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Tina Modotti, an Anti-Conformist at Heart

At the Jeu de Paume, the exhibition “Tina Modotti: The Eye of Revolution” celebrates the significant work of this committed photographer, whose images bear witness to the struggle for social and economic justice in post-revolutionary Mexico.

In the art world, women are being rediscovered. Forgotten by history, at best they are linked to a male figure ; at worst, they fall into oblivion. Tina Modotti is no exception to the rule. An Italian-born photographer and political activist, the artist is one of the great female figures of photography. Yet it wasn’t until 1973 that her name emerged from the shadows. The Rencontres d’Arles in 2000 helped to bring her to the attention of the French public for the first time. Now, 23 years on, the Jeu de Paume offers an unprecedented retrospective of Modotti’s work. From portraits to still lifes and documentary photography, some 240 prints retrace the unique career of this revolutionary photographer and activist.

Even before entering the Jeu de Paume, the exhibition poster displayed on the outdoor banners captures Tina Modotti’s revolutionary spirit. This emblematic image, entitled “Woman with flag”, is one of the artist’s most famous. It shows a working-class woman draped in the flag of the revolution, a kind of militant staging reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”.

© Tina Modotti, Woman with Flag, 1927, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
© Tina Modotti, Woman with Flag, 1927, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Love & Revolution

The daughter of a seamstress and a mechanic, Tina Modotti was only 16 when she crossed the Atlantic to San Francisco. America opened its arms to her, and she pursued a wide range of professions: dressmaker, model, actress… In 1921, in Los Angeles, she met a man who changed the course of her career. Edward Weston. The couple moved to Mexico in 1923. It was the beginning of an artistic collaboration, but above all a love affair. Modotti, usually in front of the lens, learned the discipline of photography from Weston.

Although she was often relegated to the rank of Weston’s “associate”, or even his lover, Tina Modotti gradually distinguished herself from her “master”, adopting a more natural style and rejecting formalism. A committed photographer, she brought a resolutely political dimension to Weston’s modernist legacy. Her photos reflect social realities, such as the representation of working-class motherhood, or the questioning of capitalism. Everything is a matter of allegory. A cartridge belt, an ear of corn and a guitar, for example, arranged in the manner of a still life, become the symbol of a country in struggle.

Isabel Tejeda Martín, curator of the exhibition, describes his vision as “embodied”: a vision inherited from his socialist origins, above all turned towards the human. It was in post-revolutionary Mexico that Tina Modotti asserted her anti-conformist spirit. In the midst of an artistic and political boom, the country’s fiery atmosphere was fertile ground for her social and political commitment. Whether she’s capturing social movements or injustices, we see above all people, oppressed and marginalized, uniting for the same cause.

Tina Modotti, Cartridge belt, sickle and guitar, 1927, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.
© Tina Modotti, Cartridge belt, sickle and guitar, 1927, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.
Tina Modotti, Roses, 1924, Collection and archives of Fundación Televisa, Mexico.
© Tina Modotti, Roses, 1924, Collection and archives of Fundación Televisa, Mexico.
© Tina Modotti, Circus tent, 1924, Collection du Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. Edward Weston Funds.
© Tina Modotti, Circus tent, 1924, Collection du Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. Edward Weston Funds.
Tina Modotti, Untitled (Indians carrying loads of corn husks for the preparation of "tamales"), 1926-1929, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the Art Supporting Foundation, John "Launny" Steffens, Sandra Lloyd, Shawn and Brook Byers, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Jewett, Jr. and anonymous donors.
© Tina Modotti, Untitled (Indians carrying loads of corn husks for the preparation of “tamales”), 1926-1929, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the Art Supporting Foundation, John “Launny” Steffens, Sandra Lloyd, Shawn and Brook Byers, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Jewett, Jr. and anonymous donors.

The Art of Opposition

According to Isabel Tejeda Martín, Tina Modotti’s late appearance in the history of photography is probably due to three factors: on the one hand, her status as a woman; on the other, her status as a photographer, a field long considered an artistic sub-discipline; and above all, her membership of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). Tina Modotti evolved within the highly politicized circle of avant-garde artists. She became the principal official photographer of Mexican muralism, an artistic and revolutionary movement spearheaded by activist and artist Diego Rivera. She then collaborated with various communist publications and magazines, such as Mexican Folkways, Horizonte, Forma and El Machete, the historic publication of the Communist Party of Mexico.

Her close contacts with Diego Rivera, as well as with Xavier Guerrero, draughtsman, engraver and above all leader of the PCM, led to her expulsion from Mexico in 1930. Taking refuge in Berlin, she was unable to make a living from her art. Her political activism gradually took over from her photography. After a stopover in Moscow, then in Spain at the height of the civil war, where she asserted herself as coordinator of the anti-fascist congress, she returned to Mexico in 1939. It was here, in her adopted country, that she died three years later of a heart attack. She will be remembered, on the one hand, for her voice and her presence in the field to defend the rights of workers and the oppressed, and on the other, for her revolutionary eye, a tool for social change, embodying the convergence of art and politics. More than a photographer, Tina Modotti was an activist.

Tina Modotti, Worker reading El Machete, 1927, courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art Gallery, New York.
Tina Modotti, Worker reading El Machete, 1927, courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art Gallery, New York.
Tina Modotti, Zapotec peasant woman carrying a jug on her shoulder, 1926, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.
© Tina Modotti, Zapotec peasant woman carrying a jug on her shoulder, 1926, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.
© Tina Modotti, Man Carrying a Beam, 1928, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.
© Tina Modotti, Man Carrying a Beam, 1928, Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives, Mexico City.

Tina Modotti: The Eye of Revolution, at the Jeu de Paume (Paris), from February 13 to May 12, 2024.

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