Friday, March 03, 2017

"The Italian:" The Life and Times of Tina Modotti (1896-1942)

Time is a trickster, compadres!  It's been two years since I last posted about Tina Modotti (1896-1942), but she sticks with me. Haunts me with her distant look and life's arc. 

After finishing Patricia Albers' Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 1999), I came across Margaret Hooks' Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary (London and San Francisco: Pandora, 1995, 1993). Both are absorbing, as befits their subject. By now I've gotten to catch some of her photographs during my travels and will keep those eyes open for more.

The quick version. Tina Modotti emigrated from Italy as a teenager, joining a small family foothold in San Francisco. Others would come later. Immigrants! Tina's arrival was nicely timed between the great earthquake of 1906 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. 

Tina did various and sundry to make ends meet, and then became an actress! She also engaged with artist-photographer Bohemian types. She became involved with "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey, dandy poet, and Edward Weston, photographer. She was also friends with Ricardo Gómez Robelo (1884-1924), who would later help her when she lived in Mexico. Richey died in Mexico and Modotti broke off her romance with Weston (more or less). She became closely engaged with the Mexican cultural scene and increasingly aware of the erupting global socio-political situation.   
Diego Rivera, En el Arsenal, 1928, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City.
Also in Mexico, Tina became jumbled in with Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Guadalupe "Lupe" Marín (1895-1981), Gómez Robelo (her friend from California days), and Comrade Concha Michel. By the time Rivera painted En el Arsenal (above), others were on the scene, too: Xavier Guerrero (1896-1974), the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella (1903-1929) -- the Che Guevera of his day -- Frida Kahlo (1907-1954),  and Vittorio Vidali (1900-1983). 

They all or most became (at least nominally) Communists -- when not enjoying various Bohemian distractions. Some, like Modotti, Vidali and Mella (all three pictured in the right foreground of Rivera's painting) became hardcore communists. Mella was gunned down right before Tina's eyes while they were walking down the street. Her life's story to date was plastered over the newspapers as scandal, with Modotti referred to as "The Italian."

In 1930, she made it to Berlin with the help of International Red Aid (MOPR), just barely escaping the clutches of Italian fascists, who would have killed her. After several harrowing cloak and dagger years, Modotti and Vidali headed into the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939),  Modotti as "Maria" and Vidali as "Comandante Carlos." After Spain fell, they returned to Mexico. After Pearl Harbor and the German Declaration of War, the US became coalition partners with the Soviet Union, strangely enough -- such is the bizarre kaleidoscope of history. 

Poor Tina died of heart failure at age 45. Her life had been anything but bland, though. She'd shifted in her immediate relationships from namby-pamby men to the ruthless Vittorio, from Bohemian actress to grim operative. She had mixed with wildly creative artists and became for a time an excellent photographer of the Mexican proletariat. 

What an arc, from Italy to Mexico and stations in between! I would love to have met her!

Today's Rune: Wholeness. 


Optimistic Existentialist said...

I would have loved to have met her as well! What a fascinating time period that would have been.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a fascinating life story! I would also love to share a grappa or two with her!

Charles Gramlich said...

The time sure does get away. I love that art you included here.