The Not So Fabulous Life of Tina Modotti


I was intrigued by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith’s review of Ellen Gavin’s new play, Apertura Modotti, in last month’s Socialist Action. The play follows the life of Tina Modotti, the photographer, actress, and political activist who died under unclear circumstances in 1942 in Mexico City.

According to the playwright, Modotti in her last years was in the process of breaking with the policies of the Stalinist movement. In fact, Caldwell-Smith points out that there was speculation in the newspapers after her death that she had been murdered by her lover, Vittorio Vidali (alias Carlos Contreras), who was a notorious political operative and assassin for Stalin’s GPU.

Caldwell-Smith alerted Socialist Action readers, however, that some sources suggest that Modotti herself came to Mexico in 1939 as a GPU agent and that she was connected to the conspiracy to assassinate Leon Trotsky.

Upon further research, it appears likely that the playwright was accurate in making her case that Modotti was moving away from Stalinism shortly before she died. She refused to renew her membership in the Mexican Communist Party and in fact dropped out from most political activity.

Furthermore, no evidence appears in any of the biographies of Modotti connecting her to the assassination of Trotsky. According to many accounts, however, her friend, Vidali, was deeply involved in the plot to kill Trotsky. One can only speculate whether Modotti knew of his plans.

People who encountered Modotti in Mexico after 1939 describe her as ill and worn out in appearance. She complained anxiously about the horrors she had witnessed in Spain during the Civil War.

Unfortunately, Modotti shared some blame for these horrors. She may not have been a Stalinist agent in Mexico in 1939 but she certainly was one earlier in Spain. During those years, Vidali, according to Spanish scholar Andrew Castells, headed the anti-Trotskyist section of the International Brigades in Spain. Some sources name him as a participant in the murder of Andres Nin and other anti-Stalinist leftists.

Modotti herself is implicated in the death of Brazilian Communist Alberto Bezouchet, who had expressed sympathy toward Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Modotti relayed a message from the Brazilian Communist Party to the Spanish CP charging that “Bezouchet had passed on to Trotskyism.” Bezouchet was arrested and apparently executed at the end of 1938 with other “anarchists and Trotskyists.”

Ironically, Modotti’s former husband, Cuban revolutionary and poet Julio Antonio Mella, had been an admirer of Leon Trotsky. Andres Nin had befriended Mella and explained to him the program of the Left Opposition.

In late 1928, Mella was removed from the Central Committee of the Mexican CP for political differences, and thereafter stopped collaborating with the party. Vittorio Vidali shouted at him in public: “Don’t you ever forget that there are only two ways to leave the [Communist] International-thrown out or dead.” A month later, Mella was shot down in the street while walking with Modotti.

Tina Modotti was charged at first with being an accomplice to Mella’s murder. During her trial, two close friends, artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, came to her aid. But later in the year, when Rivera had moved toward Trotskyism and was expelled from the Communist Party, Modotti denounced him as a “traitor” and broke off all relations.

In short, Modotti led two lives. Her early years, until the end of the 1920s, were a time of great artistic accomplishment and idealistic fervor. After Mella’s death, however, she moved deeper and deeper into Stalinist thuggery, justifying her sordid behavior according to the credo, “the Party is always right.”

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