Tina Modotti: a volume (and an exhibition) dedicated to her work

Tina Modotti, sister, you don’t sleep, no, you don’t sleep: perhaps your heart feels the rose grow
yesterday, the last rose of yesterday, the new rose.
Rest gently, sister.

The new rose is yours, the new land is yours:
you have put on a new dress of deep seed
and your sweet silence is filled with roots.
You will not sleep in vain, sister ».

These are the first lines of the epitaph that Pablo Neruda composed in death of Tina Modotti. It happened exactly 79 years ago, in Mexico City.
Let’s talk about Assunta Adelaide Luigia Saltarini Modotti – called Tina – born in Udine in 1896 and died, in circumstances never fully understood, on January 5, 1942 for various reasons. One obvious: it is never talked about enough. Photographer, activist and former Italian actress, she was a woman of such impetus and talent that she deserves to be known much more than she already is: just look at the black and white shots that we propose here to understand it or browse here to observe some works closely or, on Instagram, follow this hashtag on Instagram.

Tina Modotti, “Women, Mexico and freedom” (24 Ore Cultura)

A book coming out it’s a exhibition soon to open at Mudec Museum of Cultures in Milan help us to better understand the complexity of Tina Modotti. Biba Giacchetti take care of the volume Tina Modotti. Women, Mexico and freedom (published by 24 ORE Cultura, in bookstores from February 4th), a journey through the photographs of the photographer, a symbol of emancipation and modernity, whose art is inextricably linked to social commitment. “At the center of his shots – say Paolo Ferrari and Claudio Natoli, who signed two essays in the photographic volume -, there are the figure of the Indian peasant as a subject of history, the conquest of his political and cultural autonomy and then the forms of a job oppressive and exhausting, of inequality and urban misery, the images of children and mothers in poverty and at the same time the symbols of the liberation of work: the hammer and sickle, the cob and the cartridge belt, the guitar and the sombrero ».

Some of these shots – a hundred photographs, original silver salts prints from the 1970s made from Tina’s negatives – will be in exhibition at the Mudec Museo delle Culture in Milan in the coming weeks (the official opening date has not yet been communicated, but for the City Week Museum all the exhibitions in the city should be open from 2 to 7 March) together with letters and documents kept by his sister Jolanda and a video story dedicated to the free spirit of the Friulian photographer.

Tina Modotti. Tehuantepec women wear fruit and flowers on their heads, inside painted gourds called jicapexle. Year: 1929 © Tina Modotti

The biography of Tina Modotti is a novel with chiaroscuro pages. Tina was born into a working-class family with little means: at 12 she was already in the factory, to contribute to the family ménage, at 17 he embarks from Italy to join his father, who emigrated to America to seek fortune. Before leaving from Uncle Pino, a photographer, she learns the first notions of that art that so fascinates her. She arrives in San Francisco: she is awake, beautiful and young and makes herself known in local theaters, in amateur performances where she meets the painter Roubeaix de l’Abrie Richey, known as Robo, who soon becomes her husband. The two move to Los Angeles: the exotic charm of Tina – moon skin, raven hair – does not leave indifferent the studios of the time and for her the first auditions and successes begin, including the film The Tiger’s Coast, from 1920. But Tina Modotti is not cut out to be an actress: she deplores the cinema system, despises the Hollywood crooks and soon decides to leave acting. Meanwhile, life holds other twists and turns for her.

The first wears the charming clothes of a friend of her husband, the photographer Edward Weston: in a short time, Tina becomes his favorite model and, later, his lover. The situation worsened: Robo flees to Mexico in disappointment, Tina tries to join him after a while, but arrives late. The man caught smallpox and died. A few years will pass and Tina will return with Weston to Mexico, the country that will become her adopted homeland.

Tina Modotti. Peasants reading “El Machete”. Year: 1927, Mexico © Tina Modotti

Crazy years will follow. Modotti and Weston, perpetually looking for clients for the photographer’s portraits, weave relationships with European and American expatriates and with all the bohemian circles of Mexico City: Tina, in particular, seduces everyone. His friends (and lovers) are various leading exponents of the Mexican Communist Party (the most radical: Xavier Guerro, Julio Mella, Vittorio Vidali) and establishes very strong relationships with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (his relationship with the famous artist is immediately rumored to be much more than a friendship).

Tina Modotti is active in politics (she is a member of the Mexican Communist Party) but continues to work in the darkroom, thanks to Weston. She travels with her husband in the country as a portrait painter and is, by the will of Rivera, the official photographer of the muralist movement. He also loves landscape photography, that of flowers in particular and refines his technique.
In ’29 a tragedy: Julio Mella dies, his partner for a few months, in a political ambush. Tina Modotti enters the so-called “revolutionary period”: she is now certain that photographic art must be put at the service of the political causes in which she believes and part, with rare initiative, for a journey onIsthmus of the Tehuantepec region to document the indigenous women who live there, in all their strength and beauty. To see them today, the shots are of a moving power.

Yet another twist of fate: that Mexico that so loved it now exiles, as a seditious revolutionary is forced to leave. Officially she will be a nurse for the Red Aid but it is co-opted by the Soviet secret police for various missions of espionage in Europe. In Spain he finds Vidali again and the two cement their sentimental union by joining International Brigades until the arrival of the regime Franco, when they flee to Mexico, undercover.

Tina Modotti. Concha Michel plays the guitar. Year: 1928, Mexico © Tina Modotti

The epilogue is sad and stained with infamous rumors. Tina Modotti and Vittorio Vidali are accused of complicity for theassassination of Trotsky, which took place in Mexico on August 21, 1940, but no one has ever provided certain proof of their involvement. Nebula is also the story surrounding the photographer’s death, which happened when she was in a taxi on her way home, after a dinner with friends, on January 5th 1942.

Murdered because she “knew too much”? Victim of a disappointed lover? Or counterintelligence? Probably the cause of death was an illness. In the aftermath of the incident and to silence any gossip Pablo Neruda he wanted to pay homage to the greatness of the Friulian pasionaria with a poem.

Here they are, the final lines of his epitaph:

“In the old kitchens of your homeland, in the streets
dusty, something murmurs and passes,
something comes back to the flame of your beloved people,
something awakens and sings.

They are yours, sister: those who today pronounce your name,
those who on all sides, from the water, from the earth,
with your name other names be silent and say.
Because the fire doesn’t die. “

The fire does not die, Tina Modotti’s photography still today, for us, has an extraordinary focus.

Tina Modotti. Calle. Year: 1924, Mexico © Tina Modotti

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