Born in 1896 in Friuli, Italy / Died in 1942 in Mexico City, Mexico
Jens Hoffmann (JH): In speaking about our decision to include Tina Modotti in the biennial, I think a good place to start is her iconic photograph Woman with Flag (ca. 1928). It shows a young Mexican woman holding aloft a large flag that cascades across her shoulder, representing the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping Mexico at the time. Modotti was a photographer, an activist, and a muse, among many other things. Despite the increased attention her work has received recently, I feel that it remains underrecognized. It is emotional and political, but also formally beautiful.
Adriano Pedrosa (AP): Modotti was without a doubt a strong woman and one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. She moved to Mexico at the young age of 27 with the also-legendary photographer Edward Weston, from whom she received her formal training. In Mexico she created the images she became famous for, and also she became an active participant in the Mexican Revolution. Her portraits of political figures, friends, and workers capture historical and personal moments, while her delicate still lives reflect a sense of beauty and intimacy. This combination makes for a bold body of work.
JH: Her camera was an extension of herself. It was a testament to her vision and talent as well as the romantic and revolutionary life she led. Modotti’s art and her life were inextricably intertwined. Her striking portrait of the Cuban Communist Party founder Julio Antonio Mella is a telling example of this. He was her lover, friend, and subject, and she was at his side when he was murdered.
AP: She photographed rallies, murals by her friends Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, laborers, and the moments of beauty she witnessed around her. In the photograph Workers’ Parade (1926), we see a sea of white hats and get swept up in the parade because Modotti herself was in the parade. She was exiled from Mexico for her Communist beliefs and died tragically under mysterious circumstances at a young age. Her images bear witness to her determination to document the world around her and stick to her passionate beliefs despite external dangers.
JH: There is another artist in the exhibition who lives and works in Mexico, Elizabeth Catlett. She is 96. While her work looks very different from Modotti’s, it addresses similar subjects—civil rights, beauty, and revolution—which are as important today as they were 100 years ago. Modotti’s Hands Resting on Shovel (1926) is a provocative image that particularly reminds me of Catlett’s work. The hands have so much character. Even though they have endured hard labor and pain, there is also a grace and beauty to them.
AP: I see Modotti’s Bandolier, Corn, and Guitar (ca. 1927) as another particularly compelling reflection of her ideals, which I agree are absolutely still resonant today.