Tina Modotti's life (1896-1942) is the stuff that mini-series are made of. That may not he the reason "Tina Modotti: Photographs," on view through Nov. 26 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is, according to a sign on the wall just inside the show's entrance, "made possible by a generous gift from Madonna." Still, it's nice to see showfolk stepping into an arena--museum exhibitions with a little grit to them--where government and corporate funds fear to tread.
Modotti was born in Undine, Italy, and immigrated as a teenager to San Francisco to join her father, Giuseppe. The beautiful Modotti succeeded on the local Italian-language stage and then starred in a silent movie. But she married a left-leaning artist named Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey in 1918 and joined his world of poems, political cartoons and revolutionary magazines. In 1921, she met the photographer Edward Weston, posed for him and became his lover. After Richey died in 1922, Weston (who left his wife and four sons) and Modotti moved to Mexico. Modotti's Mexican years, 1928-80, constitute her entire working life as a photographer.
In Mexico, Modotti not only took up photography (and became a sought-after portraitist) but also managed the household, shepherded Weston around to meet the likes of Diego Rivera (for whom she also modeled) and delved into radical politics. Weston, who believed in art for art's sake, was more jealous of Modotti's activism (she thought art could be esthetically innovative and a political weapon) than he was of the other men in her life. After their split in 1926, Modotti took up with the revolutionary Xavier Guerrero. Her next lover was a dashing, younger Cuban firebrand named Julio Mella. On Jan. 10, 1929, with Modotti beside him, Mella was assassinated on the streets of Mexico City. Acquitted of complicity in the killing, Modotti was then deported with other radicals, ultimately to Berlin. Arriving in Moscow in 1980,Modotti gave up photography for devotion, to the Communist Party. She had a final romance with Vittorio Vidali, a ruthless secret-police agent, and was sent abroad with him, probably as a fellow covert operator. Modotti fled Spain when Madrid fell to the fascists in 1939, and ended up back in Mexico City. On Jan. 5, 1942, she died of heart failure in a taxi. But the official cause of death could have been as bogus as her ID, which deigned her a "housewife."
The photography Modotti made in Mexico was good, but it wasn't great. Down at one point to a single print per month, she didn't produce enough pictures to perfect her vision. A crisp composer and a sensitive printer, Modotti was best when her subjects were graphically simple, whether a 1929 shot of a mother and child or a piece of oddly poignant agitprop like "Hammer and Sickle" (1927). Modotti's sentimental communism led her to stereotypes (noble workers, noble Tehuantepec women, noble John Reed wanna-bes). But her social conscience may have been the force that kept her photographs of architecture and telephone wires from turning into mere designs.
"Tina Modotti" is an elegantly tough, compact show. Would that curator Sarah Lowe's catalog essay refrained from such stretches as (regarding a picture of a worker on a storage tank) "strong shadows are cast by the rivets that hold the structure together, suggesting perhaps an analogous position of the worker within economic reform." Right. We'll bet Fox green-lights the project anyway.