An exhibition brings together more than a hundred images of the photographer and activist who portrayed post-revolutionary Mexico from its epicenter
He left barely 400 snapshots, but of enough quality and intensity to earn a place of honor in the history of photography. Passion and revolution define the work and the many lives Tina Modotti (Udine, Italy, 1896-Mexico, 1942) lived in less than half a century, the photographer and activist who, from his epicenter, experienced one of the most convulsive periods in the history portrayed of Mexico. A pioneer of photojournalism, she reflected avant-garde aesthetics and social excitement with her unique style.
A talent and a passion reflected in the hundred images exhibited by the Cerralbo Museum in Madrid, which, as part of the PHotoESPAÑA program, will host until October 2 the exhibition dedicated to one of the great figures of the 20th century photography. The exhibition includes crucial objects and documents in Modotti’s life and allows us to peruse his eventful biography.
In her short career as a photographer, Modotti created her own powerful aesthetic. She was a reporter and documentary filmmaker dedicated to a pivotal period in the history of Mexico, the country in which she settled and died. A passion that was also vital to a woman who was a model and actress, a lover of geniuses like Edward Weston or Diego Rivera – she broke the painting marriage with her friend Frida Kahlo – and an occasional spy and nurse for Pasionaria in Spain.
By the age of twelve, Modotti was already working as a slave in a silk factory in her native Udine. She left Italy at the age of 16 to travel to the United States alone, following her father and sister to San Francisco. In Hollywood, she flirted with femme fatales at the cinema and also acted in theater and opera. At a very young age, she took an active role that denied the female social stereotype imposed at the time. She was a communist militant, a political refugee, a staunch revolutionary and a member of the International Red Aid in the Spanish Civil War.
Married to a young Oregon poet, she met Edward Weston in San Francisco at the age of 25, who was already an established name as a great photographer. In one breath he went from her model to her lover. A loving passion that would make Modotti an exceptional avant-garde photographer, as witnessed by her poetic photographs of flowers that are more than half a century ahead of Mapplethorpe’s.
His arrival in Mexico with Weston in 1924 radically changed his life and his outlook. He developed most of his photographic work there between 1923 and 1930, years in which he experienced the revolutionary zeal of a country with which he fully identified. He portrayed popular, cultural and political life and the post-revolutionary clamor, with symbols such as a crossed hammer and sickle on the crown of a charro hat.
“In just a few years he gave his images a quality comparable to that of other photographers after a lifetime of work,” emphasize the curators of the exhibition, María de las Nieves Rodríguez and Reinhard Schultz. “In his rich and short existence, he sought beauty through photography and worked for social justice out of political militancy,” they point out.
Modotti revolutionized Mexican photography, just as Diego Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros did in painting and muralism. His images are the paradigm of the fusion between Mexican revolutionary culture and avant-garde aesthetics. “He added the ideals of equality proposed by socialism and his sense and capacity for social engagement, which gave meaning to his life,” say Rodríguez and Schultz. She was so devoted to politics that “she became a sort of communist nun,” Diego Rivera said.
At the center of the struggle between Stalinism and Trotskyism, waged in part in the Mexican capital with Trotsky’s murder, she wanted to be involved in and in his crime for which she was being questioned. She was also linked to the death of another of her lovers, Julio Antonio Mella, a 26-year-old Cuban communist who was murdered in 1929 while walking with Modotti. Modotti was also linked to the plot to assassinate Mexican President Pascual Ortiz.
Modotti died of a heart attack in a taxi at the age of 46, although some say poisoned by a black hand that killed Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, or Vittorio Vidali, the implacable Italian Stalinist with whom the photographer shared more than a decade and whoever he traveled to the USSR or Spain plunged into the civil war. She worked here with the International Brigades, was a leader of Socorro Rojo and a nurse from Pasionaria when the communist leader was suffering from hepatitis.
Source: La Verdad