Modernism has long been critiqued from a feminist perspective, for sidelining female artists for the phallocentric focus on Modern Masters. The great American photographers of the 20th century such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston have been prolifically written about, exhibited world wide and become integral to the establishment of photography as an art form within the art historical canon. So who is Tina Modotti? Stated on her death certificate was, Occupation: Housewife, but she was so much more – an actress, model, political activist, writer and photographer who was fundamental to the establishment of modernism in Mexico. I want to uncover her prolific career and the social taboo of the female artist.
I recently begun researching the photography of Paul Strand during his Mexican travels in the 30s and discovered the work of Modotti who produced similar visions of the Mexican scape. Tina Modotti was a pioneering force of communism within post-revolutionary Mexico, depicting the struggles of the indigenous poor who suffered due to the governmental regime. She produced haunting, socially poignant photographs and was taught her technique by the master of photography, Edward Weston.
Modotti was a native Italian who grew up in a radical leaning family in the North. She moved to San Francisco aged 16 and begun a career as an actress. She proved successful, ending up in Hollywood and staring in many silent movies, typecast as the Italian femme fatale. She became part of a bohemian elite, engaging in intellectual love affairs and liaising with artists, musicians and revolutionaries. It is unclear how she met Weston, who was married, but it was most probably at a soiree in the Hollywood Hills. They begun an illicit love affair and eventually moved to Mexico for artistic creative renewal in 1923. They established a studio there and Weston taught Modotti the basics of photography. She developed her own unique, abstracted style, focusing on form and produced exquisite imagery such as Roses and Cala Lilies which recall Edward Weston’s erotic shell series (1927). Tina developed a new style of photography known as ‘new vision’, producing abstract still lives which renewed the tradition of the vanitas.
However after becoming intoxicated with the Mexican way of life and befriending communist revolutionaries, Modotti realised that her calling was to focus on the social strife of the indigenous people – known as the concept of indiginismo. She became part of the Mexican movement known as Mexicanidad which focused on themes of the Mexican past and present and its national struggle. Artists wanted to forge a national identity rooted in the ancient past. Other artists in this movement include Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquerios, and José Clemente Orozco. She experienced inner conflict between her art practice and her political activities and confided in Weston – ‘I cannot – as you once proposed to me ‘solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art’…there should be an even balance of both elements while in my case life is always struggling to predominate and art naturally suffers.’ She acutely felt sympathetic towards the proletariat and the oppressed and thus began producing striking portraits. Elisa Kneeling, 1924, is a captivating image of the oppressed. She depicts her live-in housekeeper in an intimate view – capturing the anguish and suffering of the poor. She acts as an emblem for national identity within Mexico.
Her relationship with Weston began to deteriorate in 1926 and Weston returned to California, leaving Modotti to run their photographic studio. She then became a contributor to the Mexican art and culture magazine, Mexican Folkways, producing Communist propaganda images which coincided with her fully fledged allegiance to the party in 1927. She produced her most influential and memorable photographs within this time period, capturing the modernization of Mexico and the continual political uncertainty.
Her work embodies the concept of ‘class eye’, uncovering the social problems within Mexico. She focused on the role of women in her penultimate years in Mexico and was moved by the women of Tehuantepec, who had political and economic freedom and were not seen as subordinate to the male. They were one of the first (and only) matrilineal societies within Mexico. Her most poignant photographs focus on hands which was a key theme in modernist Mexican photography. ‘Hands resting on a tool’ depicts the harsh labour conditions of the poor. The attention to detail through her lens captures the strife of the workers due to the coarse lines and intense grip on the tools. ‘Hands washing’ 1927 is an ambiguous photo, portraying a woman washing. Is Modotti commenting on gender roles within Mexico? Are the hands seen as a coded symbol of the domesticated woman who is perceived fit for household labour chores?
Tina became embroiled in another tumultuous love affair with the Cuban communist exile Julio Antonio Mella in 1926. He was tragically assassinated in 1929 and the Mexican government arrested Modotti for his murder as a scapegoat to improve relations with Cuba. Luckily she was acquitted a week later but understandably she felt threatened for her security. She began to feel disillusioned by Mexico, where she has once felt so much hope and promise in the Communist regime – ‘No words could better express than the look of this face the sadness and grief I feel at being unable to give life to all the marvellous possibilities that I envision, which already exist as a seed and await only the sacred fire that should arise in me, but which, when I look for it, I find extinguished. Permit me to use the word ‘defeat’ in this case; I tell you I feel defeated for having nothing more to offer and for ‘having no more strength for tenderness’. It has been debated by art historians as to whether she gave up photography at this point.
She was expelled from Mexico in 1930 and travelled throughout Europe, eventually settling in Moscow in 1931. It is believed that she returned to Mexico in 1939 under a pseudonym. Her death is shrouded in mystery. She died from a heart attack but Diego Rivera believed she was suspiciously killed due to her involvement in the Spanish Civil War during her time in Europe. Ultimately, her photographs from Mexico are her most compelling and beautiful works from her interdisciplinary career. Her work is beginning to be exhibited more within modern art galleries. In 2004, the Barbican held an exhibition on Modotti and Weston and their time in Mexico. Also last summer, the Royal Academy held Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 and included her work. However within the wider modern photographic discourse, little has been researched on her as she is overshadowed by Weston and Paul Strand’s explorations of Mexico. Hopefully as more women artists are being discovered and investigated by art historians, Modotti will get the recognition she deserves as a true modernist photographer. Modotti’s photographs characterized a whole moment of history within Mexico and through her striking images we are able to see the social inequalities that were endured by the indigenous populace.
By Maisie Waters