Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Bread and Roses: A Communist with a String of Colourful Lovers, Tina Modotti Not Only Photographed the Mexican Revolution, She Lived It. Amanda Hopkinson on How Her Reputation Has Flourished in Recent Years

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Bread and Roses: A Communist with a String of Colourful Lovers, Tina Modotti Not Only Photographed the Mexican Revolution, She Lived It. Amanda Hopkinson on How Her Reputation Has Flourished in Recent Years

Article excerpt

In the 1920s, Mexico City became a magnet for a new generation of artists and writers hoping to capture the revolutionary spirit in their work. Tina Modotti, a young Italian-born actress, moved to Mexico as a model and assistant for the established photographer Edward Weston. She worked there as a photographer in her own right for only seven years, but during that time she produced some of the most original and lasting images of a society bursting into the modern world with the vitality and hope of the early years of the Soviet revolution. But Modotti not only photographed the revolution, she lived it: from her passionate involvement with prominent artists such as Diego Rivera to her alleged part in the murder of a young Cuban communist leader. Like so many revolutionary artists, she faced a dilemma: do powerful images contribute to change as effectively as direct political action?

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It is only in the past 15 years that Modotti has emerged as one of Latin America's most important 20th-century photographers. In 1991, nearly 50 years after her death, the Arles international photography festival in France mounted an exhibition of images produced by Modotti and Weston, alongside their correspondence, which revealed an extraordinary mutual passion not only for each other, but for a still-fresh medium in an unfamiliar country. It was also in 1991 that Madonna bought Modotti's photograph Roses at auction for $165,000.

Today, an indifferent set of Modotti prints is being circulated inviting offers over $1m. The majority of Modotti originals are to be found in US collections, both public and private, and all of the works in the Barbican's new exhibition "Tina Modotti and Edward Weston: the Mexico years", which brings together more than 150 images for the first time, are on loan from America.

Modotti's posthumous success is the result of a small canon of a few hundred images, almost entirely created over a period of six years, by this young Italian immigrant who died (as she had begun) in utter poverty. Tina Modotti was born in 1896, the third of eight children of an itinerant Italian worker who migrated first to Austria, then back to Udine, then on to the US, where one by one the family joined him (Tina when she was 17). Her schooling was so fragmented, and she started factory work so young, that she was largely self-educated. Performing in the popular little Italian theatres of San Francisco and reading literature and history in several languages constituted what she called her "formation".

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As a beautiful young actress, she played several small parts in early Hollywood silent movies, but then became entangled with a writer and artist who went by the extravagant name of Roubaix de L'Abrie Richey. He left for Mexico in 1921 and died of smallpox before Modotti could join him--though she arrived in time to find herself having to pay for his funeral, which she did by staging a small exhibition of their artwork.

When she returned to California, she was already in love with Mexico, and by that time she had also fallen in love with the photographer Edward Weston, part of the artistic circle in which she now moved. Together, in 1923, they left the US for Mexico, where they set up a photographic studio. Determined to progress beyond being a darkroom assistant and studio administrator, Modotti dedicated herself to recreating through photography the new world in which she instinctively felt she belonged.

The lovers arrived in Mexico at a time when the country was trying to consolidate after the violent revolutionary years from 1910 to 1917. Rather like the medieval fresco painters, a new generation of muralists were commissioned by the government to teach the Mexican people their history, from its earliest pre-Columbian creation myths to its culmination in a supposedly classless society. The muralists at the forefront of this campaign were Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco. …

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