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Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston

September 2, 2006 - January 2, 2007


From September 2, 2006, through January 2, 2007, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is presenting the exhibition Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. The exhibition is organized by Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA.

For five years in the 1920s, two of the major figures in 20th century art, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, shared a passionate partnership. They also shared a love for Mexico, where they lived and worked together from 1923 until 1926, each making pictures of astonishing beauty and ambition. This exhibition presents 89 photographs created during their time together in Mexico, images that count among the most memorable from each artist's career, demonstrating the pair's uncompromising standards for their medium. Also included in the exhibition are a variety of archival materials-letters, postcards, photographs, and ephemera -- sent to members of Modotti's family, which will allow viewers to compare everyday uses of photography in Modotti and Weston's lives, in books, as postcards, and in newspapers with celebrated examples of their photographic art. (right: Tina Modotti, Untitled (Girl with Braids Writing), ca. 1926-29; gelatin silver print; 3 5/8 x 2 13/16 inches; Collection SFMOMA, purchased through a gift of the Art Supporting Foundation, John "Launny" Steffens, Sandra Lloyd, Shawn and Brook Byers, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Jewett Jr., and anonymous donors0

Modotti and Weston came from radically different backgrounds, yet each was an important catalyst in the other's artistic development. Born in Italy in 1896, Modotti had received little formal education before immigrating to San Francisco to join the rest of her family in 1913. She worked as a seamstress and an actress in the local Italian theater, then moved with her husband, the artist Robo de Richey, to Los Angeles, where they became members of a burgeoning community of bohemian artists, poets, and socialists. In Los Angeles in 1921 Modotti met and began a romantic relationship with Weston, a fashionable portrait photographer with an ambition to make art. In December of 1921, inspired by reports of great social change, a newly stable government, and a reverence for artists as catalysts for reform and growth in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, de Richey moved to Mexico City. When Modotti joined him there a few months later, she discovered him dying of smallpox. She remained in Mexico after his death to organize an exhibition of de Richey's work but moved back to the United States shortly thereafter. Determined to return to Mexico, she relocated once again in 1923 -- this time with Weston as her companion.

Modotti spoke fluent Spanish, and she managed her and Weston's successful portrait studio, where they photographed Mexican citizens, artists, writers, and revolutionaries. He learned about the adventurous avant-garde circles in Mexico through her interest in art and politics, while she learned the craft of photography from him, adapting his large camera and platinum process for her own needs. Photography became her livelihood, and she described it as "the most eloquent, the most direct means for fixing, for registering, the present epoch." In 1926 she bought and began using a handheld Graflex camera, which provided her with more mobility. Many of the photographs featured in Mexico as Muse are Graflex pictures she sent to her mother-in-law.

Weston and Modotti occupy an important place in the history of photography. Both were deeply affected by their life in Mexico, inspired by the artistic activity and social optimism that stemmed from an emphasis on indigenous people and ancient culture as key to the reawakening of the country.

Weston's pictures of ancient pyramids, earthen pots, and palm tree trunks approach pure abstract form, while photographs such as his stark and spiky Maguey cactus and the hand of Galvan holding a handcrafted pot refer to the continuing vitality and relevance of Mexican culture.

Modotti, meanwhile, discovered cubist structure in adobe churches, taut telephone wires, and a stream of peasant sombreros parading beneath a window. More personal than Weston's pictures, hers are also less idealized and abstracted. She explored the still life as a photographic genre, taking pictures that serve as both documentary records and potent cultural symbols. Her photographs of Mexico's indigenous and impoverished people showcase her devotion to the promise of economic and social justice, and they became icons of revolutionary Mexico, much in the way Rivera's murals did. In 1926 Weston returned to California, but Modotti adopted Mexico as her homeland, remaining there until 1930, when her involvement in Communism precipitated her deportation to Berlin. Modotti went back to Mexico in 1939 (escaping the Spanish Civil War), going first to New York and then to Mexico, under the pseudonym Maria, before gaining political asylum in Mexico in 1941. She died there of a heart attack in 1942. (left: Tina Modotti, Woman with Olla, 1926; gelatin silver print; 7 _ x 9 inchers; Collection Susie Tompkins Buell)

On Friday, October 27, at noon in the Koret Visitor Education Center (KVEC), SFMOMA will present an Art and Conversation program, featuring Tina Modotti biographer Patricia Albers, to accompany the exhibition. The program is free with gallery admission. Also, throughout the run of the exhibition, Tina in Mexico, a film by Brenda Longfellow, will be shown daily (except Wednesdays) at 2:30 pm and, between September 18 and October 31, on Thursdays at 7 pm in KVEC.


(above: Edward Weston, Maguey Cactus, Mexico, 1926; gelatin silver print; 7 3/8 x 9 5/16 inches; Collection SFMOMA; © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)


Wall text from the exhibition

Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston

Between 1923 and 1926 Tina Modotti and Edward Weston lived and worked together in Mexico. It was an intense and fruitful time for both of them, and when they parted they had each made significant photographic work. The two met in 1921 in Los Angeles (Modotti, born in Italy, had recently moved there from San Francisco), and they soon became lovers. She was young, beautiful, and intelligent, and he, though an established local photographer, was not yet the significant modern artist he would later become. When they moved to Mexico it was with the understanding that Weston would teach her photography and that she would organize and run his portrait-studio business. Since she spoke fluent Spanish and had visited the country before, she introduced Weston to some major Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

Mexico was an exciting place to be at that time: Its momentous artistic activity, social reforms, and radical politics were centered on creating an invigorated society that honored indigenous people and their rich, ancient culture. In a sense, Mexico was Weston's Paris; while he was there he became a fully modern artist. His sharply focused pictures represent monumental pyramids, spiky maguey plants, and worn circus tents as abstract forms. Modotti also found modern forms, but her pictures tend to be more tactile, personal, and socially sensitive. Telephone lines, pulled taut like hair, are geometric but also allude to recent rural electrification. A bouquet of roses, viewed at unabashedly close range, seems less sculptural than fragile, and as vulnerable as skin. By 1926 she was using a handheld Graflex camera to take many of the more spontaneous pictures included in this exhibition.

Modotti and Weston's relationship was never easy, and Weston returned to California in 1926. The work he made in Mexico informed the rest of his career; the semiabstract forms he later found in peppers and shells certainly derive from his photographs of desert plants and earthenware pots. Modotti stayed in Mexico, and, as her political sensibilities evolved, her work became more exhortative and less spontaneous, though she still took wonderful pictures of laborers (who seem almost magically aligned to the scaffolding on which they stand) and the matriarchal community in Tehuantepec. In 1927 she joined the Communist Party, and in 1930 she was deported from Mexico and ceased making photographs altogether.

Sandra S. Phillips
Senior Curator of Photography


Mexico as Muse: Tina Modotti and Edward Weston includes photographs and other archival materials from Tina Modotti's personal correspondence donated by the Art Supporting Foundation, John "Launny" Steffens, Sandra Lloyd, Shawn and Brook Byers, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Jewett Jr., and anonymous donors.


1876 Porfirio Díaz begins his presidency in Mexico.

1886 Edward Weston is born in Chicago, Illinois.

1896 Tina Modotti is born in Udine, Italy.

1902 Weston receives his first camera, a Kodak Bullseye No. 2 box model, from his father.

1908 Modotti works in a silk factory in Italy to help support her family.

Weston moves to Los Angeles and begins apprenticing in commercial photography studios.

1909 Weston marries Flora Chandler.

1910 Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship collapses, ushering in a period of political conflict in Mexico.

1911 Weston opens his own photography studio in Tropico (now Glendale), California.

1913 Modotti emigrates to San Francisco, where she joins her father and sister.

Weston is introduced to avant-garde photography circles in Los Angeles.

1915 Modotti meets Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey, nicknamed Robo. She begins acting in the Italian theater in San Francisco.

1917 The new Mexican constitution institutes widespread education reforms and public art projects.

1918 Modotti moves with Robo to Los Angeles.

1920 Modotti begins a brief acting career in silent movies.

In Mexico, Álvaro Obregón assumes the presidency.

1921 Modotti models for Weston, and they become lovers.

Robo travels to Mexico at the invitation of the newly appointed head of the Ministry of Education's Fine Arts Department.

1922 In Mexico, Robo plans an exhibition of pictorialist and modern photography from the United States, which includes works by Weston.

Robo contracts smallpox and Modotti hurries to Mexico; he dies days after her arrival. She carries out his planned exhibition. Weeks later Modotti receives news of her father's death and returns to California.

1923 Weston and Modotti move to Mexico together and open a photography studio; they bring with them Weston's eldest son, Chandler (thirteen years old at the time).

In Mexico City, Weston's photographs are exhibited at the Aztec Land Gallery to widespread interest.

1924 Weston returns to Los Angeles.

1925 Weston goes back to Mexico with his son Brett (then fourteen years old).

1926 Modotti and Weston are commissioned by Anita Brenner to photograph Mexican indigenous art. Weston leaves Mexico for good after completing the project.

1927 Modotti joins the Mexican Communist Party. She meets and becomes romantically involved with the exiled Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella.

1928 Modotti photographs for the workers' revolutionary newspaper El Machete.

1929 The Wall Street crash marks the beginning of the Great Depression.

Mella is assassinated as he walks down a Mexico City street with Modotti. The police name her as a suspect, interrogate her, then release her.

Modotti visits and photographs the towns of Tehuantepec and Juchitán in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

At the end of the year Modotti has her first solo exhibition at the National University. The muralist David Álfaro Siqueiros calls it "the first revolutionary photographic exhibit in Mexico."

1930 Modotti is deported by the Mexican government for her political activities. She goes to Berlin, then to Moscow to work for the organization International Red Aid.

1932 Group f/64 is formed; its founding members include Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Weston. The group holds its first exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

1933 Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of the Third Reich and begins a violent crackdown on Communist activists and modern artists.

1936 Modotti travels to Spain and joins the anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Weston wins a Guggenheim Fellowship for his Western photographs.

1939 Modotti sails to New York under a pseudonym but is denied entry. She then travels to Mexico, where she attempts to live incognito.

1942 Modotti dies of heart failure on January 5 in a taxi in Mexico City.

1945 Weston develops Parkinson's disease.

1958 Weston dies on January 1 at his home in Carmel, California.

Editor's note: Readers may also find of interest:


TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Remembering Edward Weston. Presents a profile of the life and work of the famed American photographer Edward Weston. His close friends and family talk about his early years in California, the critical trip to Mexico, the significant time spent in New Mexico, his spartan way of living, his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the project prints completed late in his life. Originally produced: Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, c1992. 30 min. Video/C 8707. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley.

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