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by N.F. Karlins
"Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston," Sept. 2, 2006-Jan. 2, 2007, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94103.

Edward Weston (1886-1958) was born in Illinois, studied photography in college and moved to California, opening his own portrait studio in 1911. He married Flora Chandler, a member of a prominent Chicago family, in 1909, and had four sons (including the photographers Brett and Cole Weston). By 1913, he was involved with the photographer Margrethe Mather, both professionally and romantically, an association that introduced him to a more bohemian world.

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) came to California from her native Italy as a teenager, becoming part of the expatriate Italian community in San Francisco and later, in Los Angeles, landing a starring role in a 1920 film, The Tiger’s Coat, playing a Mexican woman. The daughter of a photographer, Modotti fell into a common-law marriage with a San Francisco bohemian poet and artist who called himself Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey, known as Robo. With her dark hair, full lips and heavy-lidded eyes, and presence both in costume and out, she became a sought-after model in her circle of artists and photographers.

In 1921 Modotti posed for Weston, and they began a furtive love affair that is reflected in his photographs of her, which comprise some of his most erotic work. With the Mexican Revolution drawing to a close and a "Mexican Rennaisance" well under way, Weston set out to open a studio in Mexico City, with Modotti ostensibly serving as his studio manager in return for instruction in the photographic craft. Weston’s wife assumed the relationship solely professional.

Their five-year collaboration, the subject of "Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, would have astonishing results. Weston left his Pictorialist beginnings behind, and truly came of age as a pioneer of modernist photography, focusing on simplified forms in nature and the built world, depicted clearly and directly, without the narrative haze of Pictorialism, an essentially 19th-century movement.

Modotti quickly adopted the modernist point-of-view as well, but combined it with a sense of Mexican politics to take it a step further. Her work reflects the political struggles of the country’s peasants and workers, her portraits show the humble charm of common people, along with the simple tools of their trade. By 1925, the Modotti-Weston affair had ended, though the pair continued to collaborate and remained friendly. Weston returned to California in 1926, while Modotti remained in Mexico.

Modotti photographic projects became ever more political in intent. Workers Parade, her famous photo of a crowd of Mexican peasants in sombreros, dates from ca. 1926. She busied herself taking photographs of Diego Rivera’s murals, and in 1927 joined the Communist Party, becoming something of an official photographer for the Party. In 1927 Modotti completed her series of "Revolutionary Icons," still lifes that are rich in revolutionary symbolism.

In 1928 Modotti began an affair with Julio Antonio Mella, the founder of the Cuban Communist Party, who had been exiled from Cuba -- and was assassinated in early 1929, while the two of them were walking together on the street. Her photographs were too provocative for the Mexican government, and she was deported in 1930, eventually ending up in Moscow. Modotti abandoned photography and, according to most accounts, joined the Soviet secret police, working for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. She died of a heart attack in a taxi in Mexico City in 1942 under suspicious circumstances. 

For a special interactive online program produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on "Mexico as Muse," click here.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.