Women Artists

Tina Modotti. A Woman of Her Time

Maia Heguiaphal 18 September 2019 min Read

Tina Modotti is a photographer whose path parallels the great moments of 20th-century history. Her way of making art is a testimony to the world around her and her eye on it.

Emigration to the States

Tina Modotti was born in 1896 in Italy to a working class family. In the 1910s, at the age of 16, she emigrated to the United States as part of the big European emigration wave of this time. Once in California, she was noticed for her beauty and became an actress. It was the beginning of Hollywood.

Tina Modotti
Tina Modotti in Roy Clements' The Tiger's Coat, 1920

Mexico, and the Birth of an Artist

In the 1920s, she went to Mexico to supervise her husband's (the painter Robo) exhibition. The poor man died there, but Tina stayed and fell in love with the country and its social and cultural ferment. Indeed, 1920s Mexico just got out of a political revolution and had begun a cultural one. 

While in Mexico, Tina Modotti lived with her lover, the photographer Edward Weston and the agent of her initiation to photography. At first she was his model, but she quickly moved behind the camera and learned to use it.

Tina Modotti
Edward Weston, Portrait of Tina Modotti, 1924

Mexico was her muse, only taking pictures during the eight years she spent there. Her work is marked by the social injustices she encountered. She took pictures of the ones nobody sees, the ones left out. These pictures are filled with a great respect. Through them, we feel her reverence for the country and its people.

Tina Modotti
Tina Modotti, Woman of Tehuantepec, 1929
Tina Modotti, Worker's hands, 1927, MOMA

Social Issues and the Communist Party

In the 1920s, Mexico was in the middle of the agrarian reform. Tina Modotti took a lot of pictures of Mexican peasants, highlighting the injustices they suffered. In the following picture, peasants are reading a communist newspaper El Machete, whose title is “All the land, not little pieces of land." 

Tina Modotti
Peasants reading El Machete, Tina Modotti, 1928

In 1927, she joined the Mexican communist party, becoming dedicated to the communist cause. One of her pictures was used to illustrate the communist newspaper New Masses.

Frontpage of New Masses, October 1928, photography: Tina Modotti, Hammer, sickle and sombrero, 1927

Once in the party, she met the muralists. They were fully engaged in the Mexican Renaissance through their art. Accessible to all, it glorifies the revolution. Tina became close with the Kahlo-Rivera couple: she was Frida Kahlo's lover and Diego Rivera's official photographer. 

Diego Rivera, In the armory. Photography by Tina Modotti, 1928

A Full Commitment

However, she thought her work as an artist was not useful enough so she stopped it to devote herself to communism. In 1930, she traveled to the USSR, the motherland of communism, where she worked for the International Red Aid. A few years later, she fought fascism in Spain during its civil war (1936-1939).

Finally, she went back to her adopted country, Mexico, where she died in 1942 under suspicious circumstances. Upon her death, Pablo Neruda wrote a beautiful and poignant poem in her honor: 

"Tina Modotti hermana, no duermes no, no duermes tal vez tu corazon
oye crecer la rosa
de ayer la ultima rosa
de ayer la nueva rosa
descansa dulcemente hermana.

Puro es tu dulce nombre
pura es tu fragil vida
de abeja sombra fuego
nieve silencio espuma
de acero linea polen
se construyo tu ferrea
tu delgada estructura"


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