Mexican Sojourn

History according to Tina Modotti and Edward Weston is on display at the Metro Center.

Sally Perisho, the director of the Metro Center for the Visual Arts, describes Mexicanidad: Modotti and Weston as the most important show her institution has ever presented. The traveling exhibit, made up of more than sixty photographs by important twentieth-century American photographers Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, chronicles the few years in the 1920s during which their careers overlapped in Mexico.

Perisho's right. The quality of the photos is unassailably high. In fact, as you wander through the show, you'll think that you've left Denver and wound up in the hallowed halls of, say, George Eastman House in upstate New York. And that's not too far off the mark, since the show's contents were culled from Eastman's permanent collection.

The show begins with Modotti's work, contact prints with dimensions measured in inches. But if they're small in size, they're enormous in visual impact, not unlike Modotti's life, which was brief -- she died in her forties -- but crowded with incidents. Born in 1896 to a working-class family in Udine, Italy, Modotti moved to San Francisco in 1913, where she worked in a silk factory before opening a dressmaking business. The career switch was the first of many, and each would, in its own way, reflect a rise in her social standing -- right to the end.

"Woman of Tehuantepec," by Tina Modotti, gelatin silver print.
"Woman of Tehuantepec," by Tina Modotti, gelatin silver print.
"Frederico Marin, Jean Charlot & Tina Modotti," by Edward Weston, gelatin silver print.
"Frederico Marin, Jean Charlot & Tina Modotti," by Edward Weston, gelatin silver print.

In 1917, she married the Oregon-born painter and poet Robo de l'Abrie Richey. The couple moved to Hollywood in 1920, and Modotti embarked on a modest silent-film career as an actress. But in 1921 she returned to San Francisco to model and later study with Weston, who by then was already an established photographer.

Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1886. He'd been a photographer since the age of sixteen, when his father gave him a camera. Two years later he left for California, where he worked as an itinerant portrait photographer. He later attended the Illinois College of Photography, which provided his only formal training. The first phase of his artistic career was within the pictorial style of that time. Pictorial photos featured a soft-focus approach to composed subjects, and the results were often lyrical. But around 1920, he began to experiment with what later became his classic sharp-focus, semi-abstract style, one that would guarantee him a place in the pantheon of modern photography.

So when the exotic and ambitious Modotti arrived at Weston's door, he had only just begun the greatest work of his career. Thus, he would do some of his most important pieces side by side with Modotti. Sometimes she was even the subject of those photos, as she is in several seen in the Mexicanidad show.

When Modotti went to work for Weston, Robo went off to Mexico. Absence apparently did not make the heart grow fonder, and Modotti began an affair with Weston. Shortly thereafter, Robo contracted smallpox and died. Modotti went to Mexico to claim her husband's body and was joined by Weston the following year. The two fell in love with the country and opened joint studios, which they operated until Weston returned to San Francisco in 1926. Modotti continued for several more years in Mexico.

The show's title refers to a radical political, literary and artistic movement that grew out of the revolutionary conditions present in Mexico in the 1920s. Modotti, and to a lesser extent, Weston, became associated with Mexicanidad, which favored the native Mexican culture over that of the colonial Spanish. The famous Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Siquieros were champions of this movement. Rivera's wife and fellow painter, Frida Kahlo, was also in the vanguard of Mexicanidad, going so far as to dress in traditional folk costumes and jewelry. Modotti and Weston knew Rivera and Kahlo at the time.

But whereas Weston went on to do his most important work in the 1930s and '40s in the United States (though Parkinson's disease slowed him down a decade before his death in 1958), radical politics would replace photography for Modotti, and after Weston left Mexico, she became a member of the Mexican communist party. She later married and may have murdered Cuban revolutionary Antonio Mella. In 1928 she was tried and acquitted of the crime.

She was also implicated in a failed attempt to assassinate Russian revolutionary theorist Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico and was eventually assassinated by a Spaniard friend of Modotti's. In the 1930s, Modotti lived in Moscow, where she worked for Soviet International Red Aid and later went to Spain to fight on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. She returned to Mexico for the last time in 1939, but under an alias.

In a appropriate finale to her dramatic life, Modotti died under mysterious circumstances in the backseat of a taxicab in Mexico City in 1942. Her husband at the time, fellow Stalinist, co-conspirator in the Trotsky matter and Mexican Communist Party member Vittoria Vidali, has always been suspected of being involved in her death.

Knowing what we know about Modotti, it's hard to believe that the sensitive and evocative photos in Mexicanidad are the work of this Marxist Mata Hari. But they are, and there's no hint that Weston had anything to do with it, since Modotti developed a signature style that's in no way related to his. This is surprising given their teacher-student relationship, but Modotti's photos are more akin to those of the social-documentary photographers associated with the New Deal, even though they were done ten years before that period. Perisho has arranged the show so that Modotti's photos are separate from Weston's.

Broadly speaking, Modotti produced three types of images: straightforward portraits, intimate scenes of people at work, and sweeping vistas of village life. While all three types are seen in some depth in this show, it's her portraits that are downright eye-dazzling.

"Woman, Mexico," from 1925, is a first-rate example of the type. In this photo, a woman's face fills the frame. Her expression is impassive, her eyeclosed. The tiny photo, the size of a snapshot, has a tremendous presence and, despite its proportions, a tremendous monumentality. These same characteristics are seen in other Modotti portraits, notably the stunning "Muchacho With Sombrero," from 1927, a shot of a peasant boy that appeared as a magazine cover, and 1929's "Woman of Tehuantepec," depicting a woman with a basket on her head.

Therese Mulligan, the curator of photography at Eastman House, observes in written notes posted on didactic panels throughout the show that Modotti's portraits have "a disarming immediacy." That's an understatement: Some are so striking, you'll freeze in your tracks.

The Westons, which are both more numerous and substantially larger, record many of the experiments the photographer undertook before arriving at his mature, final phase. Early examples of his classic type feature the sculptural qualities of the subject and exploit the objectness of the photo itself. A good example is "Piramide del Sol," from 1923 (in a 1950s reprint). Even more related to Weston's archetypal style are several female nudes, including one of Modotti.

Another group of Weston photos provides a record of Mexican society, but not the same one Modotti was recording. Weston did portraits of the cultural luminaries of the Mexicanidad demimonde, including a group showing Rivera. One very un-Westonesque image is "Frederico Marin, Jean Charlot & Tina Modotti," a group portrait from 1925 in which these art-world dandies are sitting with their backs to Weston. Charlot is seen coyly and erotically drawing with a brush on Modotti's bare shoulder. (Charlot, a painter associated with Rivera, would later briefly run the now closed Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School.)

Weston built his career on his experiences in Mexico and became more famous with the passing years. Modotti, though, was mostly forgotten -- at least in this country (she has always been famous in Mexico). If Modotti was remembered in the U.S. at all, it was as one of Weston's live-in lovers and his most famous model. This attitude, considering the quality of her work, shows us the true meaning of patronizing, and it was appropriately taken apart twenty years ago by a generation of feminist art historians hell-bent on re-evaluating artists like Modotti.

So Mexicanidad not only provides locals with the chance to see some of Weston's most important images, but it also reveals that Modotti was more than just his girlfriend.

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