Tina Modotti, A Photographer and a Revolutionary

June 28, 2019

The Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti was a captivating personality from whom creativity effortlessly flowed. Demonstrating her unique methodology and vision, her photographs blend formal rigor with social awareness. In addition to being a photographer, Modotti was also a sought-after model, a famous film actress, and a key political activist.

The current exhibition at Palazzo Bisaccioni in Jesi outlines the existential and artistic story of this seminal 20th-century Italian photographer, celebrating its myth, but also shedding light on more private aspects. In Tina Modotti: A Photographer and a Revolutionary, photography and life coincide, affecting each other with honesty, passion and ideas.

The museum showcase brings together sixty photographs from the Galerie Bilderwelt, retracing Modotti's fascinating biography and the passions that determined her existence and her art. It is organized in six sections, retracing the places, images, friends and lovers who were part of Modotti's fascinating universe.

Edward Weston - Portrait of Tina Modotti in house in Glendale Glendale by Weston, California, 1922
Edward Weston - The portrait of Tina Modotti in Weston's house in Glendale Glendale, California, 1922. Courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult

The Formative Years

The first section of the exhibition explores Tina Modotti's origins and family history. Born in Udine, Italy in 1896, Modotti spent much of her childhood living in Austria, until her family moved to San Francisco when she was seventeen due to difficult living conditions in Italy. There, Modotti met and fell in love with the Canadian artist Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey and moved with him to the city of Los Angeles. A painter and poet, he had a profound influence on Modotti's early artistic life. It was through him that Modotti was introduced to the artists, writers, photographers, and other members of the cultural elite.

The second section of the show examines her brief Hollywood career as a silent film actress. An attractive femme fatale, Modotti played in several films, including 1920 film by Roy Clemens, The Tiger's Coat, the only surviving film document of her career as an actress. She also worked as a much sought-after model for artists and photographers, including the notable Pictorialist photographer, Jane Reece.

The third section is dedicated to her relationship with Edward Weston, who was her mentor and lover for years. After moving with him to Mexico in 1923, she learned the art of photography under his tutelage, eventually becoming an outstanding photographer in her own right. Both influenced by European constructivism and Mexican identity, they initially photographed the same subjects until Modotti's unique vision characterized by humanity began to take shape. Her early photographs included close-ups of flowers and other still-life compositions, focusing on the geometrical pattern, both manmade and present in nature. She often experimented with composition, using the technique of cropping and unusual choices of perspective.

Tina Modotti - Tank Number 1, Mexico City, 1927, Tina Modotti - March of the Workers, Mexico D. F., 1926.
Left: Tina Modotti - Tank Number 1, Mexico, 1927 / Right: Tina Modotti - March of the Workers, Mexico D. F., 1926. Courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult

An Artist and Activist

While Weston remained a constant presence in Modotti's life, their love was destined to end, as her political passions took her away from the formal aesthetic of the American photographer. Mexico is the subject of the fourth section of the show - a land of passion and riots in which the young photographer found refuge, love and above all, inspiration. Here, she focused on portraiture, always highlighting the emotional dimension of her subjects. Over time, her photography became more political in subject matter and intent. Her recurring interest in the floral, repeated pattern, the depiction of the working classes and of indigenous culture were a bare homage to her adopted country. Her work as a photographer went hand in hand with her political, human and social commitment. It was in this period that she became friends with the painters and Mexican Communist Party founders in Mexico City, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.

The fifth section brings together photographs of her friends, including Frida Kahlo, Julio Antonio Mella, and Vittorio Vidali, with whom Modotti engaged in long evenings of celebration and political and existential debates. In the late 1930s, the political tension in Mexico began to increase, due to the international clash between Stalinists and Trotskyists. Tina herself was accused of having participated in the murder of Julio Antonio Mella, a Cuban communist revolutionary with who she had a brief and intense love affair. She was soon cleared and release, but the resulting political intrigue tainted the remainder of her stay in Mexico City. Later, she was arrested unjustly along with other enemies of the state, for the attempted murder of the new Mexican president, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. This led to her deportation from the country for refusing to renounce communism. She ended up in Europe on the threshold of the Second World War with Vittorio Vidali, a leading figure of the communist party, with whom she engaged in a romantic relationship.

The final section of the exhibition dives deeper into Modotti's ever-increasing involvement in politics, which led her to abandon photography and devote all her energy to communist activism. This all-encompassing commitment drove her to Russia, France and Spain, and later Mexico, where she died under mysterious circumstances at just forty-five years old.

Tina Modotti - Breastfeeding a Baby, Mexico D.F., 1926, Tina Modotti - Tehuantepec Women With Baskets, Mexico, 1929, after Weston
Left: Tina Modotti - Breastfeeding a Baby, Mexico D.F., 1926 / Right: Tina Modotti - Tehuantepec Women With Baskets, Mexico, 1929. Courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult

Tina Modotti Photography at Cassa di Risparmio di Jesi Foundation

The work of Tina Modotti was only rediscovered in the 1990s, as her photography was long overshadowed by her extraordinary life and her relationship with Edward Weston. Her remarkably short photographic career left a legacy of iconic images, which fused rigorous formalism with revolutionary photography through the language of modernism.

Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary is currently on view at the museum Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Jesi, Palazzo Bisaccioni in Jesi, Italy until September 1st, 2019.

The exhibition was conceived by Francesca Macera and co-curated by Reinhard Schultz.

  Editors’ Tip: Tina Modotti: Photographer & Revolutionary

First published in 1993 and long out of print, Tina Modotti: Photographer & Revolutionary is the definitive portrayal of Modotti’s life and work. Few photographers are more deserving of a biographical treatment than Modotti, whose work as an actress and artist’s model introduced her to Edward Weston, who was to become her lover. Soon after she arrived in Mexico City with Weston, Modotti became increasingly politicized, working for the communist newspaper El Machete and establishing herself as the go-to photographer for the Mexican Muralist movement. The book includes extensive archival material, interviews with Modotti’s contemporaries and many rare photographs.

Featured images: Tina Modotti - Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the May 1st Event, Mexico D.F., 1928; Anonymous - Tina Modotti in the role of Maria de la Guardia in the film "The Tiger’s Coat" Hollywood, 1920”; Walter Frederick Seeely - Tina Modotti and Roubaix Richey creating "batiks" Los Angeles, 1921; Tina Modotti - Construction Workers In the Stadium, Mexico D.F., 1927; Tina Modotti - Puppet Master's Hands (Louis Bunin), Mexico D.F., 1929. All images courtesy GALERIE BILDERWELT di Reinhard Schult.

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