Separating Art from Life

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In a 1925 letter to Edward Weston, Tina Modotti emphasized the difficulty she experienced reconciling her art and her life: "Art cannot exist without life I admit but ... in my case life is always struggling to predominate and art naturally suffers." Today, more than 70 years later, the work of this renowned photographer continues to be overshadowed by her tumultuous life. A similar situation exists for Modotti's friend Frida Kahlo. In contemporary discourse, it seems that it is still not possible to discuss the artistic production of both women without focusing on their lives, particularly their emotional relationships with famous artists: in Modotti's case, Weston, and in Kahlo's, Diego Rivera.

Obviously it takes time for the fascin-ation with the lives and appearances of these outstanding women artists to give way to a true appreciation of their work. One wonders if this is particular to women artists. Why, for example, have the dramatic life and good looks of Robert Mapplethorpe not overshadowed his photography? In Modotti's case, her photographs have yet to be properly deciphered, and her work still remains dislocated from the context of her contemporaries and the artistic movements of her time. While art and life cannot, as Modotti recognized, be wholly separated, it is now time to cut through the mythology that invariably accompanies her life, to begin an evaluation and appreciation of Modotti the photographer. Such a revision is encouraged by "Tina Modotti: Photographs," the first major retrospective of Modotti's photographs held in the United States (previous exhibitions have taken place in Europe). Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this exhibition of approximately 90 vintage prints provides a substantial cross section of Modotti's work. The show was curated by Martha Chahroudi, the museum's curator of photography, and Sarah M. Lowe, an art historian who also wrote the catalog essay. Although there is little new material in the show, it does provide a splendid opportunity to see a great deal of Modotti's vintage work in one place at the same time. However, there are some problems in the design and installation of the exhibition. The many different mats and frames jar, particularly the outstanding platinum print, Abstract: Crumpled Tinfoil (c. 1926), on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, which is sacrificed to a hideous green mat. In addition, the hanging of so many prints at eye level, on long walls, becomes monotonous. One hopes that these mistakes will be avoided at other venues.

Unfortunately, an exhibition of this magnitude probably would not have taken place without the mythology that surrounds Modotti's life. For instance, plans for the exhibition floundered in 1994 when adequate funding was not forthcoming and the show had to be rescued by a hefty donation from Madonna, a fervent Modotti fan. In the accompanying fanfare the star auctioned her 1963 Mercedes-Benz to help finance the event. If the self-perpetuating Modotti mythology is to be dispelled, a careful examination of her work is needed.

Modotti is considered one of the major prewar women photographers. In 1923, she moved to Mexico with Weston and studied photography with him. Together they introduced modernist photographic practice to Mexican artists. These artists, in turn (particularly muralists such as Rivera), influenced Weston and Modotti. The result, especially in the case of Modotti, who spent seven years in Mexico, was a marriage of modernist photographic aesthetics with Mexican revolutionary culture. She used her camera to depict life in Mexico during the tumultuous and vibrant post-revolutionary years. Modotti essentially photographed subjects that she loved. These included Mexican women and children, murals, painters and poets, swaying palm trees, stately sugar cane and what I would call the icons of the Mexican revolution: the ear of corn, the bandolier and the guitar. Her fascination with form is reflected in these images as it is in her exhilarating still lifes of such mundane subjects as an oil storage tank, scaffolding or the rims of wine glasses. …