Historical Photo of the Week: Tina Modotti by Edward Weston

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.

10 Responses to “Historical Photo of the Week: Tina Modotti by Edward Weston”

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  1. Tina Rosa says:

    Fascinating mini-biography! And such great pelvic bones!

  2. El Codo says:

    I’ll stray from my usual sexist comments and say the early Mexican communists seemed to have been as brutal as Mexico’s worst. Trotsky vs the mountaineer’s ice ax. How this mixes with “Art” is beyond fascination. Great stuff!

  3. BC says:

    Thanks for the post Churpa !

    I was not aware of this fascinating artist/activist/photographer, she had quiet a life! So while doing some further research I came up with a few items that may be of interest to anyone else wanting to further explore this fascinating artist/activist/photographer.

    Modotti’s December 1929 one-woman exhibition, at the National Library, was promoted as “The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition In Mexico.”

    Modotti’s series of hand studies are said to be some of her “most evocative pieces.” “Workman’s Hands with Shovel” Mexico 1926, Platinum print
    “The worker’s worn, dusty hands rest upon the handle of his tool, is a powerful symbol of a life of hard manual labor.” Modotti was sympathetic to the plight of the laborer in her adopted Mexico, and “her photograph serves as an anonymous but respectful depiction of all those in the peasant class for whom survival is a daily struggle.”

    Modotti revolutionary sympathies clearly reflect in her ”Guitar, Sickle and Ammunition Belt”, Mexico City, 1927 (b/w photo), is a powerful composition which visually states ”this is a People’s revolution, and I know which side I am on.””

    Modotti’s “Convento di Tepotzotlan, Messico 1926 ca” has been described as “a photograph of absences, with the hint of impending presences.” http://www.comitatotinamodotti.it/ctm.htm

    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.

    • El Codo says:

      I think I would appreciate Guitar, Sickle, And Ammunition Belt, better, had the sickle been replaced by a machete. Or take out the guitar and replace it with a three pound drilling hammer. OK enough already, freakin’ art critic!

  4. Hannah says:

    Nice! Trivia: Modotti’s photograph of roses supposedly went for a huge sum at auction causing a bidding war between Madonna and Susie Tompkins, then owner of Esprit who used the image on her clothing tags.

  5. Wow, great history. To think people lived who actually cared about someone other than themselves & joined the communists to fight for equality & jobs for all. That’s a far cry from our current world of “takers & makers” as characterized by the fascist U.S. Representative & Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan.

    • churpa says:

      Paul Ryan is a giant weasel. I’m just sayin’.
      Actually Modotti’s politics were a little hardline for my tastes. For example, when Diego Rivera was kicked out of Mexico’s Communist Party for accepting money from the Mexican government for creating murals, Modotti broke of contact with Rivera.