From Hollywood Diva To Frida's Mistress: The Photographer Whose Life Was As Epic As Her Pictures
May 15, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Tina Modotti: from Hollywood superstar to artist to Communist Nun. Her life and work are anything but boring.
In a world that relies heavily on video to tell stories, we've somehow stopped looking at other works that challenge our minds and their creators who captured the whole essence of a historical period or of an entire country. The ease with which you can take a photograph is deceptive, making everyone believe anyone can do it. But when we look at the works of those great photographers, we see how they move us with a single static image and how before our very eyes a story begins to unfold.
I truly believe it requires a natural born talent to convey such powerful messages and stories. One of the giants who wove her emotions and ideals into her work was Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer whose journey was rife with passion and tragedy. The photographs she took captured an entire nation, and she viewed Mexico through a tender yet emotional filter, an accomplishment few can boast of. She passed from being a Hollywood superstar to one of the most fervent activists of her time. It may be that women at the time didn't have that much freedom but she found her own path and she did what loved doing most: powerful photography.
Modotti was born in a small town in Italy in a humble family, and at the age of sixteen she immigrated to San Francisco to join her father who had moved there a couple of years earlier. When she arrived, she decided to give acting a try, believing it was her true calling. At the age of twenty, she fell in love with Roubaix “Robo” de l’Abrie Richey, a rising painter and poet. They both decided to move to LA to chase stardom and Tina's career took off, where she was cast in various silent movies.
In LA, the couple became immersed in the bohemian circle and there she met one of her greatest loves, photographer Edward Weston. Soon they began a secret affair, since she was still with Robo and he was married with four kids. In their circle, they became acquainted with Ricardo Gómez Robelo, a Mexican writer who would soon be named Minister of Education of Fine Arts in Mexico. They became fast friends and he invited Robo to make an exhibition of his work in his city and he even offered him a job and his own studio. After much discussion, the couple decided to take this opportunity and move to Mexico. They agreed that Robo would move in first and put things in order and Modotti would then follow. It turns out, that on her way to Mexico she received news that Robo had contracted smallpox and had died; she arrived two days later to his funeral.
Determined to fulfill Robo’s wish and with the help of her new friends, she managed to organize an exhibition in the National Academy of Fine Arts. Not a year had passed since Robo's death that she had to return to the US, only this time it was for her father's funeral. Back there she met with Weston once again and their love intensified, but this time they decided to elope and move to Mexico City. They struck a deal where she would take care of his studio for free and in return he would teach her about photography. In this new life, she decided to turn away from acting and pursue a new artistic art form that would give her the depth and inspiration she craved. Once established and with a new career underway, the couple began to make friends in the intellectual circles of the country.
During that time Modotti met Diego Rivera with whom she had a brief but intense affair, and he would introduce her to the communist ideals, which she would later on embrace with great fervor. At one of her famous parties she met Diego's other half, Frida Kahlo, a then young, unknown artist with a lot of potential. It's said that both Modotti and Kahlo were immediately drawn to each other and would become lovers.
The more Modotti became immersed in the local intellectual circles, the more she understood the artistic path she wanted to pursue. While Weston was busy capturing the esthetic beauty Mexico had to offer, Modotti found inspiration in the political and social movements of the time. She began to actively work with Siqueiros and other muralists who portrayed political and social injustices through art, and always under a communist discourse that would gain power as time went by.
Besides her politically charged worked, she became really interested in the Communist party and she would host communist migrants who were exiled to Mexico. She would even organize secret meetings between the leaders of the party and Mexican officials. In 1926, on one of her trips to California, she met Julio Antonio Mella, a prominent Communist figure and a Cuban revolutionary who is considered a hero among many Latin American radicals. Upon their return to Mexico they began a relationship but it would end abruptly. Mella was shot dead while the couple was out for a walk. She was arrested as a suspect and shortly exonerated. This event completely changed her life and even Diego Rivera remarked that because of the traumatic experience she became a "communist nun" whose sole focus would be her social and political work.
Modotti became such a prominent Communist figure that she became a target for the Mexican government and she was banished from the country in 1930. She tried to go back to Italy but fascism already had a strong foothold, so she settled for Berlin for a couple of months. As fascism began to escalate in that region as well, she managed to move to Moscow where she lived for some years. There, she met Vittorio Vidali an Italian communist and activist who apparently shared her ideals. When the Spanish Civil War erupted, the couple moved to Spain and joined the resistance movement and when the Republicans were defeated, they tried to flee to New York but they were refused entry. After much turmoil, they finally decided to go back to Mexico using pseudonyms to avoid detection and capture.
In 1942, while returning home from a party hosted by the famous poet Pablo Neruda, she died unexpectedly in the back seat of a taxi. People including Diego Rivera, claimed she had been killed by Vidali, who suspiciously ran away the next morning fearing he would be held accountable for her death. Yet her autopsy revealed she had died of a heart failure. She was buried in Mexico and while her work has been left to one side compared to Frida and Diego's masterpieces, we see how each photograph brims with emotions and stories.
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