By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
Tina Modotti was born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti in Italy in 1896 and by the 1920s was a minor star of theater and silent film in the United States. She then became a political radical and a noted photographer.
Ellen Gavin’s play, “Apertura Modotti,” takes us through her life over a 20-year period beginning with the 1920s until her death at 45. It depicts her relationships to photographer Edward Weston, artists Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Miguel Covarriubias, and poet and illustrator Robo de Richey.
Throughout the recent Brava Theater Center production, the action was enhanced by film clips of world and local events and old Hollywood films, as well as black and white still lifes and nude photographs of Modotti and other women, shot by both Modotti and Edward Weston.
After a brief introduction on the history and mythology of the Americas, backed by images of ancient Mayan pyramids, a scene opened on Modotti’s San Francisco North Beach flat. While Modotti (played by Arianna Ortiz) and her friends, wearing 1920s Japanese silk robes, read aloud in Italian accents reviews of a play she had appeared in, her between-the-lines comments indicated a nascent concern for world politics.
She soon moved to Los Angeles, hoping to further her career by getting into films. She succeeded and while there met Weston (played by Andrew Hurteau), and married Robo de Richey (Lawrence Radecker). After Robo died, in 1923, she and Weston moved to Mexico City.
The actors conveyed their enthusiasm for that country’s rebirth in the just completed Mexican Revolution. Through Modotti’s vivacity and her facility for language, she and Weston, now her lover and mentor, fast became part of Mexico City’s avant-garde.
Modotti proved not only a political revolutionary but a sexual revolutionary, as well; she had many affairs, as did Weston. Still, tired of her fickleness, he abandoned her in 1926 to return to his wife and children in California. He told her he didn’t like Mexico. “It lives in the past,” he said. But she saw the country as the future.
Weston left her his camera and she quickly became a photographer with artistic merit. Her black and white photographs of the poor in Mexico have the same impact as those of Dorothea Lange’s, showing the dignity and toughness of the poor despite their suffering and depravation.
Tina Modotti was forced to leave Mexico in 1930. She was deported to Europe after being questioned by the authorities concerning a conspiracy to assassinate Mexican president Pascual Ortiz Rubio-and also for her high profile and personal contacts within the leadership of the Communist International.
One powerful scene showed her lover, a revolutionary Cuban poet, being shot dead on the street while walking with her. The playwright made clear the fact that Modotti’s accusers had persecuted her not only for her part in the alleged conspiracy and her ties with the Communist Party but also for what they described as a promiscuous lifestyle.
Scene Four of Act One opens with Modotti living in Germany, where she was protected by a comrade, Vittorio Vidali (Lawrence Radecker), whom she eventually married. One of her 1931 German photographs was of people at a zoo who look as though they were behind bars rather than the animals. Soon she quit photography and devoted her time and energy to the party, some suspected as a spy for Stalin.
Act Two was set in Moscow in 1935. A shabby George Orwell (Neil Flint Worden), in a baggy white suit, stood in front of a desk stacked high with books, giving a lecture on the factions of communism, fascism, and socialism, and the part each played in the Spanish Civil War.
In his book “Homage to Catalonia” (1938), Orwell recounted his experiences as a fighter in the militia of the Partido Obrero Unificado Marxista (POUM), a grouping often mistakenly referred to as “Trotskyist” (it included members of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in its ranks until they were expelled). The POUM suffered repression by the Stalinists, and many of its leaders were arrested, tortured, and later executed.
Orwell’s monologue set the background for Modotti’s time in Moscow and Spain, from 1935 to 1939.
In one scene, in Moscow, Modotti was questioned by four Soviet functionaries dressed in military regalia, sitting behind a long table. They interrogated her in strident, stereotypical Russian accents about her “morals,” lovers, art, and photographs of Mexico, which they viewed as political propaganda.
How she lived her life, she argued, was none of their business and asked that her art be considered separate from her political convictions. They insisted she continue to take pictures, but only of Communist Party members; in other words, she was to spy for them.
While in Moscow, Modotti met Dolores Ibarruri, called La Pasionaria (a truly impassioned Carla Pantoja), who had come from Spain to ask for help. She inspired Modotti and they became close.
The play moved to Spain, where Modotti served as a nurse in the thick of the war against the fascists. In one scene, Modotti sang revolutionary songs with members of the International Brigades.
While she was out of the hospital room, a Stalinist strangled a patient who had been in political opposition to the Communist Party. She discovered the body and was appalled. She quickly became disillusioned with the Stalinist machine.
When Franco’s troops took Madrid in 1939, the Civil War ended. Modotti again found herself in exile. The United States refused her asylum because of her political beliefs, but Mexico welcomed her back.
Some sources identify Tina Modotti as a GPU agent in Mexico-perhaps even involved in the plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky, who was also living there in exile.
This is uncertain; the play indicates that, at least, she was highly conflicted over her relations with the Stalinists. Indeed, Trotsky’s revolutionary and anti-Stalinist ideas may have had some influence upon her, if only second hand.
Modotti was close friends with artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as Trotsky had also been. Indeed, Trotsky and his wife had lived as the guests of Kahlo and Rivera in their “Blue House.” But some months before Modotti arrived in Mexico, Trotsky and Rivera broke off political and personal relations.
Trotsky was axed to death by a Stalinist agent in 1940.
In the scenes of Modotti in Mexico in 1939, Arianna Ortiz portrayed her as a very sick woman, which she was. One night, her husband and abuser, Vittorio, and her old friends convinced her to attend a dinner party. She left the party early, alone, and extremely ill and died within a month-most believe, suspiciously. Perhaps she was poisoned by Vittorio for her anti-Stalinist leanings.
At the end of the play, a drunken Mexican woman spoke near where Tina Modotti was buried, “Was she Italiana?” she asked, “Mexicana?”
It doesn’t matter. Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti truly was an aperture, opening to admit light and giving it back to the world in timeless photographs, and in her spirit of political freedom, social consciousness, strength, and creativity.