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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 Siegel

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 anti-Communist propaganda.

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 appealing.

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.