Tina Modotti by Diego Rivera
The Epic Life
of Tina Modotti
Shadows, Fire, Snow:
The Life of Tina Modotti
By Patricia Albers
Clarkson Potter 382 pages; ISBN 0-609-60069-9
Tina Modotti: A Life
By Pino Cacucci
Translated by Patricia J. Duncan
St. Martin's Press 225 pages; ISBN 0-312-20036-26
Reviewed by Jules
Tina Modotti -- actress,
model, photographer, Communist Party secret agent -- was one of
those archetypal figures who embody the entire history of a time.
She was born poor on Aug. 16, 1896 in the Italian town of Udine,
located on the Adriatic between Trieste and Venice in the northeastern
region of Friuli.
At 17, escaping a life of
relentless poverty, she immigrated to the United States and soon
became a charismatic figure in San Francisco bohemian circles,
where she married a wealthy artist, who later died of smallpox
in Mexico City while she was on her way to see him during a break
in her passionate affair with Edward Weston.
She died in poverty on Jan.
5, 1942 of a heart attack in a taxi in Mexico City. Mexico City's
intellectual elite turned out for her funeral, at which Chilean
poet Pablo Neruda delivered her eulogy in a poem written especially
for the occasion.
One of the principal pioneers
of the art of political photography, Tina Modotti was not only
Edward Weston's lover and model, but also shared a studio with
him in Mexico City. In 1991, her "Roses" brought the
highest price then ever paid for a photograph at an auction.
At the peak of her career,
she was arrested and deported from Mexico because of her political
activities. Her photographic career shriveled, as she crossed
borders using forged passports and many different names. Before
being allowed to return to Mexico as a political refugee in 1940,
she lived in Germany, Moscow and Spain, where she was known as
the legendary Marķa, for her humanitarian relief work during the
worst atrocities of the Spanish Civil War.
Despite her fame and beauty
(or perhaps because of it), Tina Modotti's life was an enigma
in her own time. Even though there is ample evidence to support
the conclusion that she died of a heart attack, gossips and newspapers
speculated that she had been murdered.
Patricia Alber's meticulously
researched biography goes a long way toward establishing the truth
about Tina Modotti's life. Pino Cacucci's book, first published
in Italian in 1991, wanders off into long tangents of political
history, and tends to accept without question viciously distorted
accusations not supported by the rigorously documented facts that
Albers presents to refute what appears to have been mostly contemporary
Patricia Albers does not
flinch at the grim underside of Modotti's Stalinist political
activities, including her long relationship with one of the Comintern's
most sinister operatives, Vittorio Vidali (implicated in the murder
of Leon Trotsky), but her psychologically astute overall picture
is much more convincing and sympathetic than Cacucci's, which
has a very strong anti-Communist bias.
While Albers occasionally
offers details of scenes without providing the necessary evidence,
Cacucci frequently writes whole sequences of dialog and action
in a very skilled novelistic style without any supporting evidence.
In some cases, his theories (usually delivered as factual narrative)
are contradicted by the evidence in the Albers book. This is especially
unfortunate in his version of the murder in Mexico City in 1929
of exiled Cuban Communist revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, who
was the love of Tina Modotti's life.
On the basis of minor discrepancies
in her testimony, the Mexican police accused her of being involved
in the murder, even though she was holding his hand when he was
gunned down from behind. Their theory was supported by the dubious
testimony of witnesses Albers concludes were almost certainly
bribed. Finally, an eyewitness, Antonio Ojeda Basto, definitively
supported Modotti's version. She was cleared of all charges and
the chief investigator was forced to resign.
Cacucci does not mention
Ojeda Basto, although he was familiar enough with the investigation
to make a not implausible case that Mella, who had broken with
Stalinist discipline to plan an armed invasion of Cuba, might
have been murdered at Stalin's orders rather than those of Cuban
dictator Antonio Machado. Albers firmly rejects this theory on
the basis of the evidence, which she itemizes in thorough detail.
Neither book does justice
to Tina Modotti's photography. The reproduction in the Albers
book is poor and most of the historically interesting photographs
do not do justice to either her art or her beauty, which show
to much greater advantage in Cacucci's, where the printing is
only marginally better, but the selection of images is much more
Cacucci outlines the political
panorama with great force. Patricia Albers, however, not only
faithfully depicts the historical context, but also provides the
day to day details and heartbreakingly evocative anecdotes of
an emotionally overwhelming tragedy.
Shadows, Fire, Snow:
The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers will surely set
the mark for the definitive biography of this great artist who
sacrificed her life and her career to a brutally totalitarian
political movement that did not deserve her passion.