It is tempting to position Tina Modotti within a list of her myriad accomplishments: artist’s model, renowned photographer, political activist. Granted, these suffice to paint a vibrant portrayal of a life which was significantly more colourful than was generally permitted to most women in the early 20th century. Yet Elena Poniatowska, hero of the downtrodden, is never merely content with retelling customary narratives. Her writing has thus garnered a well-deserved reputation for diligence and sensitivity in her testimonial narratives of those neglected by the public sphere, and shaped our contemporary understanding of Mexican realities. (To gather testimonies for her most famous work, ‘La noche de Tlatelolco’, she herself visited the prisons holding students involved in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, resulting in the harrowing narrative of the tragedy that shaped the nation.)
Thus emerged ‘Tinísima’, the result of ten years of research dedicated to the woman who was central to the social and political turbulence of Mexican post-revolutionary society.
The fictionalized recreation of Modotti’s life begins in Mexico City, 1929, in a moment of striking emotional despair after the assassination of Julio Antonio Mella, prominent Communist leader, and Modotti’s lover. Thereafter unfolds the harsh process of her interrogation by authorities who suspect her involvement, underscored by flashbacks which extend from her earliest adult years to her interactions with the century’s most notable figures; Edward Weston, D.H. Lawrence, Diego Riviera…
The novel’s most captivating passages, however, explore not only Modotti’s relationships with the cultural icons, but the progression of her life post-assassination, revealing an intimate portrayal of grief, sensuality, and womanhood, developing alongside the chaos of the country itself, until her ultimate exile. It is this parallel relationship between character and country, the socio-political and cultural upheaval depicted through the figure of Modotti, that truly ignites the narrative. Perhaps best understood through the title of novel – the diminutive endearment given to Modotti by the Mexican people – her deep involvement in the urban realities of postrevolutionary Mexico arguably make up for criticisms that her deeper motivations remain underrepresented.
The form of the novel must also be praised for its efficacy; non-chronological, brief chapters, framed by dates, photos and letters, result in a captivating blurring of fact and fiction. Key historical events are discussed through personal perspectives, particularly marked through the details of the creation of Modotti’s most famous photographs, and her relationship with photography itself. Her image of Mella’s typewriter, emblematic of both his work and her Communist beliefs, is given no more attention than other images: ‘one afternoon, Tina took out her Graflex and photographed Julio’s typewriter’. Matter-of-act, its simplicity is at odds with the passion Poniatowska infuses in most of Modotti’s movements. This is how we recognize the significant intersections of politics and culture, as Modotti balances her sincerity with a fervent desire to entirely commit herself to the political cause.
Of course, what is a portrait of a political woman without a reminder of the endless barriers they faced? The party she is devoted to bids her to “go home and pick up your knitting needles, little lady”, because “what you need is a really good fuck to set you right.” The journalists covering her interrogation describe her as little more than “the beautiful protagonist of this tragic event”, and she herself recognizes that the authorities want to “mount her and don’t want to let her go”. To be in control of yourself, Modotti appears to accept, is to pose a constant threat to masculinity, and while we observe a great deal of independence, there is no concluding resolution, as is, of course, historically accurate. Poniatowska herself does not quite escape the stereotypes associated with sensuality, as the matriarchal community which Modotti visits to escape her grief forcefully declares: “the only thing we women need is that black flower between our legs”. Flowers are notoriously overrated symbols for femininity.
What Poniatowska does succeed in, however, is Modotti’s crucial self-awareness. Acknowledging that, “rather than her ideals, the public wants to know everything about the tumult in her heart”, she ultimately empowers the artist whose historical significance extends far beyond the infamous love affairs she received global scrutiny for. The very complexities that characterize the eponymous character reflect the tensions at the centre of Mexico, by dramatizing a shifting sense of belonging which correlates with the period of serious political transition.
Eventually, Modotti exchanges her artistic intentions for political activism, abandoning both her creative pursuits and her idealism, as she observes to herself, shortly before her exile, that “Mexico is a sinister place”. Even so, Modotti’s powerful portrayal ensures that a glimmer of optimism remains, both for the artist and for the country in turmoil. The lens of the photographer shares a hopeful view which is not easily forgotten, that “Mexico, with its mixture of blood and gold, would ignite the world”.