Tina Modotti was born in Italy in 1896, emigrated to the United States in 1913, and later became a Soviet-inspired political activist in Spain. But she was a Mexican photographer, in the sense that she found her style, subjects and vocation in Mexico; leaving Mexico in 1930, she left photography too. This claim is complicated but not drastically altered by the few brilliant pictures Modotti took in Germany, notably one of a large, respectable-looking couple at the zoo, seen from the back, off-balance with excitement at their glimpse of the animal that is hidden from us in the darkness of the cage. It’s not just that Modotti photographed Mexican Indians and Mexican churches and street scenes, the work of Mexican muralists and the muralists themselves; it’s that even her relatively abstract work – lilies, roses, wine-glasses, telegraph wires, doors, the spreading steps of a stadium – belong to the intellectual and artistic climate of Mexico in the Twenties. This was a time and a place where – for artists at least – abstraction and politics were not at odds, where the eerie beauty of a bunch of roses crushed together might have something of the same melancholy dignity as an Indian child’s face. The face is not aestheticised, and the roses are not turned into allegory; but it is true that virtually all Modotti’s photographs of this period have a delicate desolation about them, as if a certain formal perfection was a way of saying what’s wrong with the world.
For a long time Modotti’s reputation was overshadowed by that of her mentor Edward Weston, and her total output of photographs was slender: four hundred images, Margaret Hooks says. But her well-known Roses (1925) sold at Sotheby’s in 1991 for $165,000, then apparently a record price for a photograph. And now here are two illustrated books about her, and an exhibition of her work at the Photographers’ Gallery. There was a legendary life, too, to go with the photographs.
Modotti’s memorable portrait of an Indian boy evokes all the sorrow and grace traditionally associated with American Indians, but also something else. The picture is taken from a low angle; the boy’s straw hat attracts the attention and cuts out a piece of the sky; the boy’s face and eyes suggest a mixture of composure and bewilderment, as if he can’t name what bothers him, saddens him. Her picture of a cactus flower called flor de manita shows the strange flower looking like a hand, with spooky, long claws for fingers, but it is also open, upturned, beseeching, waiting for alms that won’t come. I’m still trying to work out the feeling provoked by Stadium. It’s not only that the stone steps are empty and regular, receding in perspective towards the top left corner of the frame; I think it’s that the angle and the narrow shadows suggest that the circle of the stadium may never close, that this part may belong to no whole, that this is a geometrical design that could go on for ever, like a staircase in Borges or Piranesi.
There is a similar suggestion even in Modotti’s openly political photographs, like Workers’ Parade, for instance, where marching men, seen from above, appear as a river of sombreros, as if the hats themselves were protesting, leading a militant life the men scarcely have any more. A similar photograph shows a group of men reading the Communist newspaper El Machete, or rather it shows the newspaper in the centre of the frame, and eight hats surrounding it, one of them, the smallest, casting a shadow on the page. A marvellous picture of a worker carrying a huge beam portrays the man as poised and strong, walking away from the camera towards the left, but the beam – the darkest thing in a bleached-out, otherwise largely empty space – cuts diagonally and dramatically across the top of the picture, as if it were bolder than any human life, and the man’s right hand dangles down like an inverted flor de manita.
It’s significant that while Modotti’s broadly political pictures regularly get this effect, her straightforward propaganda photographs – the hammer and the sickle, the emblematically arranged guitar, bandolier and corncob – don’t. She refused a job as government-sponsored photographer in Mexico on political grounds, and no doubt also on the instructions of the Mexican Communist Party, which she joined in 1927. But she later refused a similar job in Moscow, presumably for artistic and moral reasons: she couldn’t photograph programmed happiness, maybe she couldn’t photograph happiness at all.
A German critic, quoted in Mildred Constantine’s book, said that Modotti’s Mexican photographs show that ‘the sad eyes of a poor child might he more beautiful than those of a ballet-queen; that industrial landscapes, the means of production ... are more beautiful than the green avenues of Switzerland.’ Only the people in this photographed world are ‘not happy. Why? This is the question one senses in her photographs.’ The brutal answer to the question would be that beauty doesn’t feed you, and that it doesn’t matter whether the means of production are beautiful or not. But the sentimental phrasing does point to the real question in Modotti’s work, which is about the unresolved relation between beauty and happiness.
It is a question which distinguished her work from that of Weston, who influenced her immensely. She was his mistress, companion, assistant; they went to Mexico together in 1923; and she kept writing to him, as to a loved master, long after he had returned to America and all intimate relations between them were over. When he left Mexico in 1925, she wrote an eloquent letter to him which among other things referred him to Pound’s famous lines about love and loss:
What thou lovest well remains,
The rest is dross.
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
This seems to catch an old principle of Modotti’s about what can and can’t be taken from us. Some grieving, preserving activity is at work in her life and in her photographs. She had written earlier to another friend that ‘only by living in the past can we revenge ourselves on nature.’ This is said by a woman who lived strenuously in the present, filling it with loves, politics, ambition, industry, good deeds, and later (probably) conspiracies and missions for the Comintern. Living in the past must mean living in the mind, in the affections: storing there whatever is not dross against the insufficiences of the beautiful but unhappy world.
Of course, people are not happy in Weston’s photographs either – particularly in the ones he took in Mexico. People are moody and mournful, images of longing and pain. But the sadness of these images is part of their beauty, not a question about it. The sadness is the beauty, there is a repose, a harmony and a balance in these pictures which we do not find in Modotti’s. For her the beauty and the sadness are at odds, a conundrum. ‘I cannot accept life as it is,’ she wrote to Weston, ‘it is too chaotic – too unconscious’; but she can’t accept the stillness of art either. What she did accept, she said in a later letter, the one that contains the allusion to Pound’s Cantos, was ‘the tragic conflict between life which continually changes and form which fixes it immutable’. A tragic conflict because life and form can only get things wrong, betray each other into excesses of change and immutability. Art in such a view would not resolve or redeem this betrayal, it would photograph it.
Modotti’s life was certainly full of change. Born into a poor Italian family in Udine, she worked in a silk factory from the age of 12; became a seamstress when, at 17, she emigrated to San Francisco; took up amateur, then professional acting and modelling; got a few parts as the sultry, threatening, foreign vamp in early Hollywood movies; married a painter, who died suddenly after five years of marriage; had an affair with Weston, and with several, perhaps many other men; joined the Communist Party; was walking down a Mexican street one night in 1929 with her Cuban lover, Julio Antonio Mella, when he was suddenly shot and killed; was expelled from Mexico as an undesirable alien; worked for International Red Aid in Moscow, Paris and Spain, performing all kinds of heroic deeds during the Civil War; returned to Mexico, where her expulsion was rescinded by the President; and died, in 1942, in a taxi on her way home after a dinner party. She was 46. There was speculation that she had been poisoned because of her knowledge of various Stalinist and other affairs, but a straightforward heart attack is the most likely cause of death.
The murkiest part of this story concerns the murder of Mella. Margaret Hooks opens her book with a dramatic account of this event. ‘It was a typically cold, clear January night ... Suddenly, two shots rang out, shattering the stillness of the night ...’ Both Hooks and Constantine, I should say, are animated by a real affection for their subject, accompanied by a real addiction to cliché. The Mexican press, and no doubt many Mexican politicians anxious for a distraction, loved the idea of a crime passionnel, particularly one involving two foreigners. The most probable explanation, however, is that Mella, a refugee from and a staunch and active opponent of the Machado Government in Cuba, was assassinated by the agents of the regime he opposed. But there are intimations of a link between Mella and Trotsky, and it is possible that the Stalinist Communist Party was (also) implicated. One of the most curious items in Hooks’s book is the fact that Modotti quoted Trotsky on art and revolution on an invitation to an exhibition of her work. The same quotation appears, scrambled by the angle of the camera, in Modotti’s now famous photograph of Mella’s typewriter. Only a corner of the page is visible: we read the words ‘inspiración’, ‘artística’, ‘síntesis’ etc. What was Modotti doing? Everything else she said at this time and later – about the expulsion of Diego Rivera from the Party, about the need to insist that the Party is always right – makes her sound more Stalinist than the Stalinists. ‘Was it naivety, a lack of understanding of doctrinal infighting?’ Hooks speculates: ‘Or, an act of defiance, a homage to Mella ... and to his Trotskyist sympathies? Did Tina at one point share these sympathies?’ Or did she divide her political and her sentimental sympathies different ways? What did she think about Trotsky and his seeking sanctuary in Mexico; about the attempt on Trotsky’s life by Siqueiros and others in 1940? Did she know about it in advance? She was not in Mexico City when Trotsky was killed, later that same year, by Ramón Mercader; but her later lover Vittorio Vidali was suspected of having had a hand in this and many other assassinations. All we can say, perhaps, is that this was a world and a time where several quite different and much travelled roads might plausibly lead to the same murder, whether Mella’s or Trotsky’s.
Both of the books claim to demythologise Modotti, to give us the woman instead of the legend. This is a reckless offer, and one that a writer probably can’t really make. The legend is what attracts us, writers and readers; and in Modotti’s case the very facts are legendary. Both books are informative, Hooks’s considerably more so than Constantine’s, which is a reissue of a work that first appeared in the Seventies. Hooks has done a lot more research, and to better effect, and corrects many of Constantine’s errors. Unfortunately for Hooks, the photographs are much better in Constantine’s book – more clearly reproduced in almost all cases, and not so arbitrarily cropped. Both writers are stuck with, indeed in love with, a stereotype of Modotti: the courageous free woman with a heart of gold. They are not surprised enough by anything she does, and they will admire anything. Perhaps the evidence doesn’t allow us to go beyond the stereotype. Certainly most of the photographs of Modotti, by Weston and others, are so thoroughly mythological that they tell us far more about the photographer than about their subject: an anguished or a soulful or a brooding Modotti becomes a picture of what an interesting woman is supposed to look like, a pure, intricate icon. Some snapshots give us a sense of another person. In 1924, Weston and Modotti stepped into a professional photographer’s studio and had themselves pictured in poses appropriate to a couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary. This Modotti looks sturdy and agreeable, clear-eyed and sensible, rather than sultry and wounded. She may not accept life as it is but she has a practical idea of what’s wrong with it. Weston, here as elsewhere, manages to look both ordinary and creepy, a clerk with a secret life. There’s also a charming photograph of Modotti and Weston on the boat on their way to Mexico in 1923. He looks a little glum, but she is surprised into the warmest of smiles, seems entirely open, vulnerable, straight.
The evidence of Modotti’s art is clear. She wanted to ask a certain question of life, and she asked it incomparably. We have her question; it is in almost every photograph she took. But the life leaves us wondering not only how this lively, engaging, liberated woman got entangled in the darkness of a dogmatic and murderous organisation, but how entangled she was and in what. Wondering finally, quite helplessly, who she was. She told her brother, late in her life, that she was ‘already dead. I can’t live down there, in Mexico.’ When did she die in this sense? When Mella was killed in 1929? When she was expelled in 1930? Some time after her return in 1939? She couldn’t accept the chaos and unconsciousness of life as it is. But perhaps the order and consciousness she found were worse: beyond living and beyond photography.