Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti - Art: Marcelo Guimarães Lima
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By ANDREA FRANCINE BATISTA & YURI MARTINS-FONTES*

Entry from the “Dictionary of Marxism in America”

Life and political praxis

Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini, or Tina Modotti as she became known, was born into a family of Italian workers. Her living conditions required her to work with her mother, Assunta Mondini Modotti, as a seamstress in a factory from an early age. Her father, Giuseppe Saltarini Modotti, worked as a manufacturer of bamboo bicycles in a small town in Austria, but in 1906 he migrated to the United States, in search of work, while the family remained in Italy.

As a child, Tina was close to social struggles: her godfather at baptism, Demétrio Canal, was a member of the socialist circle of Udine; and her father, as she claims, was a “socialist” and “firm supporter of union causes”, once taking her on a May 1 mobilization.

She got to know photography with her uncle Pietro Modotti, who had a small studio, which she often visited. At the age of 16, in 1913, she traveled to meet her father, who lived in San Francisco (USA); she landed in the country, precisely at a time when hostility to Italian migration was growing – declaring herself student and unrelated to the anarchist movement. Giuseppe assumed the name of Joseph, and worked in partnership in a photographic studio, while Tina and her sister Mercedez did sewing jobs.

Enchanted by art, Tina began to attend theaters and exhibitions. That's how, in 1915, she established a relationship with the painter and poet Roubaix de L'Abrie Richey – known as Robo –, whom she would marry. They moved to Los Angeles, where she acted as an actress in plays, operas and films; his film industry debut was in the film The tiger's coat.

Over the years and the busy artistic life, his relationship with Robo entered a crisis. That's when she met the photographer Edward Weston, with whom she would learn the art of photography, thus starting her career in this area. Tina and Weston would build a close and lasting relationship, both loving and working.

In 1921, Robo, at the invitation of the Mexican Ministry of Education, moved to that country, taking Tina's works with him to set up an exhibition. In February 1922, she was to meet Robo, but received news of his death from smallpox; she then committed herself to completing the show he had started – at the National Academy of Fine Arts, in Mexico City. In March of the same year, her father died, forcing her to return to the USA.

Shortly afterwards, in 1923, Tina and Weston decided to leave the United States for Mexico, excited by the possibilities of finding there a more favorable environment to develop their artistic creativity and even their emotional relationship. Settled in the country's capital, they began to frequent circles of socialist artists, having soon met the muralist painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). In 1924, Tina posed for Weston, in a nude photographic essay – whose images would later be used by Rivera in allegories of his monumental paintings (in the central building of the Secretary of Public Education, Mexico City).

Around that time, Tina began working on photographic projects, together with the Mexican Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002), in addition to contributing to the solidarity campaigns built by the Communist International (IC) – in which she acted especially against the condemnation of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomé Vanzetti (Italian anarchists executed in the electric chair, in the USA), and in the Committee in Defense of Nicaragua (against the US invasion).

In 1927, Weston decided to return to the US for good; Tina remained in Mexico. That same year, she permanently joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), collaborating with photos and translations for its newspaper. El Machete. He considered political activity with great seriousness and awareness of his responsibilities. Engaged in the revolutionary struggle, her photography took a class perspective, documenting the daily lives of workers, peasant struggles and social mobilizations. She became the main photographer of the Mexican Muralist Movement, documenting works by its main representatives – and also socialist militants: Diego Rivera (who, in turn, would portray her in his murals), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and Xavier Warrior (1896-1974). At her house, they held informal meetings to discuss the role of art and literature in the revolutionary process.

It was in this context that, in 1928, he met his future companion Júlio Mella (1903-1929), leader of the Communist Party of Cuba, who was in exile in Mexico; the relationship would last until the Marxist's assassination, the following year, by agents of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. Amidst the political tensions that characterized the period, Mella was killed on a January night in 1929, while walking to meet Tina, after a meeting at the Mexican Section of Socorro Vermelho Internacional (SVI) – an organization that supported persecuted people and political prisoners. , linked to IC. In the midst of the anticommunist atmosphere at the time, in addition to the differences between communists themselves, the murder involved a lot of speculation; local newspapers even accused Tina of the death, but she was soon cleared after a police investigation. Even in the face of emotional and political exhaustion, she would firmly pursue her militancy in the party.

In 1929, Tina Modotti became intensely involved with photography. At the National Library, she held “Mexico's First Revolutionary Exhibition”. At the same time, anti-communist persecutions increased, imposing clandestinity to the PCM; the headquarters of the party and the newspaper The Machete were closed, and several leaders expelled from the country. Tina was regularly watched by the police until, in February 1930, she was deported. Mussolini's government tried to extradite her to Italy, as subversive, however, through the action of the SVI, she landed in Germany - just at the moment when the rise of the Nazi Party was taking place and there was a massive participation of the population in rallies of Adolf Hitler. In Europe, she dedicated herself to actions in defense of political prisoners and carried out clandestine work for the IC, in order to contain the Nazi-fascist advance. She intended to return to Italy, however, after a reunion with the Italian Vittorio Vidalli, a communist militant she had met in Mexico, she moved to Moscow (1931). There, she suspended her photography activities and devoted herself tirelessly to translation work, at the Soviet headquarters of Socorro Vermelho, for which she also wrote articles.

Tina Modotti then became an important revolutionary, communist and internationalist leader. She had a relationship with the German Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), a socialist and feminist leader, and met the Mexican communist Concha Michel (1899-1990), who was in Moscow, in 1932. In 1936, Tina (under the pseudonym Maria Pidal) and Vidalli (under the pseudonym Carlos Contreras) left Moscow to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), supporting the anti-fascist struggle. In the conflict, Tina was part of the female battalion, working especially in secret missions and in hospitals, having supported revolutionary fighters and victims of massacres. She also worked with the Canadian communist physician Henry Norman Bethune (1890-1939) – an early advocate of socialized medicine (who would later contribute to the Red Army in China, participating in the Sino-Japanese War, from 1938).

In 1937, Tina was nominated by the SVI to participate in the II International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, which took place in Madrid (Spain). The event took place in the middle of the Civil War, and had the support of the Alliance of Antifascist Intellectuals. Among the participants, who, among other topics, discussed the role of the writer in society, were the Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), the Cuban Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), the German Maria Osten (1908-1942) and the Spanish Margarita Nelken Mansberger (1894-1968).

With the defeat in the Civil War, Tina became, in 1939, in charge of providing political asylum for refugees. It withdrew hundreds of militants along the border between France and Spain. Together with Vidalli, she returned to Mexico (under the pseudonym Carmen Ruiz Sanchez) and, through its political articulations, managed to obtain asylum on Mexican soil for several combatants involved in the conflict. On his return, he collaborated with the translation of articles for the Associação Antifascista Garibaldi; he tried not to resume his old contacts, and he worked a lot, although he rarely left the residence where he lived with Vidalli.

In January 1942, Tina and Vidalli were invited to dinner at the home of Hannes Meyer, a Swiss communist architect; there, Tina would then spend her last moments accompanied by prose and wine; Vidalli, reporting an appointment in the newspaper El Popular, had withdrawn shortly before; Tina, at dawn, took a taxi towards her house, however, she died on the way. Her causes of death are still uncertain (whether murder, suicide or poor health). However, in the face of speculation, the medical report indicated generalized visceral congestion and multiple organ failure – which could have been caused by a heart attack (recurrent in the Modotti family), or by poisoning by an unknown substance.

Tina was buried to the sound of Internacional. Accompanied by lilies, militants and leaders, her funeral took the hammer and sickle intertwined. Fully living his convictions, his work – both political and photographic – is a documentary testimony of the conditions of the Mexican working class and plays an important role in the dissemination of socialist ideals in Latin America.

Contributions to Marxism

Tina Modotti was above all a communist activist and photographer, as well as a journalist, translator and actress. Through her photographic compositions, she recorded images of the workers' everyday reality. She joined the PCM, where she worked in newspapers such as El Machete, and participated in the SVI, in support of the persecuted and political prisoners, also acting in the agitation brigades of the German Communist Party and in the Spanish Civil War.

Intensely vivid, Tina Modotti has not shied away from the challenges of her time. Through photojournalism, she sought to converge hairsalon e revolution. His photography positioned itself as an instrument ethical of social research and political battles. He documented the culture, ills and social struggles. It contributed with the visual memory of personalities, militants and leaders, as well as political and cultural actions of the period. Through his photographic compositions, he articulated objectivity e subjectivity – in the quest for human emancipation. He produced photos that carry a documentary value of the lived social reality – from the class struggle of his time –, expressing in images an intrinsic relationship between art and politics. She portrayed the identity and struggles of workers, peasants and indigenous peoples in Mexico; recorded Mexican murals, publicized the communist perspective of societal transformation, and called for sensitivity as necessary to understand social life. In addition, she gave a fundamental emphasis on women in her work.

In a similar direction to the Mexican muralist movement, he innovated in photography, highlighting the interfaces between Marx's aesthetics and the revolutionary struggle. Diego Rivera, in his article “Edward Weston and Tina Modotti” (1926), stated that Tina, his muse and partner, produced a photograph of “wonderful sensitivity”, both on an “abstract” and “intellectual” level.

Tina found it unpleasant to have her photographic work treated as art; she defended that photographs should be produced without the use of manipulations or artificial effects. She considered the camera as hardware, just as the brush is for the painter. He understood that photography, in its multiple functions, was an important means of recording the present. Without delving into the debate about photography being or not , she highlighted the importance of distinguishing the good work photographic, in which the limitations of the photographic technique are accepted and all the possibilities that the medium offers are taken advantage of; already the bad job would be the one in which tricks are resorted to to please certain tastes. It is a debate that pervades the relationship between art and politics, based on a Marxist aesthetic, although the author does not use this terminology. Photography, as a social product, can compose processes of alienation and fetishism, but it can also express and highlight the contradictions of the material life of a given historical moment, contributing to the connections and syntheses of the process of emancipatory awareness.

Tina sought to relate, through photography, elements of everyday life to the political struggle, giving the notion of “art” this specific meaning. But, at a certain point, her camera became insufficient to face the harshness of the Nazi-fascist rise. In a change of course, she focused on strengthening Socorro Vermelho, becoming its leader. Created in the 1920s, the SVI operated in two formats: as a mass organization; and in the composition of committees, which acted in the legal and material assistance of prisoners and political exiles. These actions were essential to save and preserve the lives of countless militants who had become politically persecuted – such as the Brazilians Laura Brandão (1891-1942) and Octávio Brandão (1896-1980), exiled in the USSR in the 1930s (there are records of the defense of Tina to the Soviet Section of the SVI to recognize them as exiles). Among the leaders of this organization were Clara Zetkin and the Russian Elena Stásova (1873-1966). In addition to translating articles for periodicals linked to the SVI, Tina also wrote on topics such as: Mexican agrarian reform and the situation of widows and children in the face of fascism. Few of her articles demarcate an anti-imperialist position and the communist societal perspective. She also carried out clandestine tasks, which were essential for the consolidation of the international communist movement.

He met the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), who, in turn, claimed to have been influenced by the photos of Tina and Weston (in his film “Que viva México!”, 1932). She lived with Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Augusto César Sandino, Alexandra Kolontai (ambassador to Mexico from 1925 to 1927), and with the Spanish revolutionary Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (known as La Passionaria, famous communist leader).

Tina Modotti was a communist, internationalist and feminist woman who transgressed the customs of her time. In her relationships, she sought the necessary autonomy to maintain her commitment and revolutionary convictions. She acted between aesthetics and politics, between freedom and commitment, and defined herself as someone who aspired to respect all the possibilities that human existence brings to life.

Comment on the work

Tina Modotti's written work consists of sparse texts, articles published in magazines and newspapers, as well as correspondence – among which we comment on some of the most prominent ones.

In March 1930, he wrote an article for the Peruvian magazine amauta (n. 29) entitled “The Mexican counterrevolution”, where he denounces the persecution (arrests and murders) of communists, and accuses the country’s authorities of having lost any “modesty” in their “submission to the capitalists of Wall Street”, in addition to creating a “hysterical-sentimental psychological state” in public opinion, inventing fictions ranging from “plots” to “terrorist plans”, but which are nothing more than farces intended to “please the readers of the bourgeois press”, who accept “all kinds of nonsense”, confusing “communists with terrorists”, and “anti-imperialists with manufacturers of bombs destined to kill presidents across Latin America”. Shortly after this publication, Tina was exiled from the country.

His direct role in the SVI organization was revealed in two letters to Manuel Álvarez Bravo (March 25 and July 9, 1931), which can be read on the portal of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts (ICAA) - from Houston (available: https://icaa.mfah.org). In the latter, he comments on the “suicide” of a common acquaintance, whom he considers the “prototype of the parasitic (and therefore decadent) class”: a woman without “material concerns” who, due to “spiritual concerns”, became if “so complicated to the point of pathological”; a great “tragedy”, but no less than those who “commit suicide due to hunger”, as was happening in the USA – in which the “bourgeois newspapers” themselves affirmed that suicide “by hunger” had become a “phenomenon”. collective". Furthermore, he tells him that he was unable to dedicate time to photography in the face of the “Bolshevik” rhythm of militant work, and that it had become impossible to do both, especially when both were so important. In fact, during this period, she rarely used the camera, and always for very specific purposes.

As rapporteur for the regional sections of the Caribbean Secretariat (New York), and the South American Secretariat (Buenos Aires), he was especially concerned with reading correspondence and reports, as well as newspapers and political-union materials that would allow him to understand the political and economic situation of the countries, in order to then establish bridges with the SVI, translating the contents into accessible language, popular, for the publications of the organization. As an example, we can mention the article “Los niños y el Socorro Rojo”, published in German Red Help Magazine, in March 1931.

Still in this period, when secretary of the Antifascist Committee of the Caribbean, she wrote the pamphlet “El Socorro Rojo Internacional in the countries of South America and the Caribbean"(1933).

In the newspaperHelp”, a publication edited by the Spanish Section of the SVI during the Spanish Civil War, Tina wrote articles under the pseudonym Carmen Ruiz. In the text “En defensa de nuestros niños” (Madrid, March 3, 1937), he states that one of the main problems facing the fascist advance was the question of “childhood” – a theme that the SVI, due to its humanitarian spirit, placed as one of the main tasks. After all, after hundreds of deaths, it was no longer a question of picking up children from combatants or those evacuated, or organizing day care centers or delivering clothes and food, as there was no longer a safe place there. In view of this, he points to the need to send them abroad, where anti-fascist organizations around the world offered hospitality – from special committees that received children of combatants or those who fell in defense of the cause –, until the problems were resolved. conflicts. For this, it would be necessary to carry out a wide work of advertising and convincing mothers and fathers, so that they could understand the proposal.

Tina's correspondence with Weston is extensive, and has been collected in publications such as: Vita, arte e rivoluzione: lettere to Edward Weston (1922-1931) [org. Valentina Agostinis] (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1994); It is A woman without a country: Tina Modotti's letters to Edward Weston and other personal papers [org. Antonio Saborit] (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 2001). Among the letters contained in the collections, there is one (February 25, 1930) in which Tina tells her partner that she was accused of having participated in the assassination attempt on President-elect Pascual Ortiz Rubio, which resulted in her deportation, after having spent 13 days in jail, under the allegation that she was a “terrorist”.

Tina's correspondence frequently expresses her feelings, her thoughts in relation to art, life, relationships and the political struggle. In one of these letters to Weston, dated 1926, he states that he always sought to respect “the many possibilities of the being that is in all of us”, in the face of the “tragic conflict between life, which changes continuously, and the form, which fixes it immutably” . In another, from the same year, written on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of Robo's death, she states that, having returned to her old things, she decided that she would keep only those that had to do with photography, and the rest of her things “concrete” things that he loved so much would be subjected to a metamorphosis that would transform them into “abstract” ones, so that he could always have them in his heart.

As for photography, this was the activity that Tina Modotti devoted most of her time to. do political. His first photographic works, still under the influence of Weston's drawings, were published in the magazine The Country Master (Mexico). His visual work can be found mainly in the newspaper The Machete, official organ of the Central Committee of the PCM, and in Revista Mexican Folkways, where she worked as an editor and photographer.

In the latter, he published the manifesto “About photography” (Mexican Folkways, no. 4, 1929) – text available on the aforementioned website of the ICAA. In the essay, she highlights the role of photography as a documentary record of a time, stating that, as it is carried out in the present moment, based on what exists objectively in front of the camera, photography would be a perceptive way to record the manifestations of real life. It understands that the sensitivity and knowledge of the different dimensions of reality, together with the understanding of the position we occupy in the historical process, give photography a valuable place in social production – to which everyone should contribute. The manifesto begins by noting that the use of the words “art”, or “artistic”, in relation to her photographic work, aroused an “unpleasant impression” in her, due to the “misuse and abuse that is made of them”. If his photos were considered different from those produced by other photographers – he ponders – it is because he sought to “produce not art, but honest photographs, without tricks or manipulation, while most photographers still seek 'artistic effects' or the imitation of other means of graphic expression". Approaching Rivera's reflection on the subject, he considers that many in his time had not yet managed to accept the "manifestations of our mechanical civilization", stating that, for him, the merit of photography is that of being the "most eloquent and direct way of recording the present time”. Furthermore, says Tina, “it doesn’t matter whether photography is art or not”, but rather “distinguish between good and bad photography”: by “good” one should understand that which “accepts all the limitations inherent to the technique photography and takes advantage of all the possibilities and characteristics that the medium offers”; by “bad photography”, one should understand one that is taken with “a kind of inferiority complex”, which does not allow appreciating “what photography has of its own, of its own” – leading to resort to “ imitations”, “counterfeits”. Photography, says Tina, “precisely because it can only be produced in the present, and based on what objectively exists in front of the camera”, imposes itself as “the most satisfactory means of recording objective life in all its manifestations”; therefore has a great "documentary value", to which, if added "sensitivity" and "understanding" of the topic addressed" - in addition to, above all, clarity as to the "place" that such an image should occupy in the "historical development" - it can result in “something worthy of occupying a position in social production, to which we must all contribute”.

As can be seen in these reflections, Tina Modotti's Marxist aesthetic conception is attentive both to the aspect target of the act of photographing (while record of reality), as well as its sensitive aspect (the necessary sensitivity to locate the imagistic testimony in the context of history – in the whole that makes up reality).

Between 1927 and 1928, Tina Modotti was invited to participate in the project to create Free Schools of Agriculture. The Indian communist Pandurang Khankhoje (1884-1967) was responsible for the experiment, which began with “itinerant” classes. Tina took a series of photos of research on maize production carried out by Khankhoje when these schools were built. Such images demonstrate peasant activities in the municipality of Texcoco (1927-1928), and a peasant assembly in Chipiltepec, where the first School of Agriculture Emiliano Zapata. Some of these photographs are kept at the Fototeca Nacional de México, a politically active production that witnessed the organization of peasants, with the aim of promoting the revolutionary social struggle. His photo “Hoz, canana y mazorca” [Corn cob, scythe and cartridge belt], from 1928, inspired the construction of the emblem of these Schools.

Other images, from the mid-1920s, portrayed the people in the context of the industrialization process, such as: “Telegraphic Hilos” (1925); “Man carrying a beam” (1927); and “Manos de mujer washing clothes” (1926). She also photographed the communist political-economic struggle, as in: “Marcha de los trabajadores” (1926) – in which she portrays peasants marching for agrarian reform; “Sombrero, hoz y martillo” (1927); “Campesinos reading The Machete” (1928); “Mujer con bandera” (1928); the photomontage “La elegancia y la poverty” (1928); and “Cantando corridos en Chiconcuac” (1928), which records Concha Michel playing the guitar for peasants.

Tina also portrayed several personalities of the political struggle of her time, such as Julio Mella, her companion, who would soon be murdered; shaken, she then decided to tour the state of Oaxaca, recording its culture. On her return, she photographed mobilizations, as seen in “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the manifestation of Primero de Mayo de 1929”. In Germany, few photographs of her are known; we highlight: “Una vez más” (1930), which shows the belly of a pregnant mother holding a child in her arms.

As an actress, Tina Modotti participated in American films, such as: The tiger's coat [The Tiger's Coat], 1920 (directed by Roy Clements); It is Riding with death [Riding with Death], 1921 (directed by Jacques Jaccard).

Tina was also portrayed in several of Diego Rivera's murals, having posed for the works “Tierra virgen” (1926), “La tierra abundant” (1926) and “Germinación” (1926-1927), among others. In the outstanding mural “En el arsenal” (1928), by the Secretariat of Public Education (Mexico City), she appears painted, next to Frida Kahlo, distributing ammunition to the people and staring at Júlio Mella, with Vittorio Vidalli (1900-1983 ) next to.

*Andrea Francine Batista is a professor at the Federal University of Paraná. Author, among other books, of Peasant movement and class consciousness: the organizational praxis of Via Campesina Internacional in Latin America (UFRJ).

*Yuri Martins-Fontes he is a writer, teacher and journalist; PhD in Economic History (USP/CNRS). Author, among other books, of marx in america (Avenue).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP.

References


BARCKHAUSEN, Christiane. On Tina Modotti's trail. São Paulo: Alfa Omega, 1989.

CASANOVA, Rose. “Huellas of a utopia: the political photographs of Tina Modotti”. Alchemy (National Photo Library System): Tina Modotti, unpublished file, year 17, n. 50, Mexico City, Impresora y Encuadernadora Progreso, Jan-Apr. 2014.

MULVEY; WOLLEN et al. Frida Kahlo & Tina Modotti. Documentary (29 min.). Production: Arts Council of Great Britain/Modelmark (United Kingdom), 1983.

HOOKS, Margaret. Tina Modotti, photographer and revolutionary [Trans. V. Whately; H. Lanari]. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1997.

JEIFETS; Lazar; JEIFETS, Victor. Latin America in the Communist International (1919-1943): Biographical Dictionary. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2017.

MARTINEZ DÍAZ (right) et al. Tina Modotti: the dogma and the passion. Documentary (53 min). Co-production: FONCA/CINEMAZERO (Mexico/Italy), 2012. Disp.: https://vimeo.com.

MASSE, Patricia. “Tina Modotti and Radical Agrarism in Mexico”. Alquimia (Sistema Nacional de Fototecas): Tina Modotti, no. 50, Cid. Mexico, Impresora Progreso, Jan-Apr. 2014.

MELLA, JA. “Letter to Tina Modotti” (1927). In: GUANCHE. Mella: selected texts. Havana: Ed. La Memoria/Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau, 2017.

MUZARDO, Fabiane. “Tina Modotti and the Mexican periodicals of the 1920s”. Art & Sensorium: Rev. International Interdisciplinary Visual Arts, Curitiba, v. 6, no. 2, 2019.

PONIATOWSKA, Elena. very fine. Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1992.


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