Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Birthday Card For Tina Modotti

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.

--Pablo Neruda

Today's is Tina Modotti's birthday.

She would have been 114, but during her short 46 years, Modotti lived a century's-worth.

highwayscribery admires Modotti, not just for an unparalleled commitment to working people, but for the rich texture she wove into her existence, and a willingness to embrace not just what came her way, but the trouble she looked for and found.

By way of birthday card for the fabulous lady, we will sketch a resume of her brief, but full-fledged, engagement with the World.

Modotti was born in Udine, Italy. Her real, first name was Assunta. Poppa was a craftsman who followed the currents of work through the western factory world, so that she spent some years in Austria before taking off, as a teen, for San Francisco.

There she worked as a seamstress in factories while Momma fed her pasta and Poppa the rantings and songs of the anarchist-inspired International Workers of the World -- the Wobblies.

Modotti liked the theater and, at some point during her development into a first-class vixen, was tapped by a Hollywood talent scout to go south and settle in Los Angeles.

There she played the exotic and foreign siren in a number of A-list productions such as "The Tiger's Coat" and "I Can Explain."

Tina married and fell in with a bohemian crowd that counted among its numbers Edward Weston, a still-renowned photography pioneer at whose knee she learned the craft, while simultaneously having an affair with him.

She was, by any measure, a seductress with a strong sexual appetite.

Her husband tempted Tina into visiting post-revolutionary Mexico. Weston followed. There she stayed and delved into that wonderful and beleaguered nation's cornucopia of colors, sounds and flavors, honing her craft into a portfolio much-admired even today.

Modotti mixed with muralist Diego River and his wife (not Frida, the first one), Siqueiros and other figures of the Mexican left until her commitment grew enough to join the communists' feeble efforts to overthrow an already corrupt regime.

When her first husband died Modotti became lover to a Cuban Marxist named Julio Mella, who was shot as he walked with her down a Mexico City street. She was accused as an accomplice in the murder.

Surviving the legal inquest, she nonetheless acquired the sobriquet, "The Bloody Tina Modotti."

Sooner than later, the revolution melded seamlessly with her own life. After somebody tried to kill the Mexican president, Modotti was tossed from the country and into a wanderer's existence served exclusively on behalf of the worker's cause.

Her art was dedicated to the same cause, but unlike socialist realism and other products of the era, Modotti never took up a cudgel. There is nothing bombastic or cloyingly heroic about her photographic subjects.

Rather than impose a communistic view onto the world, Modotti found natural instances, bits of workerist filigree that she highlighted with a Graphlex lens and whatever light was at her disposal.

The compositions are often exquisite.

Berlin, Austria, Paris...Modotti served as a spy in the service of the communist movement. Like many well-meaning progressives, she wasted her countless and life-threatening efforts on the schemes of wicked Joe Stalin.

Few knew what Stalin was until it was too late, that's what is said. Still, it was not necessary, this falling into the trap of losing God only to replace him with the leader of Russia's Communist Party, good or bad.

But we all make mistakes. The swoop and sweep of our lives can be ennobled by their smaller embellishments.

Modotti was dispatched to Spain along with her lover Ennea Sormanti, where she worked as a nurse for the international communist medical auxiliary, staying until the Spanish Republic's tragic demise, squiring beleaguered refugees across the icy Pyrenees mountain in the winter of 1939.

Tina floated the world over on a barge for a while, no country willing to take her in. Mexico finally relented. She died there in a cab a few years later, her life only partially rebuilt.

Elena Poniatowska, Mexican author of the definitive biography, "Tinisima," crafted a quiet expiration brought on by a life of high-drama and chain-smoking.

Others speculate her life on the political and romantic frontlines might have spurred someone to murder La Modotti.

Either way, the mystery befits a woman who led an uncommon existence, following her bliss, seeking a higher purpose, molding life itself into a work of art.