Tina Modotti - Photographs Evening Sale New York Wednesday, April 1, 2015 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    From the artist to Vittorio Vidali
    Gifted to a Private Collection
    Sotheby's, New York, 6 October 2010, lot 128

  • Literature

    Hooks, Tina Modotti, p. 7 there dated 1925
    Hooks, Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer, p. 127 there dated 1925
    Lowe, Tina Modotti: Photographs, pl. 27
    Agostinis, Tina Modotti: Gli anni Luminosi, pl. 108
    Inostrannaya Literature #12, 1935, n.p.
    Sozialarchivs, Tina Modotti: Photographien & Dokumente, p. 37

  • Catalogue Essay

    While working as a movie actress in Los Angeles, Tina Modotti met Edward Weston and became his model and his lover. In 1923 the two moved to Mexico where under Weston’s tutelage (first as his assistant and later as his professional partner) she began to photograph. Alongside her mentor, Modotti’s visual vocabulary quickly developed into a modernist aesthetic. But unlike Weston, over time Modotti’s formal images became politically charged – as did her life.

    Sugar Cane is a rare print created made by Modotti while she lived and worked in Mexico (1923 -1930). While her earliest work in Mexico tended towards platinum prints of formally composed close-ups of flowers, still-lifes and uninhabited architectural spaces as well as portraits of the artists she associated with; by 1927, the year Modotti joined the Communist Party, her modernist aesthetic had become politically progressive. Around this time she also switched from the rich beauty of platinum prints to the tonal clarity of gelatin silver prints. One could assume that the gelatin silver print of Sugar Cane might fall into the earlier period with its tightly cropped and repeated vertical forms of the canes. But this seemingly purely formal image is also a political metaphor.

    In her monograph on the artist, Margaret Hooks discusses the image: “Stalks of sugar cane crowd the frame and bleed off the edges of this abstraction. The influence of Weston’s formalism and an emphasis on the ‘thing itself’ are evident in this photograph, but Modotti’s use of the tropical sugar came as her subject imbues the image with the spirit of place that permeates much of her work.” Indeed, sugarcane was a major cash crop in Mexico, brought to the region by the Spanish and grown on large colonial haciendas in which the indigenous people (augmented by slaves from Africa) were the main labor source. After the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) land-holdings were limited in size. But the majority of the Mexicans did not profit from this restructuring. In Modotti’s clear modernist image we see a seemingly impenetrable wall built from rows upon rows of sugarcane.

    The tensions over labor, race, and economic inequuality that continue to simmer in Mexico after the Revolution was also depicted in a mural by Diego Rivera (Sugarcane, 1931). Rivera was one of the avant-garde artists that both Modotti and Weston associated with in Mexico. With Modotti the association was particularly close. Between 1924 and 1928 she photographed his frescos or wall murals including his The Organization of the Agrarian Movement, 1926 and The Abundant Earth, 1926 that she reportedly modeled for. But their affectionate relationship broke when Modotti supported Rivera's expulsion from the Communist party.

    Soon after Modotti created Sugar Cane she was deported from Mexico as a subversive. She eventually made it to Moscow where she worked on the behalf of International Workers’ Relief organizations. In 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out Modotti traveled with Vittorio Vidali to Spain where she stayed until the collapse of the Republican movement. Eventually Modotti returned to Mexico with Vidali and there she died at the age of 46. As far we know Modotti never took a photograph after leaving Mexico in 1930. She explained her decision by inverting a statement Weston made to her years earlier: "I cannot solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art”.

    This print is one of three known early prints of Sugar Cane, one of which is in the permanent collection of the Instituto National de Bellas Artes/Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.


Sugar Cane

Gelatin silver print.
9 1/4 x 7 in. (23.5 x 17.8 cm)
Vittorio Vidali's 'Fifth Regiment' stamp and directional notations in pencil on the verso.

$70,000 - 90,000 

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Photographs Evening Sale

New York 1 April 2015 6pm