Cover image for Tina Modotti : a life
Tina Modotti : a life
Cacucci, Pino, 1955-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Tina. Spanish
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
225 pages, 15 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library TR140.M58 C32 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Set in Mexico, Germany, and Spain, and featuring a large and fascinating cast of notable characters, this biography of Tina Modotti penetrates the inner circle of the Communist party and paints a brilliant, swirling portrait of an era. of photos.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

The photographer and Communist organizer Tina Modotti (18961942) lived in a seeming whirlwind of artistic creation and personal and political intrigue. Two new biographies trace her life as she developed her immense artistic skill, loved passionately, and eventually sacrificed her art to her work for social justice through the Communist Party. In a brief and clipped work, Italian journalist Cacucci lays out the machinations of Modottis life. He sketches a chronology of her love lifeincluding her relationships with the young poet known as Robo, the photographer Edward Weston, the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, and the menacing Soviet operative Vidali Vittorioand seems unduly fascinated by the power of Modottis beauty. As a result, she comes off as a frail social climber, and the book is tiring at best. On the other hand, in the most complete and readable biography of Modotti to date, Albers, a curator and writer, portrays a complex woman who made extraordinary life choices in an attempt to unite personal desires with the social realities of her time. While men were important to Modotti (she once playfully proclaimed them to be her profession), she was a thoroughly modern woman who cared most about navigating the wavering balance between life, art, and the need for social change. Albers avoids casting Modotti in a clich, acknowledging that she was never entirely free of either the fear of impoverishment or the encumbering domestic role women were expected to play. Rather, Modottis mind was often absorbed in the minutiae of life: setting up households, making pasta, planning art shows, and facilitating Party efforts. When considered in this context, Modotti seems more inspired workhorse than princessand all the more interesting for the added detail. Libraries can avoid Cacuccis effort, but Alberss is essential. [Photographs not seen.]Rebecca Miller, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti was born in Udine, Italy, on August 17, 1896, the second of six children. Her father, Giuseppe, supported his large family by working as a mason, and his work often took him to Austria for long periods when he was unable to find work in nearby Friuli. The six children helped their mother when they could, doing odd jobs, until their father took them with him to Austria. A man of socialist ideas, Giuseppe Modotti participated in demonstrations and attended meetings, and among Tina's most vivid childhood memories was the traditional May Day demonstration: a sea of heads and red flags, seen from her father's shoulders.     When the Modottis returned to Udine, Tina was nine years old. Her main concerns were still the same: to find food for dinner and firewood to warm their pitiful home. She left school after third grade and began to help with the occasional work her mother could find as a dressmaker. When she was twelve years old she was hired by the Raiser silk factory in the suburbs of Udine. Her sister Yolanda remembered her, from that point on, as having a sad face and a resigned look, the only one who never complained about the lack of food or the cold.     It was at this time that Giuseppe Modotti decided to venture to the United States, a common decision at the turn of the century for Italian lower-class workingmen. He arrived in San Francisco with his firstborn, Mercedes, and accepted whatever work he could get so that he would be able to send enough money to the rest of his family for their future trip. Tina did not wait long, and in 1913, seventeen years old and alone, she left on a cargo ship packed with emigrants. After only one week in San Francisco, she found work in a textile factory. All around her the great labor movements of the era were growing in size and strength. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) were organizing resistance to armed employers' groups and calling strikes in which thousands of workers participated. Los Angeles and San Francisco had become strongholds for the opposition against repressive violence. A wave of strikes rose, starting in the textile mills of Massachusetts and spreading throughout the country.     San Francisco, moreover, was home to many artistic and cultural activities that distinguished it from any other American city. Not founded by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, San Francisco developed as a city without Puritan influences, much like the great European cities that favored radical innovations and a healthy indifference toward conventional morality.     Modotti began to frequent workers' circles and theater groups in the Italian district of San Francisco. She soon left the factory, supporting herself by working at home as a dressmaker. This allowed her more time to dedicate to the small amateur theater company, in which she stood out from others because of the passion she conveyed while acting. On stage she seemed to become transformed, and the contrast was even more noticeable given her shy, taciturn character, shrouded in the impalpable veil of gloom that always surrounded her.     The responsibility she felt toward her family did not prevent her front spending every minute of her free time attending debates, meetings, and exhibitions in a progressive spiral of initiatives and new knowledge. Restlessness and the need for independence led her to become involved in everything without ever committing herself entirely to anything. Everything interested Modotti, but nothing seemed to satisfy her. The theater continued to lure her, but no more so than anything else. She felt the need to overcome the ghetto wall, to make the jump that would finally free her from a life consisting of the thousands of precarious jobs she had to take in order to survive, and which allowed her only fragments of passion.     At the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition, Tina met the painter and poet Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey, known to all as Robo. Originally from Quebec, he was residing at that time in Los Angeles. Tall and very thin, with long hair, a dark mustache, and dark eyes, Robo had a look about him as if he were lost in an imaginary world that excluded even his closest friends. He fell in love with Modotti's sad beauty and her indecipherable character, and he saw in her the same vague subtle malaise that made him feel like a stranger to life. Two years went by before Modotti made the decision to distance herself from the stagnant, protective microcosm of San Francisco's Italian neighborhood. Marrying Robo was a way for her to leave it behind. She liked Robo and perhaps could even have grown to love him if only she could have overcome the invisible wall of emptiness that he put up between himself and the world, if only she could have broken the cocoon into which he retreated every time he felt he might get hurt.     In their enormous house in Los Angeles, Modotti continued to work as a dressmaker, but now economic freedom allowed her to create patterns and let her fantasy run wild cutting fabrics and combining colors. Robo's studio was a gathering place for radical artists and writers, a perennial coming and going of personalities searching for something they felt was missing from their lives but which they could not define.     The postwar years in Los Angeles were an exaggeration of contrasts, a short circuit from conservatism to the frenetic search for new values. Robo's garden served as the setting for heated discussions about socialism and the revolution, as well as sexual freedom and individual independence as fundamental requirements for political and artistic expression. Enthusiastic attacks on prevailing morals combined with a curiosity about Eastern philosophies and the limits of perception: Marxist theories and a fascination with anarchical ideas now replaced the interest in psychonalysis and the crisis of Christianity. For them, changing the world meant not only rejecting a power or a government, but above all transforming themselves and putting into practice what they believed. Exclusive relationships, the very idea of couples, crumbled in the face of their ideology.     Modotti was no longer content to spend her entire day with fabrics and a sewing machine. She was now conscious of her own beauty and the fascination it caused in all who were near her. The environment around her intensified her need to make her mark as an individual, and she decided to exploit her experience in the theater in order to realize a long-held dream. Hollywood was at her doorstep, and every day screen tests launched new stars. Modotti was surprised at how easily the doors opened for her in the mecca of film. In part she may have owed this to Rodolfo Valentino, whose inordinate success had caused producers to see a guaranteed source of income in any "Italian beauty." At first she put all her energy into that unique method of performing, without the power of a script or words, imagining that the directors and producers of silent film would notice her dramatic expression and her self-assurance on stage. But in fact it was always her figure that made the biggest impression in her screen tests. She was dressed as a Gypsy and as an odalisque, and was offered roles as a femme fatale and a voluptuous lover. In 1920 she made several films; in one of them she appeared nude, wrapped in a lace veil that left one breast exposed. "Flexible and curvaceous, her walk is slow and harmonious, her eyes an ardent black," she was described at the time. And in the program for The Tiger's Coat , the words "the exotic charm of Tina Modotti" were underlined. She played similar roles in Riding with Death and I Can Explain , but her ambition was not sufficient to lead her to accept other offers of scripts written for her type. The movies would be a parenthesis in her life. Although she did not regret this period, she would later prefer to forget it. The rare times she did watch one of her films, it was to laugh about it with her friends.     The year 1920 was also the one in which Modotti's mother moved to San Francisco with the other children, Benvenuto, Giuseppe, and Yolanda. Only Valentina remained behind in Udine. In 1917 she had been involved with a soldier and as a result had had a son, Tullio. When the man returned to the front, she heard nothing more from him. Valentina decided to stay in Italy after the war ended, perhaps hoping that one day the father of her child would return. Once Modotti left acting, she felt the need to find other expressive outlets for her creative instinct. Photography was still a young art form whose possibilities were as yet unexplored. Among the regulars at Robo's studio was Edward Weston, who was regarded as a master of the image; his renown was such that he could afford to turn down commissions. Weston met Modotti at a critical time in his life. Unable to bear routine work and suffocated by family responsibilities, he was full of worry and indecision. He was tempted by the idea of leaving his wife and children to venture south, drawn by the idea of postrevolutionary Mexico. In the meantime, he poured his heart out to his closest friends, who saw his extravagant character often reach a neurotic level. But he also had a magnetic energy, a charisma undoubtedly helped by being the most famous and widely understood of the tight circle of artists surrounding Robo.     Modotti became excited by Weston's photographic techniques, posed for him, and at the same time asked questions, studied, and observed, missing not a single word during the days she spent with him. The eagerness with which she took on every activity conquered Weston's extreme sensibility. Not only for her beauty but also for the natural enthusiasm she exuded, he fell in love with her so completely that for a few days he forgot everything else. His feelings of guilt with respect to Robo, whom he considered one of his best friends, vanished in the spasmodic expectation of every new encounter. At first they behaved as secret lovers, but it became impossible for either one to hide the evidence of their love. Only a few hours of separation were enough to spark off an exchange of frantic letters written with the passion characteristic of their first few days together. What was once restlessness in Modotti had now become an all-consuming desire. She wrote to Weston in April 1921: One night after--all day I have been intoxicated with the memory of last night and overwhelmed with the beauty and madness of it.... How can I wait until we meet again! Once more I have been reading been reading your letter and as at every other time my eyes are full of tears--I never realized before that a letter--a mere sheet of paper--could be such a spirited thing--could emanate so much feeling--you gave a soul to it! Oh! If I could be with you now at this hour I love so much, I would try to tell you how much beauty has been added to my life lately! When may I come over? I am waiting for your call ... I need but to close my eyes to find myself not once more but still near you in that beloved darkness--with the flavor of wine yet on my lips and the impression of your mouth on mine. Oh how wonderful to recall every moment of our hours together--fondle them and gently carry them in me like frail and precious dreams--and now while I write to you--from my still quivering senses rises an ardent design to again kiss your eyes and mouth .     Her relationship with Robo seemed to dissolve in shadows whose outlines became more and more vague. Robo realized what was going on, but his passive nature and his custom of living on the margin of things, of touching on them without ever involving himself in them, led him to live apart from the world. In Weston, Modotti found the exact opposite: his nonconformist impulsiveness, the contrast between his gentle way of speaking and his stormy outbursts when referring to subjects that excited him and his possessiveness of her. She was twenty-five and he, thirty-four. The shy, quiet figure of Robo began to fade away, becoming less substantial in comparison to the energy of a man accustomed to snatching even the smallest concession from life.     After losing his mother at the age of five, Edward Weston grew up in the Midwest with his older sister and his father, who gave him a Bulls-Eye camera on his sixteenth birthday. His decision to embark on the precarious career of traveling photographer took him to Chicago, and from there to Nevada and California, as he followed the railroad, documenting its workers. Like Modotti, he experienced the daily struggle against poverty firsthand, and success came only after years of deprivation and a stubborn faith in photographic art. But when the time came to reap the rewards, Weston strongly rejected the commercial photographs that magazines in several countries were requesting.     His marriage to Flora May Chandler, a woman who had been educated in the traditional manner and whose ideas were completely opposed to his, ended up being a purely practical arrangement for the sake of their four children. Weston's relationships with other women were a symptom of his growing dissatisfaction: They lasted only days or weeks but contributed to destroying his marriage with Flora. However, his guilt over his children, whom he adored, prevented him from taking the decisive step toward the journey that he now saw as his only chance for artistic renewal.     Physical attraction was surely the catalyst for Modotti, but her relationship with Weston also gave her the chance to dominate an expressive medium that immediately captivated her and to which she dedicated her entire being. Through photography she discovered the outlet for feelings that until then she had only sensed without ever managing to take hold of. Robo returned once and for all to the solitude in which, deep down, he had always lived. Withdrawal from the material nature of things was his existential nature. While others continued to include him in their artistic projects, he told Modotti of his decision to leave for Mexico at year's end, and he dedicated one final poem to her: "Tina is red like wine, so precious that it must be left to age delicately so it may become even more precious."     Mexico, surprisingly, seemed to transform Robo. In the letters he wrote to Weston there emerged a new figure, that of a passionate man full of interest who had finally managed to touch and seize what was going on around him. He defined Mexico as a "land of extremes" and described it as a paradise for creativity: There is little that is devoid of beauty. There is for me more poetry in one lone serape-enshrouded figure leaning in the door of the pulque shop at twilight or a bronzen daughter of the Aztecs nursing her child in a church than could be found in Los Angeles in the next ten years ... Can you imagine an art school where every thing is free to everyone--Mexicans and foreigners alike--tuition-board-room-paint-canvas-models-all free--No entrance examination--If one will study that is the only requirement. After ten years of war and unrest it is wonderful to see what is being done here .     In his descriptions of landscapes, of faces, and of nature that is violent and at the same time gentle and tormented, Robo conveyed new emotions. He tried to persuade Weston to join him, and he did so with sincere enthusiasm and with the certainty that his art could not miss an opportunity like that. He had already agreed with Modotti that they would see each other again down in Mexico, and he vibrated with the thought of showing them both all that he was living. He alluded only briefly to the relationship that had begun with Modotti, as if wanting to assure his friend that nothing could or should change the affection that bonded them: "Believe me, I am still, as always, your friend Robo."     A few days later, on February 9, 1922, Robo suddenly came down with a very high fever, probably due to smallpox, and died. At that moment Modotti was crossing the border, headed for Mexico City.

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