India bar. Modotti was taken into custody under suspicion of murder, but her friend Diego Rivera paid her bail. In El Monstruo, John Ross writes,
“The scandal sheets hinted that the killing had been a crime of passion. Vitorrio Vidale, a Stalinist hit man who was smitten with La Modotti, is sometimes mentioned as a possible third party. So was El Sapo [Rivera], who had seduced young Modotti and in whose murals she sometimes appeared.”
Modotti is perhaps most famous for introducing her young friend Frida Kahlo to the local Communist Party and to Diego Rivera. Frida described encountering Diego: “The meeting took place in the period when people carried pistols and went around shooting the street lamps on Madero Avenue and getting into mischief. During the night they broke them all and went about spraying bullets, just for fun. Once at a party, given by Tina, Diego shot a phonograph and I began to be very interested in him in spite of the fear I had of him.”
Modotti was an photographer in her own right (according to MOMA, her early close-up still lifes were precursors to Weston’s famous work in the same vein), but after her exile from Mexico in 1930 (for communist activities) she migrated to Moscow, where she threw her camera in the river and devoted herself to working for communist causes. During the Spanish Civil War she worked for the humanitarian International Red Aid organization, providing support to the Republican cause. At the end of the war, she was deported from Spain.
Modotti returned to Mexico under a pseudonym and lived a quiet life, which meant avoiding most of her old friends. In 1942, she died alone in the back of a Mexico City taxi, supposedly of heart failure, though many, including Diego Rivera, considered the circumstances of her death suspicious.