How to Be a Legend: Tina Modotti

The Tina Modotti mystique encompasses two main questions about this artist who has been dead for more than half a century. Why, today, is she so loved? And why did she quit doing art?

…the steps of tomorrow will pass by to see…

It’s obvious why Tina is an iconic figure to many women. Her career as a fine-art photographer spanned only seven years and produced a relatively scant body of work, yet she was and is remarkably influential. Nobody awarded her a graduate degree in art, or any other credentials, yet her original prints sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and her name is known wherever the photographic art is meaningfully discussed. There are several biographies, and the novel Tinisima is based on her life. Another book imagines a poetry journal, channeling Tina’s voice as it might have been, if she had actually kept such a record in her last years. Films have been made about her – the fictional Love Never Forgets, and a 1983 documentary, among others, and she was a major character in the Hollywood movie Frida. The band Fugazi wrote “Recap Modotti” and the punk rock group Trash Wednesday wrote “Stop Tina Modotti,” and somebody wrote a stage play. Diego Rivera depicted her in several of his Chapingo murals. When she died, friends put together a 52-page booklet about her life, with memorial words from many prominent people in various fields. The poem Pablo Neruda wrote for her is carved on the tombstone.

…myself am heaven and hell…

As a young woman, Tina lived like a free person, granting herself the same rights as any man. Though this disappoints some feminists, there was always a man in her life. In those days, getting along without one was almost unthinkable. The story goes that once, at an artsy get-together, a party game required writing something personal on a slip of paper. Hers said, “Tina Modotti – profession – men!”

It’s totally clear how she meant it. In the art life, people usually rank higher than possessions, and nobody tells you whom to love, or not to. The eras of life are defined by the person you were with. Thinking back, trying to place the date of an event, the first clue is to recall who was in your bed and/or heart at the time. Then, where you lived and worked, and finally, what year it must have been. Tina related to each successive lover as a guru who led her through a new stage of intellectual and spiritual growth. Her life was the kind that becomes a legend, or a stereotype, causing parents to warn their kids away from the art world. She was everything a mother didn’t want a daughter to grow up and become. In those days, “adventuress” was the mildest word for such a female.

Naturally, modern women adopt Tina as a role model. More puzzling is why men are crazy about her, even those who, when they meet up with her type in real life, think “slut.” Okay, she was a beautiful nude model who couldn’t get pregnant. That much is undisputed. She was also a homewrecker who grabbed somebody’s husband, and then wasn’t even faithful to him. A deadbeat who skipped out on rent, and was involved in scandalous lawsuits and other high-profile court cases. The paramour of a hit man. An accused murderer and a presidential assassination conspiracy suspect. An international fugitive with police records in several countries. A turncoat who denounced former friends, consigning them to torture and execution.

…I will not call injustice grace…

Born Assunta Adelaide Luiga Modotti, she went by many names, including Tina Modotti de Richey, a title of the “noble” class, strange indeed for a future Communist. Rose Smith Saltarini was the name she gave the police when questioned about a murder. On undercover missions, her aliases included Maria Ruiz, Maria Jimenez, Renee, Tina Kontreras, Carmen Ruiz Sanchez, Vera Martini, and many others.

Let’s get the political thing out of the way. It’s okay to hate communism as much as any other system, but in those days communism had at least two things going for it. First, for those who cared about their fellow humans, the Party was the only game in town. It was them or the Quakers, whose lifestyle might not have suited Tina. And, for a while anyway, the Communists were the only ones who resisted Mussolini and Hitler, while everyone else let them be. Regardless of the horrors communism brought about, it still gets points for identifying fascism as the most virulent form of capitalism, a concept which has been well proved, but which we seem unable to grasp even today.

…yesterday this day’s madness did prepare…

So, how does a Communist Party apparatchik become a symbol of humanitarian commitment and a hero of the intelligentsia?

For Tina, who spent long periods as the darling of the art scene and the toast of the town, the easiest thing in the world would have been to stay in those roles indefinitely. Yet she gave up the life of a wastrel socialite, in favor of relevancy and usefulness. She is admired for turning her back on the rewards of being, so to speak, homecoming queen, opting for poverty and authenticity. And rightly so – but that’s not the whole story.

Born in rural Italy, Tina was a real red-diaper baby. Her father was a moderate anarcho-syndicalist who agitated for better working conditions for mill hands, and one of her baptismal sponsors was a radical socialist. She was less than two when the family moved to Austria and took up habitation in shabby migrant workers’ quarters. When she was nine, her father went to America to try his luck, while mother and siblings returned to Italy where they lived in dire straits. Tina had to drop out of school at 13 and work 10-hour shifts in a silk mill. Child labor was the norm in that time and place, so she was no worse off than many other kids. At home, the fuel for heat and light often ran out, and so did the food. To buy a day’s worth of groceries, Tina once sold the scarf that was her favorite (and only nice) possession.

…the glories of this world…

In America, Mr. Modotti tried several careers that didn’t work out, but he was perpetually young in spirit, a constant self-reinventor. Eventually he prospered enough to send for Tina, who traveled alone to San Francisco when she was 17. For two years she worked in a shirt factory and volunteered with the Italian Aid Committee and Italian Red Cross, where she learned event organizing, fundraising, and many other useful skills. Already forced by circumstances to be multilingual, she learned English fast, and found a job assisting the most chic hat designer in a fashion-conscious city.

Tina’s creative impulses were deeply stirred by the 1915 International Exposition, with its thousands of artworks and artifacts from all over the world. In her early twenties she acted in many theatrical productions and hung out with the North Beach artistic set, “King of Bohemia” Sadakichi Hartmann and similar weirdos, who even in those days were cultural tourism magnets. She modeled for at least a dozen accomplished photographers and painters, and appeared in several silent films. In the only movie where she played the lead, the plot concerned love’s triumph over ethnic prejudice.

…the loveliest and the best…

It’s a cliché that Mediterranean women ripen early and then age quickly, and this seems to have been true of Tina. Only about five feet tall, she was described as doll-like. One man said she was “not trying to be beautiful – but born beautiful.” The camera loved her, and she could command the stage. She was, by all reports, aglow with “sacred fire,” a description one is tempted to dismiss as extreme, unless one has actually known such an incandescent person.

It’s obvious that during her golden years Tina enjoyed being beautiful, but part of her might have been annoyed even then. Much later, in legal trouble and hounded by the press, she complained that in the United States, everything was seen from the “beauty” angle. When she refused to speak to reporters, they reassured her that they would only write about how pretty she was. “Evidently women here are measured by a motion-picture standard.” And even though she herself had been a movie actress, Tina didn’t approve. She wanted the press to write about how people were being mauled by their governments.

Even in early photos, in certain lights and angles, Tina’s features seem actually coarse, and one woman who met her said her hair grew too low on her forehead. Descriptions almost always mention a tragic expression, a perpetual aura of mourning. Janet Flanner invented this phrase for another woman, but it seems that Tina also “represented the admirable principle of sad self-sacrifice.” By 1939, when she was only 43, a new acquaintance described her as a badly dressed little old lady.

One man spoke for both himself and his fellow Tinadolators by citing her “truly extraordinary graciousness.” She wasn’t just a man-pleaser, but had a genuine gift for relating to all ages and genders. She has been characterized as sensitive, a good listener, and always gentle and tranquil, even in the midst of catastrophe. One lover said she never pretended to be anything she wasn’t – although that turned out to not be strictly, factually true. She kept her share of secrets, and told more than her share of lies.

Tina had the capacity to fall in love for the first time over and over again, and the ability to believe that each one was, at last, the destined great love of her life. While convincing the current flame that he was the only man in the world, she could at the same time make it clear that he wasn’t the only man in her life. To be totally absorbed in and fiercely loyal to a current lover, while at the same time retaining the friendship and esteem of former ones, is no easy task. But Tina had the skill and the heart for it.

Profession – Men!

She could easily have been a kept woman. Many men would have been proud to support her in style, in return for exclusive access to her favors. She deserves credit for not taking that route. However … in 1924, Edward Weston wrote that his latest portrait of Tina showed a woman “who has suffered, known death and disillusion, who has sold herself to rich men…” What was he saying there? And later, visiting poet Kenneth Rexroth characterized her as a high-class courtesan. Was it only because of the slander the newspapers threw around, or did he have other information? Much later, the Russian operative she spent many years with would, when feeling particularly vindictive, call her a “high-class whore.”

Profession? Maybe. Men were definitely her occupation. She liked the kind who, as Patricia Albers puts it, “dedicated themselves with crusading zeal to high-minded vocations.” There were plenty of casual liaisons, but only a handful of really important ones – Richey, Weston, Guerrero, Mella, and Vidali.

…waste not your hour…

In the San Francisco days, the man in Tina’s life was the fancifully named Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey – not quite the name he’d been born to in Pleasant Valley, Oregon. He worked as a bellhop at an upscale hotel, which sounds pretty cheesy, until you reflect on the opportunities to meet famous people, the potential large tips for procuring goods and services, etc. Kind of makes you wonder exactly what he had going. The persona he wore in the art world was that of a French Canadian aristocrat. His drawings show a definite Aubrey Beardsley influence, but Richey was no creampuff. His political cartoons appeared in a Communist magazine at a time when thousands of leftists were being harassed by the government. He took Spanish classes, and was a published writer who regularly sold stories.

Tina with Richey on their honeymoon

Tina with Richey on their honeymoon

Richey and Tina collaborated on the art of batik, and some of their creations sold as wall hangings, pure art objects. Designers, including Tina herself, made the fabrics into clothing. She sewed like an angel, and could afford good materials to make fashionable outfits. In those days, movie actors provided their own wardrobes. Given her fondness for dressing up, her creative imagination, the available stock of exotic fabrics, and her ability with the needle, she must have had a ball. Later on, she became known as the first woman in Mexico to wear blue jeans. The shirt-and-pants ensemble for darkroom work looked, on her, like a stylish mechanic’s jumpsuit, many years ahead of its time, fashion-wise. Her sense of costume always remained, even when its purpose changed. When serious political commitment took over, her look became no-nonsense secretarial.

photo by Arnold Schroeder

photo by Arnold Schroeder

Darkroom outfit

Darkroom outfit

Whatever Tina turned her hand to, she was capable of great focus. A friend described one of her Mexico City apartments as possessing “simple good order…easy efficiency.” She loved music, but surprisingly, was never a good dancer. Along with works by such literary stars as Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence and Roger Fry, Tina’s poetry appeared in a 1923 issue of The Dial.

Supposedly, Tina and Richey got married – it was even in the newspaper – but biographer Patricia Albers discovered that there was no legal wedding, and theorizes that the marriage was faked so Richey’s mother would keep paying his allowance. Also, he’d divorced his first wife, and although Roaring Twenties radicals advocated free love, telling people you were married simply made things easier all around. Just as Tina’s stage career was getting solidly established, she abandoned it to follow him on some mysterious adventure. Then they stayed at a ranch near San Luis Obispo and enjoyed a honeymoon replete with corny snapshots, Omar Khayyam poetry, and lots of horizontal quality time.

…into the dust descend…

At the end of World War I the couple moved to Los Angeles and lived in the classy Bryson Apartments, whose tenants included several silent film stars. Their place was decorated with zen sparseness and ethnic textures, in the style favored by generations of grad students. Richey mentored Tina, taught her some French and Spanish, and shaped her taste. She gratefully absorbed his tutelage and flourished under his approval. They were at the center of a thriving bohemian community, au courant with all the cutting-edge philosophy and art.

Edward Weston was a professional photographer with four sons and a not-so-great marriage, but his wife had money. Even though he won prizes and praise, by around 1919 he was sick of being a pictorialist, and got mixed up with the real artists. Of course he immediately fell for Tina. Eventually, she spent a month posing for him and they started an affair. Weston made it with all his models, but Tina was in a class by herself. When they weren’t together, she wrote him hot letters. Aside from the physical passion, she seems to have been impressed by Weston’s single-mindedness, which made Richey look like a dabbler or a poser. Weston introduced her to the words of Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” a precept that served her well in future days.

Photo by Edward Weston, 1921, at what was supposed to have been their parting

Photo by Edward Weston, 1921, at what was supposed to have been their parting

Richey accepted a job in Mexico. Tina met with Weston for what was supposed to be the last time, but something transpired between them that led to a new level of understanding, and she made up her mind to continue the clandestine affair. This meant going after another movie role, as a reason to stay in LA. Richey left for Mexico and missed her like crazy. Weston, too, started to think of going south, but ultimately, Tina went alone in February, and on the train received a telegram that said Richey was very sick with smallpox. When she arrived, because the disease was contagious, she couldn’t see him, and then he died.

…some little talk awhile of me and thee…

1922 was a year of mourning, in which Tina organized a seven-artist show that included Weston’s photos of her, and works by her dead husband. Returning to California, she paid Weston for his sales. He encouraged her to take up photography, and she did, learning on the job as his studio assistant. But she thought about moving to San Francisco, and acted like their affair was not to be resumed. Weston wasn’t getting along with his wife at all, and decided to go to Mexico, where his art photos had been so well received. Somewhere around this time, Tina found out that fibroid tumors would prevent her from ever being a mother. By November, she and Weston had decided to go to Mexico together for a trial marriage. She would be darkroom helper and household manager, and provide adult supervision for his son Chandler, who was coming along.

The following year they finally made it to Mexico City, which was in a state of intellectual and artistic ferment. After putting a great deal of work into a house that turned out to be impossible, they cut their losses and moved into the city center, renting a little place with wrought iron gates and leaded windows. As photographers, they were both wild about the cloud formations. Tina organized an exhibit for Weston and her work appeared in the political magazine El Machete. They were in with the in crowd. When invited to a costume party, they would put on each other’s clothes.

For a while, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston really were one of the great Art Couples, and the fact that it didn’t last “forever” doesn’t matter. In later years, Tina assured him many times of his significance to her as “the one important being, at a certain time of my life, when I did not know which way to turn…” She always acknowledged his influence and guidance, and was especially grateful to him for turning her on to photography, “…a work that I have come to love with real passion…”

Even when living in the same house, they never shared a bedroom, and Tina would have overnight guests. The open relationship idea had sounded good in theory, but Weston remarked, “Next time I’ll pick a mistress homely as hell.” Tina was not as jealous of his affairs. It wasn’t long before political differences came between them. On a train journey, Tina annoyed Weston when she insisted on traveling in the 2nd-class carriage, while he and his son used the first-class tickets they had bought beforehand. He believed that artists thrive best as individualists, not collectivists.

There was another political upheaval, and a lot of wealthy people, who would normally have been photo studio clients, had to leave the country. The couple’s household, though partly supported by Mrs. Weston, was poor. They had weekly parties and passed the hat for rent money, and when they still couldn’t pay the landlord, did a midnight flit. Broke, and increasingly pressured from home, Weston planned to leave Mexico, but Tina wasn’t ready to. They weren’t a hot item any more, and her political zeal was off-putting, but they both wanted to stick together as artistic partners. They talked about starting over together in New York. She organized another show for him. Her own work was exhibited for the first time, in a group show sponsored by the government. Finally, Weston and his son took the train back to LA. For eight months Tina and Weston wrote to each other. She kept the commercial studio going with both their names on it, but didn’t make much money. She took a job in a bookshop but found it so inimical, she quit halfway through the first day. Even when their future as a couple looked very improbable, Weston was still the most important person in her life, as shown by a 1924 will that left him her possessions.

…how can we dance when our earth is turning…

Tina’s own photography, as opposed to the commercial stuff, grew laden with message. A typical caption reads, “People waiting in front of the National Pawn Shop to go and pawn their poor belongings.” In her pictures of working people’s hands, a part of something stands in place of the whole. In poetry, it’s called synecdoche; in the visual arts there is probably a different word for it. One photo shows a man’s sandaled feet with gnarled toes and thick pointed toenails. They could be mummy feet. This picture really is worth a thousand words at least. It would take more than a thousand words to express what this picture does. When she photographed a baby drinking lunch from its mother’s breast, Tina’s renowned people skills must have come into play. Even in our own enlightened times, public lactation is frowned upon. What must it have been like, back then?

Photo by Tina Modotti

Photo by Tina Modotti

Photo by Tina Modotti

Photo by Tina Modotti

Photo by Tina Modotti 1926 or 1927

Photo by Tina Modotti 1926 or 1927

It’s not as if Tina just woke up one morning and discovered social consciousness. She was saddened by the destitution of Mexico’s oppressed classes, but could not have been surprised – not after her own childhood in a big impoverished family. Even when she was the reigning cultural diva of Mexico City, rain and cold came through the roof. Over her lifespan, she occasionally stayed in some posh digs, but mostly it was dumps, especially when she got older. She shunned the lure of wealth, and went for voluntary simplicity, and yes, that is admirable – but the impressive part is that she didn’t go into it blind. Tina already knew the grinding reality. Many who come from that background don’t ever want to be reminded – “No more wire hangers!” But Tina didn’t run from the fate of poverty. Having escaped it, she went back, contemplated it, and then chose it. Having chosen it, she didn’t chicken out.

Tina joined the Anti-Imperialist League of the Americas and organized her fellow Italian expatriates into the Anti-Fascist League of Mexico. She joined Red Aid, a worldwide organization whose purpose was to help orphans, strikers, prisoners, and other victims of the class war. But art was not forgotten. She set up a Weston-Modotti exhibition in Guadalajara, and hung out with a pair of Communist artists who educated her thoroughly on the life of the average peasant.

…departed, may return no more…

Weston came back, this time with a different son, Brett. Now, Tina openly entertained a series of lovers and Weston fooled around with the servant girls – a classic piece of Yankee imperialist exploitation, if you wanted to look at it that way. Which Tina might have done. When someone becomes a True Believer, whether in communism, Christianity, or whatever, everything is re-examined through that lens. At any rate, she and Weston worked together in the studio and went out together as a couple, perhaps conscious of their image as a team. Tina was no longer his model, and they probably weren’t physically involved with each other any more. At one point Weston tried to seduce an American visitor, who turned him down because he was taken. He protested that he and Tina were no longer an item, but the woman told him, “we have all believed in the legend of Weston and Tina…. and I still want to believe.” He also pursued the sister of the man who turned out to be Tina’s next important love.

Tina acquired a Graflex camera which freed her up to move around outdoors and capture shots spontaneously. On a trip back to the States, she visited the Richeys in LA and went through her stored belongings, ritually getting rid of her old life as Madame Richey. She decided to keep only the things necessary for photography. She met many prominent photographers through the Weston connection, though she regretted in a letter to him that none of her old acquaintances took her seriously as a photographer. It sounds like she was still devoted to the art, and not feeling too much conflict between it and her political side. But, disappointingly, work wasn’t going well. “I just feel impotent – I don’t know which way to start or turn….”

…And then no more of thee and me…

“Workers Parade”- the photo where all the sombreros are seen from above – is considered a major step in Tina’s development as an artist, and possibly the tipping point that ultimately led her away from art altogether. She consistently hung around with political types. One friend was an American who had served time for refusing the draft and who later, as a journalist, chronicled the Fascist takeover of Italy. Tina was involved with Pablo O’Higgins, and Diego Rivera took on the job of politically educating the pair of them. She had known Rivera for a long time, and was chosen as the documentary photographer of his work. It wasn’t long before Rivera’s wife Lupe Marin named Tina as the “other woman” when she separated from him. Then Rivera went to Russia, and Tina formed other attachments.

Campesinos - Photo by Tina Modotti

Campesinos – Photo by Tina Modotti

Artists and writers led the movement toward re-visioning Mexico as an Indian place, not a Spanish place. Tina’s friend Frances Toor started Mexican Folkways magazine, and every issue carried an ad for the Weston-Modotti studio. Weston was commissioned to take pictures for Idols Behind Altars, a book written to prove that Mexico’s Catholicism was only a thin veneer over the old indigenous faith. (If you find a first edition at a yard sale, grab it, the going price is around $80.) Naturally Tina was invited to assist, and they set off with young Brett into the wilder parts of the country whose infrastructure was in even worse shape than usual, having recently been ravaged by floods. Also, another revolution was in progress, in which 80,000 Mexicans died (including Tina’s friend and possibly lover, Galvan), so the trip wasn’t exactly a stroll in the park. The workload was heavy, and of course both photographers did their own stuff, too. This was when Tina really got into portraying the working class, especially women.

Weston wrote of “the barrier between us,” and left Mexico in late 1926, certain that he would never see it or Tina again. Even after their affair, her letters to him were confiding, nostalgic, and always appreciative. One of the later ones, penned in a time of great trouble, told Weston how much she longed to talk with him. “You might not agree with all I would say – that does not matter – but you would understand…” Working through problems with Weston as “listener” seems to have been a very therapeutic process for her. We should all be lucky enough to have someone like that. Later, when it became clear that her Mexico days were numbered, she shipped boxes of cherished books to Weston for safekeeping. The last letter he got from her was written three months after she moved to Moscow.

But in 1927, Russia was only a looming shadow in Tina’s future. She was still in Mexico City, at a new address. It was in the same apartment building as the Mexican Folkways publisher, and she became a contributing editor of the publication. The place was tiny but she installed a darkroom and made some money from reproductions of her Diego Rivera mural photos. Since frescoes can’t be loaned to other institutions, her pictures toured the world and won acclaim for Rivera.

The next man to win Tina’s heart was Xavier Guerrero, who was a Tarahumaran Indian and (of course) a politically obsessed artist. Here’s a wonderful description from biographer Pino Cacucci: “Guerrero did not aspire to be understood. He did not explain how he thought and did not try to convince anybody of anything.” A contemporary writer noted that Guerrero was “renouncing his art out of dedication to the Communist Party.” Under his sway, Tina devoted herself to humble tasks on behalf of the Party – typing, translations, selling newsletters. She joined the Hands Off Nicaragua Committee, and turned her lens even more toward the people considered to be the lowest of the low. Her art was now consciously “sending a message.” Around this time, Weston shipped her a package of his seashell photos, and she was blown away. If things had been just a bit different, the excitement kindled by his new direction might have been the catalyst to send her back into art for art’s sake. But no.

Xavier Guerrero 1923

Xavier Guerrero 1923

Tina and Guerrero set up housekeeping, lending their living room as meeting place for the Central Committee of the Mexican Communist Party. Tina told Guerrero she had never loved anybody as much. (Co-incidentally, she never modeled for anyone again.) Suddenly, he was summoned to Moscow for a three-year course of study, a great honor he wouldn’t have thought for one minute of refusing. He left, with the understanding that Tina would dutifully wait.

She tried hard to be a good drone, adjusting her beliefs and making personal concerns like love, sex, and art subservient to the needs of the Party. She made self-consciously meaningful still-life compositions: sombrero, ear of corn, guitar, bandolier, etc. El Machete published more of what she herself called propaganda pictures, excoriating the custom of child labor, the contrast between rich and poor, and similar evils. Still balancing two worlds, she mentored Manuel Alvarez Bravo, probably the only person left by then with whom she could really talk art.

…the vision of fulfilled desire…

Then she met Julio Antonio Mella, one of the numerous militants dedicated to freeing Cuba from U.S. imperialism. Seven years younger than Tina, he was the veteran of a well-publicized 18-day hunger strike in a Cuban jail. She photographed him, of course, and one of those portraits became the most widely-recognized example of the “revolutionary” meme, until overtaken by Korda’s famous shot of Che Guevara.

When Mella came on the scene, Tina was still technically bound to Guerrero, even though he was on the other side of the world. Tina struggled with this, because according to the dour Communist rules she tried to follow, one lover at a time was considered enough. But Mella was irresistible. An anguished “Dear John” letter was dispatched to Moscow. Guerrero tersely replied, “Received your message. Goodbye.” Flash-forward: Guerrero was still in Russia when, a couple of years later, the winds of change deposited Tina there. She sought him out and they had a stark ugly meeting where he contemptuously refused even to speak. Finally, he said he wouldn’t discuss it. “Now there was nothing more to be said between us,” Tina reported, “and, for him, I do not exist.”

Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti

Julio Antonio Mella, photo by Tina Modotti

With Mella, Tina established another household where, as so often before, she was perennial hostess. (Sometimes, after making sure the guests were having a good time, she would slide away to the darkroom for a spell.) Restless students came around, eager to have their impressionable minds influenced. Frida Kahlo, still in her teens, met Diego Rivera at one of these gatherings and joined the C.P.

…where some buried Caesar bled…

One day in early 1929, Mella was tipped off that a couple of Cuban hit men were looking for him. That very night, as he and Tina walked home, he was fatally shot. When making a statement to the police, Tina gave a fake name, which turned out to be a very bad move. The press announced that one of Tina’s other lovers had paid to have Mella killed. She was interrogated and put through the ordeal of re-enacting the crime, at the scene, at the same time of night, for the benefit of the police. When they finally let her go home, the cops had tossed the place and confiscated many of her belongings, and she couldn’t stay there anyway because it was under seal. She was made to give a complete history of her relations with men, and to explain why Guerrero had abandoned her. An official asked if a man who really loved her would give her up for the sake of ideology. “If the person is worthy, yes,” she said. “Revolutionaries’ love is not something isolated from their activities, but rather is related to their political ideals.”

The public uproar over Mella’s death included a six-hour funeral procession, memorial gatherings, speeches, the usual kinds of demonstrations that occur when a popular leader is assassinated. Tina took pictures of him laid out for a burial appropriate to a hero and martyr. The Party put Rivera in charge of an independent investigation. He boisterously defended Tina, and the police lightened up and started looking at Cuban suspects. Still, her entire love life had been spread before the public eye, and the low-rent press also trashed Mella, printing excerpts from a juvenile diary as if they were the writings of the adult man. Finally, having suffered trial by public humiliation, Tina was officially cleared of any connection with the murder.

Nobody knows for sure who killed Mella, although the smart money says the Comintern put out the contract. In other words, he was killed by his own side. Although Mella was a staunch leftist, he was not, in the eyes of the Moscow bosses, much of a team player. He was an evader of Party discipline and, frankly, a bit of a loose cannon. That hunger strike, for instance, was not a heroic act, but a display of bourgeois self-indulgence. Punishing the captors by self-starvation was a notion that could only come from the deluded brain of someone who had always had enough to eat. To these hyper-commies, a hunger strike was as decadent as bulimia, as childish as holding your breath and turning blue. Also, they didn’t want Cuba invaded, or not just yet, anyway. The guys in Moscow had plans for everybody, and any insurgent on the ground who didn’t accept the big picture, as laid out by HQ, got the boot.

…the worldly hope…turns ashes…

Portraits and reproductions continued to provide Tina with income, and she was hired by artists to document their work. In one year, her photos were on the cover of New Masses four times, and her international reputation grew. The political scene erupted with more riots and assassinations. She went to Oaxaca to chill out, and found women known as Tehuanas who wore vibrant colors and bossed the men around. She took a lot of pictures, including one of herself in the local costume, an aberration because normally her wardrobe no longer displayed the least bit of flair.

The government turned up the heat on the Communists, to which Tina responded by doing undercover work, such as smuggling out information from jailed comrades. Diego Rivera married Frida Kahlo and quit the party. Tina considered them traitors and cut them out of her life. Much has been inferred from her portraits of marionettes and puppetmasters, but whatever she consciously or unconsciously expressed through her art, Tina embraced the Party. The man she loved was killed before her eyes. She was accused of it, and dragged through the mud by the media. When a life is reduced to ashes, sometimes being a True Believer is the only thing that remains. Perhaps she thought that backing out of her political commitment would mean all the previous work, pain, self-abnegation and sacrifice had been in vain.

…one by one crept silently to rest…

Over the years, before, between, and during the love affairs already discussed, Tina had other involvements. One of her first boyfriends was a waiter/bank clerk who later amassed a fortune in the billions. She probably made it with Johan Hagemeyer just before leaving for Mexico with Weston, and probably made it with General Manuel Hernandez Galvan while living with Weston. The romance with Diego Rivera is thought to have lasted about a year, though there’s no proof it ever happened at all. Rivera’s wife was convinced of it, however. Another Communist painter, Pablo O’Higgins, fell in love with Tina, and it might have been mutual. They were “intermittent lifelong lovers, more tender than passionate,” is what Patricia Albers concludes from her research. At 28, Tina had an affair with a dashing 19-year-old called Pepe Quintanilla. A certain German author noted, “If only I had been able to win her away from Weston, my life would be very different now.” There were probably others, but by the time the Mella scandal died down, her career as a femme fatale was pretty much over.

…stumbling in the dark…

Party official Vittorio Vidali was a homie, who came originally from a town near Tina’s Italian birthplace. Many of the Communists were suspicious of her free-wheeling ways, but Vidali thought she was salvageable, and besides, in his own unique way he loved her. They had met at a demonstration concerning the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case, and Vidali undertook to educate her in realpolitik. For instance, she was to forget about the altruistic, compassionate desire to save two innocents from the electric chair, because these wrongful executions were inconsequential. The important thing was, the case showed the whole world what the U.S. government was really like. When she met the Nicaraguan rebel Sandino and volunteered to join up as a guerrilla/photographer, Vidali’s criticism was harsh. Tina was too naïve to realize that the Comintern didn’t really want Sandino to succeed. To the party bosses, he was just another local yokel interfering with their long-range plans.

It’s hard to imagine Vidali as Tina’s suitor. Contemporaries described him as a brusque, ruthlessly ambitious caveman of a womanizer who drank way too much. One labeled him “the scariest guy I ever met.” A Communist Party operative who worked with Vidali called him “demonic” – and who would better know? On the plus side, he was courageous and good at thinking on his feet. Still, he was not a man who would have occurred to anyone as a match for Tina, and her remaining friends wondered at her choice. Yet their partnership turned out to be spectacularly long-lasting, at least in relative terms. She may not have intended it, but events conspired to deliver her into his keeping. Many of these events were shaped and helped along by Vidali, who had since 1927 been working for the agency that later became the KGB.

…how do we sleep when our beds are burning…

In 1930, someone tried to kill Mexico’s president. As on any such occasion, the authorities took advantage of the excuse to move against dissidents who had been under their scrutiny for various reasons. Tina was arrested. She protested by hunger striking – and no doubt reaped Vidali’s scorn. She was held for two weeks and then kicked loose with 48 hours to get out of the country. She couldn’t take much luggage, and had to pitch a lot of photos and negatives. Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the only person not afraid to associate with her, asked to keep them, and bought one of her cameras. Of her hundreds of friends, Bravo was the only to attend her departure. Him and the police. This woman who had maintained an ongoing salon for the cultural and political misfits, who had extended massive hospitality to out-of-towners, and helped newcomers acclimate, was deported and nobody came to say goodbye. Her only passport was for Italy, whose government wanted to lock her up for several reasons, including a 1927 speech where she declared that the land of her birth had been “transformed into an immense prison and a vast cemetery.” Since then, agents of Italian fascism had made life miserable for her relatives, driving one of them to suicide.

…you know not why you go, nor where…

The ship took its time heading for Europe. On the journey Tina was consoled by the knowledge that, wherever she might end up, work was there to be done for the revolution. During a stopover at a US port, she was kept in detention for many days, then, in Havana, confined to an army quarantine facility for three days. Vidali, for reasons known only to himself and the Comintern, just happened to be on the same ship – in disguise and with false papers, of course. He invited Tina to Moscow, but she wasn’t ready for that yet. When they landed in Holland, the Italian extradition order awaited, and the Dutch authorities wisely didn’t let her disembark. Red Aid scrambled for a solution, and obtained for her a German visa. The Dutch gave her x number of hours to get across their country and out the other side.

Berlin groaned under massive unemployment, and Hitler was on the rise. Surrounded by people who spoke a strange language, Tina was destitute and dependent on the Party for her continued survival. Well, not totally. The worldly bohemian affinity group included some politically like-minded friends who helped her adjust. Tina considered asking the Party for an undercover assignment in Italy, so at least she could see a few relatives. Vidali showed up and she ran the idea by him, but he shot it down and once more suggested Russia.

No. But a few months later, yes. By the end of the year, Tina had a room in the same Moscow residence hotel as Vidali.

…deceived entrapment through belief…

If there’s a formula to Tina’s relations with men, it seems that up until now, she had adjusted her politics to fit the man. Now it appears she chose the man because of her beliefs. In devoting herself to the Party, she basically handed herself over to Vidali, who was fond of quoting Lenin: “Everything that is done in the proletarian cause is honest.”

In Vidali’s case, “everything” probably included playing a part in the assassination of Mella. If it was ordered by Moscow, he would have been in on it. Albers says, “One shudders for her to imagine a scenario in which she unwittingly lived with the man behind the murder of the love of her life.” If Vidali was culpable, how could Tina not, at some point, have suspected, or even known? They were a couple for eleven years, by far her longest relationship – although they did spend quite a lot of time apart, traveling on secret missions. Sometimes, they would be sent to a foreign place together, each being the only person the other knew or trusted.

…alien you find you feel at home everywhere…

But all this was still in the future. Tina and Vidali soon shared an apartment, in a building full of immigrants even more disoriented than Tina. She knocked on the neighbors’ doors and asked, in their native Spanish or Italian, about their problems, and then solved those problems. It must have been a satisfyingly direct way of helping.

The Party gave her some resettlement funds and a job with the Red Aid relief organization. She took Russian lessons and became fluent enough to translate newspapers. As interpreter, Tina escorted distinguished foreign visitors on guided tours. She authored pamphlets against capitalist warmongers and the like, and wrote for the official magazine, sometimes under the pen name of Julio Antonio (in honor of Mella) or Maria, the Latino equivalent of Jane Doe. She learned spy tradecraft, the whole nine yards. For the Party, she went all over Europe on dangerous undercover jobs, moving money around, sneaking Communists out of Germany before the concentration camps got them, and so on. Spain arrested and deported her. She was promoted to the Executive Committee of Red Aid. In the last letter Weston ever received, Tina said, “I am living a completely new life, so much so that I almost feel like a different person…”

Friends found her increasingly silent. Her mind was the repository of many secrets. It must have been easier simply not to talk at all, than to risk saying the wrong thing. Reticence made good sense, and may have been emotionally necessary, too. Sometimes saying a thing out loud makes it real. Maybe Tina’s feelings were better left unacknowledged, even to herself. In his memoirs, Vidali recalled her self-indoctrinating words, such as: “I convinced myself that the slogan ‘the Party is always right’ is just and necessary.” In 1933, she was re-assigned to Paris where, between spy missions, she organized the World Congress of Women Against War and Fascism. 1935 found Vidali transferred to Spain and Tina back in Moscow, where she was one of the many comrades who pitched in to help build the Metro subway. There’s evidence that she worked on a propaganda film, and it’s certain that she hung out with the cinema people. Sergei Eisenstein was very impressed, and used his influence to bring about an exhibit of Tina’s photos at the university. She was posted back to Paris, and never returned to the Soviet Union.

…take that, and do not shrink…

Next stop was the Spanish Civil War, which the Communists considered crucial. “If we lose here, we lose everywhere,” Tina told a friend. Not content to be a desk jockey, she gravitated to the midst of the worst danger and need, and even survived the bombing of a building she was in. She was in the field as often as possible, organizing the construction of latrines, orphanages, blood banks, and first aid units; relocating patients to safer areas; moving headquarters. The challenges were enormous and daunting. Whole cities full of wounded and shell-shocked civilians had to be evacuated.

As Sister Marie, hospital administrator, she dressed in a nun’s habit and dealt with the mess left when dozens of nurses were poisoned by the enemy. She never shirked a task, however difficult or lowly – if the floor was dirty, she washed it. Already suffering from congestive heart failure, which caused her legs to swell, she would work until her superiors ordered a few days of bed rest. When La Pasionaria, “the most famous Communist in Spain” was a patient, Tina sat up nights with a gun in her lap, doubling as nurse and bodyguard. The ideal portrait of Tina Modotti, expressing both her spiritual/creative/nurturing and her militant side, would portray her as a nursing nun with a rifle.

She and Vidali never had their own place but stayed in borrowed quarters, offices, or friends’ homes. Horrid as he was, she doesn’t seem to have been intimidated. A neighbor, who overheard some differences of opinion between the two, is on record vouching for Tina’s dexterity in verbal combat. Vidali worked his way up to propaganda chief for the International Brigades, which were made up of idealistic youth and experienced anti-fascists of all flavors who converged on Spain from everywhere, to fight for a just cause. By this time, Party doctrine had become very fundamentalist, to the point where there was only one way to be a good Communist. Soviet agents were on the scene not only to help the loyalists win. In the chaos of war they found and made opportunities to eliminate any of their own people who fostered personal interpretations of the Party line.

…shadow of a soul on fire…

Tina wrote, “I never would have believed that I would be so strong and not lose my head in a situation where the wind of collective insanity is blowing.” Unfortunately, however, she did lose something, and wrote a letter of denunciation that led directly to the political assassination of a volunteer in the International Brigades. One writer call this her “tragic fall from grace.” And there may have been other similar cases. Albers says, “Unlike her companion, Tina never physically harmed anyone, but it is now clear that she shared his responsibility for Communist atrocities.” Many of Tina’s biographers repeat the words she spoke about Vidali: “He is an assassin. He has dragged me into a monstrous crime.”

Back in 1920 or so, during her glamour epoch, someone took a picture of Tina in one of her gorgeous costumes, and captioned it with a quatrain from the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in this world much wrong:
Have drown’d my glory in a shallow Cup,
And sold my Reputation for a Song.

Other translations say “have drowned my honor.” The Rubiyat is about the splendors of wine, and alcohol wasn’t Tina’s downfall. But the prophetic lines, “Indeed the idols I have loved so long / have done my credit in this world much wrong” are certainly right on, when applied to her political beliefs.

In Spain, Vidali was known as Commandante Carlos, and you definitely didn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. He was an interrogation squad boss, and is said to have been responsible for 400 executions. Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend that Vidali not only ordered executions but personally carried them out. Imagine this: your domestic partner comes home from work with a burn in the webspace of one hand – the shooting hand. Do you really want to hear what happened? Can you afford to know that hand got burned from firing so many bullets into the backs of so many human heads today? Do you want to be touched by that hand? For Tina, life with Vidali must have been awfully strange.

…this was all the harvest that I reaped…

The two of them were reassigned to France, and Tina could take along nothing but the clothes she stood up in. In the spring of 1939, using a refugee visa issued to “Dr. Carmen Ruiz Sanchez,” Tina boarded a ship and returned to Mexico, where Vidali soon joined her. He collaborated with the Nazis to undermine the Mexican government, and played a large role in the assassination of Leon Trotsky. It was a bleak existence, living in other people’s spare rooms. Tina was an illegal alien, already deported from the country once and afraid even to greet old friends in the street. The Party sent her on more missions, to the US and Europe. When Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, it took the heart right out of her, and in fact her physical heart disease got worse.

Eventually, her presence in Mexico was legalized and she found work doing translations and so forth, and of course continued working for the good of the Spanish refugees. For the first time in a decade, she and Vidali finally got a place of their own. In 1941 he disappeared for three weeks, which he spent in prison. God knows what he had to do or promise, to get out. They had to move again, this time to a shack built on a rooftop. Tina made the best of it, telling visitors that the real house was the 360-degree view of Mexico City and its attendant volcanoes.

January 5, 1942 was the day Tina died, at the age of 45, having packed an astonishing amount of life into those years. At the time, the Soviet secret police were experimenting with drugs that could make death appear natural. Some people have put together that fact with Vidali’s arrest and miraculous release. Did he agree to assassinate his own woman? Diego Rivera suggested that Vidali did it, or caused it to be done, because Tina knew too much. Interesting, in the light of what Tina once said to a military man, about her partner – “I hate him with all my being. Yet, despite that, I must follow him until death. Until death.”

…your reward is neither here nor there…

The effort to reconcile the creative impulse with political philosophy has stymied many an artist. Haskell Wexler explored this dilemma in Medium Cool – how can a journalist just observe and document and report – how immoral is impartiality? When is it appropriate to stop observing and start doing? The artist and the political activist are very different, and when they try to coexist in one person, the results can be messy. An artist thrives on autonomy and abhors being told what to do. A political activist is either an obedient minion, or exults in forcing other people to do things. There are of course many exceptions, but trying to make art serve ideology can produce dismal results. There is art that spontaneously makes a political point, and that’s great, but on the whole, a shotgun wedding of politics and art must fail.

It seems like the tension between art and politics was a constant throughout Tina’s life. One biographer pinpoints 1932 as the year when she renounced photography. But it wasn’t that cut and dried. It’s doubtful there was a day when she abruptly said, “I’m not taking pictures any more, from now on all I care about is the poor.” All the parts of her were always there – it’s just that the proportions changed. Her abandonment of art isn’t a question of “when,” but was a gradual process that happened in stages. The “why” was a combination of factors.

…of my base metal may be filed a key…

In the early days, in San Francisco, when Tina lost contact with her mother and siblings because of the war in Europe, she might have had some self-lacerating thoughts like, “Here I am prancing around on stage, having bouquets thrown to me, while who knows what my loved ones are suffering?” Even the experience of starring in a film wasn’t gratifying to her, perhaps for similar reasons. Maybe she realized, even then, what she later wrote to Weston, around the time she joined up with the Communists: “I cannot solve the problems of my life by losing myself in the problem of art.”

Her career as a commercial photographer didn’t last long. Maybe she thought that refusing to use her gift to make money would cure her malaise. In 1927, her brother wrote a letter responding to the series still life photos picturing sombrero, hammer & sickle, etc. “…you little liar, you once told me that one cannot express social concerns through the art of photography. You are the one who has proved yourself wrong.” She probably thought the propaganda pictures were the answer, the necessary synthesis between art and activism. Others, who saw that kind of thing as a dire abuse of talent, could have warned her, and probably did, about how destructive it would be to the real artistic impulse.

After Mella’s death, knowing her days in Mexico were numbered, she wanted a retrospective exhibit. It was the only significant show within her lifetime, and was hung in late 1929 at the National Library: “The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition in Mexico.” Tina made sure the venue stayed open long enough to accommodate working-class people, who were amazed that anyone had taken the trouble to document their lives. She renounced the idea of doing any more “perfect platinum prints” for the rich. Now, she would only produce gelatin silver prints, which many more people could afford. But still the sacrifice wasn’t enough.

Diego Rivera separated from the Party at a Central Committee meeting, accusing himself of collaborating with the petit-bourgeois government by accepting mural commissions. “This contradicts the politics of the Comintern and therefore the painter Diego Rivera should be expelled from the Communist party by the general secretary of the Communist party, Diego Rivera.” This bit of satirical guerilla theater suited Rivera, but for Tina the conflict was very real and troublesome. In red circles, it became increasingly difficult to be both an artist and politically correct. Making art was symptomatic of bourgeois individualism, and that wasn’t good

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

By the late 1920s, Vidali was really working on Tina’s head. “Doubts are a luxury that we still can’t afford,” he insisted. Sorrow and regret were also luxuries. Real power lay not in one’s passion for a cause, but in the ability to suppress the passion in order to triumph in the long-term struggle. He believed emotions should be reined in, governed, and channeled toward the greater purpose – while art required the outpouring of emotions. Around this time, and not surprisingly, Tina wrote of her feeling that the “sacred fire” within her had been extinguished. Photography was no longer a means of self-expression, only a way to make money for her political work. But not off the government. At some point she turned down the offer of an official post, photographer for the National Museum. Soon, the question was moot – she was just another deported refugee who landed in Europe as an exile and had to start from square one.

…my clay with long oblivion is gone dry…

In Berlin in 1932, there was not much of a demand for photography, either artistic or commercial. The Graflex camera was the only piece of gear Tina had brought along. Logistically and financially, the difficulties were enormous. A darkroom isn’t something you just throw together out of common kitchen items. The establishment of a business is bureaucracy-intensive, but Tina needed to keep a low profile. When she was able to take some photos, she found the European light so different from that of Mexico, it was like learning all over again. The various possibilities for survival as a photographer were explored, as so many other questions had been, in letters to Weston. She told him her recent work was crap. “I have felt like giving up photography altogether,” she wrote, “but what else can I do?”

Then came the next big upheaval, the move to Russia. Once there, she sold the Graflex camera and bought a Leica, proving that photography was still on her mind. But soon the camera went out on long-term loan to a teenage boy she was mentoring. Maybe she had come to see art as an immature trait. Because she’d had the chance to live out her artistic fantasies, there was no need to artificially hold onto her own youth. As she transitioned to age-appropriate seriousness, the trappings of art could be passed on to the next generation. The Party offered her the post of official photographer but she turned it down. Maybe she still had enough respect for her art, to feel shame at prostituting it for this low purpose. Or maybe she felt it would be uncommunistically self-indulgent to have a job she liked, even if it was done for the glory of the Party. Perhaps she didn’t want to produce work less worthy than what she’d done at her peak. The renowned film director Eisenstein had called her the best, and where do you go from there? Better to let it be. Maybe she put art aside because a huge, sweeping change is easier than a bunch of niggling adjustments and compromises. Maybe giving up art was preferable to bending it to political purposes. Maybe she’d forgotten how to do it any other way.

…’tis nothing but a magic shadow-show…

“I put too much art in my life,” Tina had written to Weston years before. “Consequently I have not much left to give to art.” But during the Spanish Civil War, it was no longer a question of putting too much art into life, but of putting too much energy of all kinds into basic survival. At a Party congress she met Robert Capa and other world-class photojournalists, including one who recommended that she take up photography again. Tina told this woman, “Two tasks cannot be done at the same time.” By then she seems to have concluded that not only self-expressive art, but even documentary art, had no place in her life.

Peter Byrne, a harsh critic, says Tina’s political work had “separated her from generosity, openness and love,” making art impossible. During the final years in Mexico, important people offered her good money for portraits, which she turned down. In 1940 she went on one last photo expedition, as a guide for two young Americans, but didn’t take pictures even when offered a camera. Two years before she died, Manuel Alvarez Bravo tried to loan her a camera and the use of his darkroom, which she refused very sadly with the words, “Not now.”

“Not now” could mean “Maybe someday.” “Not now” could mean, “Not after all the things I’ve seen and done. Not ever.” We’ll never know. The paradox is, Tina Modotti abandoned art to do something meaningful and real. Yet, despite her best efforts to the contrary, it is for her art that she is remembered.

Subtitles
…the steps of tomorrow will pass by to see… – Pablo Neruda
…how can we dance when our earth is turning… – Midnight Oil
…how do we sleep when our beds are burning… – Midnight Oil
…deceived entrapment through belief… – Fugazi
…alien you find you feel at home everywhere… – Fugazi
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – film title
all others – Omar Khayyam

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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3 Responses to How to Be a Legend: Tina Modotti

  1. I added your post to my college report. Regards

  2. Mayall says:

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  3. Steven Otero says:

    Who was the Oscar Wilde type aesthete who taught Tina Modotti the art of the Courtesan ?

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