Social Production and Curves of Beauty
by Robert D'Attillo
Tina Modotti: Photographs at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 17, 1995 -February 25,1996. Also at Philadelphia Museum of Art September 16 - November 2, 1995 and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Mareh 28 - June 2, 1996
Art and politics swirled through the life of Tina Modotti in opposite directions, the started out as an actress and a photographer; but she ended in the domain of politics, a dedicated Communist and Soviet agent. During the short time that she worked within the field of photography (1923-1930). Modotti united these often quarrelsome forces to create an exceptional body of work that has never been quite fully appreciated, that is always been in danger of being overshadowed by the spectacular drama of her Life.
As the 100th year of her birth approaches, The Philadelphia Museum, under the guest curatorship of Sarah Lowe, has mounted a major retrospective of Modotti’'s photographs. Containing more than one-half of Modotti's total output, it is by far the most comprehensive exhibit of her work that has ever been assembled and presents a long overdue opporrunity to sec the full range of Modotti's work.
Modotti, long considered in America as a minor and exotic addendum to the history of photography', has sprung up from her semi-obscurity to become a captivating figure. As little as ten years ago, scareely any accurate information was available about Modotti, but since then we have been overwhelmed with mainstream, multi-lingual flood of publications dealing with her life and work: five biographies, two novels (one bestseller), more than a half-dozen exhibition catalogs and conference proceedings, countless magazine and newspaper articles appearing in English, German, Italian, Spanish.1 Much of this attention was at the expense of her actual work in photography, Modotti became, in Lowe's paradoxical phrase, "the best known unknown photographer.’ This exhibit will help to counterbalance the drama of her life with the weight of her work.
I. SOCIAL DOCUMENTS
Some cynical scholar once said char we look at the past not with our eyes but with our prejudices. It wouldn't surprise him that Modotti’s work has been plagued by a powerful double whammy; the prejudices of the art world and the prejudices of politics.
Modotti's photographs first found their way into significant photographic collections, MoMA and George Eastman House, because of personal associations. The prints came as gifts from Edward Weston and his family (Modotti, as is well known, had been his model, mistress, apprentice, colleague, friend); the curator, in each instance, was Beaumont Newhall, Weston’s great friend and admirer. As a result the vague sense emerged within the photographic community that Modotti was a derivative photographer, admitted because of whom she knew and not on the basis of her own vision. This led for some time to an under valuation of and condescension toward her work.
Modotti's own politics further complicated matters. Her work, aided by her influential connections to the cultural left, was originally accepted with enthusiasm in America. She received notice in leading cultural journals; she was the first photographer to appear On the cover of the politically radical New Masses; and she participated in several influential photo exhibitions.' Eventually, the depth and seriousness of her involvement as a militant communist turned her into an awkward figure to deal with in the United Stares (She had been a leading figure in such anti-American organizations as Manos fuera de Nicaragua and Liga anatiimperialista de las Americas.)
Dee Kapp told Sara Lowe that in the late 1940s, while working in the photography department of MoMA, she abandoned her research on Modotti after being warned that political content of the work would draw unwelcome attention in the current anti-communist climate. Moreover according to Kapp, the fear of McCarthyism became so pervasive that when twenty-eight Modotti prints (of thirty-four that MoMA has) were handed to the front desk furtively and anonymously in the late 1950s in order to avoid problems and accessioned only six years later.3
Modotti’s controversial politics caused most American photographic critics and curators to push the subject clumsily aside. Many times they were usually quite inept in considering the reality of her politics; the general slipshod sense being that Modem's polities somehow interfered with her 'artistry.' But, to impose art history alone upon Modotti's photography leads to evident distortions; important historical and social aspects ate carelessly dismissed or considered insignificant. Conspicuous, examples can he easily found in major photographic sources.
John Szarkowski in his influential Looking at Photographs (he picked one of Modotti’s stairs images to be included in his choice of 100 significant photographs from, the MoMA collection) could banter about Modotti in aimless fashion:
"Most of Tina Modotti's work that is known to the photography world was done in Mexico in the years 1923 through1926when she lived and worked with Edward Weston. She apparently continued to work after 1926, at least until 1930, when she was deported for Communist activity…
Although it is doubtless (or probably) irrelevant to the issue at hand. Modotti was surety one of the most fascinating women of her time, even without reference to her talent as an artist. She was...a sometime revolutionary (by design or by circumstance, or both)...Kenneth Rexroth identified her as a Kollantai type, and was terrified..."
The curators of the major traveling exhibition, "Cubism and American Photography, 1910-1930 [1981/82]were prescient enough to include her work, but in their catalog they condescended to Modotti with the political correctness of a different generation:
"She was a bright, hard' working student, although her workwas often derivative of her teacher's (i-e. Weston)...Modotti who became a Communist after Weston left Mexico, was arguably closer to the everyday life of the country…Modotti's photographic style weakened after Weston's departure and her turn toward radical politics."4
The Italian writer Maria Caronia read a political motive into the ending of the legend of Tina and Edward, casting Weston as a neurotic aesthete, who had detoured Modotti from finding her way as a political artist and communist militant: “Weston above all with his visceral American anti-communism that slowly treated an insurmountable barrier in his relations with Tina-"5 Weston as a proto-MacCarthyite lover is just a bit farfetched.
More recently, the noted Weston scholar Amy Conger has struck an oddly chiding maternalistic lone about Modotti's politics:
Modotti "possibly...even felt an affinity for people on the streets, which could lie seen as consistent with her later association with the Communist Party."6
"Lastly, I believe that the skeletal simplicity and nobility of Weston’s photographs of her as well as his references to her in his daybooks have made Tina exceptionally relevant today instead of being another exotic and old-fashioned leftist."
Can one truly appreciate a political artist while belittling her politics So off-handedly.
Finally, the politics of money—one would have imagined that money was the least likely of all things to revive interest in Modotti. Yet, several years ago (1991), one of Modotti’s images (Roses, 1924) fetched the extraordinary price, $165,000, at auction; an unheard price for a single photographic image and especially for one by a relatively unknown photographer, following suit, the value of all her other prints have skyrocketed. Several have sold for more than $50,000. Tinissima has come bounding back— another knack she always had—not only into the public eye but right into the top of the an market. Could one doubt that the major museum retrospective was in the offing?
Big money is usually fallowed by scandal and Modotti's photographs have followed this rule. Upon Modotti’sdeath the prints and negatives that she had kept with her passed into the hands of her compagno di vita, Vittorio Vidali. Upon his death (1983), Vidali intended to bequeath them as a gift in her memory to the people of Mexico.7 Instead, they have ended in the hands of Vittorio Vidali's son, Carlos, who is in the process of selling them off one by one at enormous prices.8 It is one of the bitter ironies in history that Modotti’s prints are now being sold for personal gain by the son of her companion for the revolution. The stamp of the Fifth Regiment9 had been put on the back of the Modotti prints that were in the possession of Vidali. Many of them are now hidden, sealed from sight by expensive frames. How emblematic indeed! Although Modotti always fought against the repressive role that wealth played in society and always rejected the idea of art as conspicuous consumption for the rich, her work has now become a valuable commodity held captive to money.
With the end of the Cold War, Modotti's deeply comitted politics no longer make her too vexatious a figure, so we can begin to look at her work more 'dispassionately', at least as dispassionately as we can see Modotti’s prints through the massive curves of dollar signs.
II. CURVES OF BEAUTY
Organization of the producing class against the dominant class invariably produces conflict. Out of this struggle comes more or less rhythms of emotin, tracing out the curves of beauty implict in the ardor and joy of the fight, the natural results of the tussle with a might economic problem.
-translation by Tina Modotti of the words of Xavier Guerrero, May 1927
I consider myself a photographer, nothing more. If my photographs differ from that which is usually done in this field, it is precisely because I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations.
Tina Modotti, 1929
What should a Modotti retrospective set out to do? If you deal with a photographer like Modotti solely as an artist, (which is basically what a retrospective in a museum does, of course) you may end up by smoothing down the political edges of her work. Nonetheless, given the many distractions provided by her politics and tumultuous life, the aim of this exhibit—to focus mainly on Modotti’s work as a photographer—is a needed and worthwhile emphasis.
This retrospective exhibits 130 prints-slightly more than half of her production.10Curator Sara Lowe has done exemplary work in tracking them down throughout the world. She has turn up little unknown photographs in such unlikely places as Canberra, Australia, while, closer to home, in Mexico and the United States, she has brought to light many a strong print that had languished relatively unnoticed. This chance to view so much of her work may not be soon repeated.
In the exhibit Lowe has chosen to present Modotti’s prints grouped by subject matter—flowers, arehitectural images, abstracts, workers, portraits, folk art, the women ofTehuantepec, puppets, Germany. Inasmuch as Modotti usually fixed her interest mostly on one subject at a time, the concept works reasonably well. Yet several reservations about the Philadelphia show should be mentioned. One wishes more attention had been paid m the instillation lot such a important exhibit. Surely, the straightforward ‘modernist’manner of hanging that Modotti (and Weston) favored— frames of the same style and size—would have been more appropriate thin the rather distracting miscellany that stares our at the viewer from the walls of the Philadelphia Museum. There are a few unhappy examples where the installation seems dictated more by the frames than by the images. [An especially elaborate frame that surrounds the portrait of actress Dolores Del Rio overwhelms everything in its vicinity.]
In the catalog accompanying the exhibition Lowe’s researeh brings us the first accurate record of dates, sizes, medium, locations concerning Modotti's work, all of which, previously, had been woefully inadequate. The catalog, fully-researehed and meticulously documented, promises to become the indispensable reference work abut Modotti’s work. Regrettably, in such a thorough work, a listing of Modotti's major exhibitions is not included.
As a visual record of Modotti’s work, however, the catalog disappoints grievously. It is painful to see such a mediocre result for a photographer who was always committed to high technical standards in her work. Instead of being simply useful by printing as many photographs to size as possible, the layout designer has gone into his balancing act, reducing, enlarging, even cropping a few images. The poorly reproduced plates bear no relation to the warm sensitive tones of Modern's work. Without getting into any Stieglitzian fury about the impossibility of reprinting photographs, Modotti deserved far much better.
But how such caviling falls away when one looks at the show. How strikingly beautiful Modotti’s prints are—especially in comparison to those we knew only through reproduction! Whether they attract by then lucid formalism, their documentary intent, or their political purpose, all never fail to provide visual pleasure. What an impeccable rye, what an irreproachable sense for form and beauty?
Modotti seems to have leapt full-grown from Weston's dark room into the center of the photographic world; within months of her first instruction, she was printing out one remarkable image after another. What astonishes is the unerring nature of her gift from the onset. Her work shows a thorough mastery of the medium; she has a complete, sure, and unostentatious virtuosity that makes her images startle us again and again.
El Manito, the claw like flower, as a reproduction always seemed a stark image that was too obvious an idea, but the actual print has a gentleness that surprises. Her platinum prints—the materially notorious Roses($165,000); a stunning series of doors, stairs, telephone wires—are exquisite in their subtle range of tonal values, I let images of glasses, quiet uninhabited interiors, arehways have a grace of design and a delicacy of execution that are her distinctive signature. In such pictures one can see the roughness of Diego Rivera’s remark that Modotti was more abstract, more ethereal, more intellectual as an artist than Weston.
As much as Modotti enjoyed sensual pleasures in her life, eroticism never explicitly entered into her work. Nor, despite her own experiences as a model, was she ever attracted to the nude as a subject. Her single openly erotic image, the Calle Lily, 1924 suggests the influence of her friend Imogen Cunningham—or could it he the other way round? The provoking question of influences upon Modotti's work—and, conversely, her influence upon others—still remains to he fully explored.
One of Lowe's eye-catching finds is the remarkable image that Modotti made of crumpled tin foil, 1926. Its modernist abstraction seems as contemporary as the day it was made.(There are some mysteries that surround this print. One wonders if tin foil was available in Mexico of that period? Could it turn out to be one of the few images that Modem nude in the United States?
Suddenly Modotti’s work took a decisive turn midway in her photographic life: she made her great and astonishing leap—from modernist to revolutionary artist. Although Modotti had always mined in political circles in California and Mexico, her work had never contained political content
as such. The first political image that she made—the only one that she ever made while she was with Weston— remains one of her finest and most popular, the May Day Parade/Campesinos, 1926. As always, the sureness of her eye was among.
Soon after Weston’sdeparture from Mexico ay the end of I926, Modotti joined the Mexican Communist Party and began, in the company of her new lover and companion Xavier Guerrero, her ‘tussle with art and mighty economic problems.' Guerrero, one of the Mexican muralists and founding editor of the Communist Party JournalEl Machete was the crucial—and usually overlooked—influence that led Modotti to fuse her art and politics. It was while Modotti was with Guerrero that she began to produce some of the most original solutions to the challenge of making political art. She created her great series of symbols of the Mexican Revolution, she transformed Bandoleers, guns, com; hammer and sickle, guitars and sombreros into a revolutionary call to arms. She had discovered her great and natural gift— how to balance political intent and aesthetic impulse within her work.
Mexican and Latin American radicals accept her warmly as one of their own and made her symbols theirs. During the several years of this period one wonders what came first in the making of her photographs? the eye or the politics? The balance is so fine that no one can tell; perhaps nor even Tina knew.
Hands have always been a common subject for photographers. Weston had made images of Modotti's hands and Modotti, also, echoing her mentor, took a photo of her mother's hands, fine photographs both of them, but they do not stick in the mind like Modotti’s blunt image of hands resting
on a shovel, 1927, These hands have become a powerful call for social justice. Radical and proletarian as the image may be—it was used for a cover of the American Communist journal, New Masses—Modotti, one shouldnote, also made it as a platinum print. Whatever the nature of her subject Modotti always remembered to offer beauty its due.
Photographs that Modotti shot during the construction of a Mexico City stadium give another example of the remarkable synthesis she achieved during this period (1927). Modotti, under the immediate visual influence of the Mexican muralists—her friends, lovers, compañeros—has given us two powerful studies of the labor and skill that go into construction work. But during the same time she has made two other equally powerful studies in her best modernist manner: Stadium, 1927 an abstract study of the shadows thrown by the seats of an empty stadium and Stadium Exterior, 1927 an eerie DeChirico-like view of the stadium exterior with construction scaffolding; no people or workers are to be seen in either image. Modotti's heart of hearts may have had its doubts about the constructs of the modern world. She may have felt that all might nor be sweetness and light after the revolution. In this instance, one wishes that the concept of grouping photographs by subject alone had been relaxed; hanging these four images together might have offered a less canonical sense of Modotti’s vision.
Unlike many political propagandists or social documentaries, Modotti never blatantly manipulated the response of her viewers. Even the most explicit of her political works, the photomontage Elegance and Poverty,1928 has a disconcerting distance and coolness to the poverty of its subject. The figures of Modotti’s workers, women, campesinos seem to have been transported from the social struggle into a clear harmonious setting, into a world of classic dignity and stillness. Women wash, work and rear children with an easy assurance; workers balancing beams, shouldering banana stalks, carrying blocks of stone embody the grace of labor well done. We do not see the worker sweat; he turns into a symbol of the dignity of labor; campesinos reading become an icon for the revolutionary potential of education; a sea of hats turns into a symbol of solidarity.
La Técnica, 1928 a 'modernist’ shot of a typewriter, rather unusual for that period of Modotti's work, turns out to be an image that is at the center of Modotti's life in every sense—personal, political, moral. It is a type writer with a sheet of paper inserted; fragments of a text are visible. The 'machine' (técnica) belongs to her lover, Julio Antonio Mella, one of the leaders of the Cuban Communist Party, who would be murdered shortly after the photograph was made (1929). The text was first imagined to be the unfinished text of Mella that had been found in his typewriter after his death, but later investigation discovered the words were actually those of Leon Trotsky. At that time, when Trotsky had been kicked out of the Communist pantheon, any good party member found using his ideas and words would be in political, if not mortal, peril. Since Mella’s murderer is still unknown up to this date, how to read this photograph remains a central issue in Modotti's life. What does it tell us about Modotti? She knew the citation itself, because she quoted it in the brochure of her final show in Mexico. When she snapped her photo, did she know the words were by Trotsky? Was Mella a Trotskyite? Was Mella's murder a political assassination by the Cuban dictatorship or by the Comintern or a personal vendetta? Was Modotti involved in the murder knowingly or unknowingly? A photograph of a typewriter is often used as a symbol of communication; here it raises nothing but questions and doubts—it remains a deeply ambiguous image. Politics had come crashing into Modotti's art and would soon bring the great adventure of photography to an end.
After the death of Mella, Modotti still had two major subjects left— the women of Tehuantepec and Marionettes—before she would leave photography and Mexico.
The Tehuantepec womens' photos, with a few impressive exceptions, are among the weakest of Modotti's work. Modotti never had the knack of a good street photographer. She never really got into the idea of a snapshot; nor did she seem able to work unobtrusively or secretly. She seems lost without previsualization and too dependent on her ground glass composing; the more successful of these subjects are generally static or posed. The puppeteer Louis Run in and his marionettes were another story. The last great series in Modotti'swork was based on puppets who were characters from Eugene O'Neil's Hairy Ape, a drama which was, itself, based on revolutionary themes—an indictment of America for its spiritual sickness, materialism, and greed. Reunited with a theatrical subject Modotti's vision caught fire. Hands again, but a puppeteer's hands—the hands of craftsman and the hands of a string-puller. The puppet symbolism was an obvious comment on society and, perhaps, even mirrored Modotti's personal feelings of the moment—being yanked around by the tensions of Mexican politics.
The Mexican Government did indeed pull its strings and deported Tina Modotti from Mexico in 1930. She ended in Berlin where she attempted to continue her work as a photographer. Quick eye that she always had, she caught the youthful hope of revolution in the Young Communist Pioneers, 1930 her last well-known political image, but was soon in Moscow working as a communist functionary. The photographer of elegant abstractions and maker of political icons had left the world of art and chosen a life of total political commitment. Her odyssey through photography was essential!y finished. We really do not know the reasons for her choices, but we do know that she chose not to put photography at the service of her final mentor, Joseph Stalin.
The emblematic photographs of Tina Modotti have begun to suffer the fate of all politically inspired art. Explicit messages that Modotti's intended have faded away, what remains are her more elemental themes. Modotti isstill the women with a banner, the beautiful banner of her work. It is no longer the banner she started out with,but, nonetheless a banner that can remind us of the compelling synthesis art and politics can create 'in the ardor and joy of the fight against the dominant class.'
Robert D’Attilio is a native of South Medford, MA and writes aobout Italian radicalism in America.
1. Barkhausen, Caccuci, Poniatowska, Books, Constantine, Vidali.
2. She received a major notice n the important journal, Creative Arts. She was the first photographer to be featured on the cover of New Masses (four in all). She was on the American intellectual travelers’ must-see list in Mexico City (John dos Passos met her there and was an admierer of her work, the precocious left-sympathizing leaning Harvard undergraduate Lincoln Kirstein included it in his landmark photo show).
3. Sarah Lowe, p. 144, n.9. It should be noted that what was earlier considered “mysterious” (i.e. the manner in which the prints were given to the MoMA), is now clearly political.
4. p. 54. Cubism and American Photography, 1910-1930, John Pultz and Catherine B. Scallen, Clark Art Institute, 1981.
5. p. 16, Tina Mondotti Photographs, Maria Caronia, Idea Edition, Westbury, NY, 1981. Caronia received her information or misinformation largely from Vittorio Vidali, a dubious source.
6. p. 70 ew 100, 1986. P. 276 Amy Conger Tina Modotti: Una Vita nella Storia, Udine, 1993.
7. I was told this by Lauara Weiss, Widali’s frequent collaorator and friend, when I visited her in Trieste in 1084. Vidali had died the preceding year. She gave me a list of materials that had just been shipped to Mexico, supposedly for this purpose.
8. Carlos Vidali is Vittorio Vidali’s son by Isabel Carbajal, the woman he married soon after Modotti’s death. Carlos came into Modotti’s work only by the accident of birth. Despite being a Mexican citizen, he has not felt obligated to preserve Modotti’s legacy for the people who inspired its images.
9.The military unit that Modotti and Vidali were attached to during the Spanish Civil War. It seems that Vidali marked all her surviving prints with regimental stamp in memory of their common struggle.
10. Sarah Lowe, History of Photography , v. 18, n.3, Autumn 1994, pg. 205. This total does not include several hundred or so mural prints that Modotti made for the Mexican muralists of their work Throckmorton galleries exhibited a particularly exotic item in their exhibit which ran concurrently with the opening of the Retrospective in NYC, has about several hundred that were in the possession of Traven; 10 of them were handcolored, possibly by Modotti. The Metropolitan Musem has been rumored to have bought one, in which case we can be sure the will attribute the coloring to Modotti. Money does seem to talk in the current state of affairs with Modotti’s prints.