Mar 28 2016

Wandering Among the Muses: Modotti, Kahlo, Salome

(originally published at, February 2007)

Wandering among the muses, part 1: Roses

The first time I ever heard of Tina Modotti was just after I was out of college, as broke as a bookseller on minimum wage can be in a crowded city where the rents usually take up half of a decent salary.  I had been holding a stack of magazines to restock the little bookstore newsstand, when a copy of Time fell out of my hands and open on the ground at my feet. There, across the center double-page spread was a grainy image of “Roses”, which had just made the news when it was sold at auction for “more money than anyone had ever paid for a photograph before.”


The photograph mesmerized me. I remember crouching down to look at it, splayed open on the worn wooden floor, before I picked it up casually and took it to the back room. No, I didn’t steal it, exactly. I simply left magazine among the pile of others the staff would peruse during cigarette and coffee breaks.  But not before I had torn out the pages with the photo and slipped them into my bag. That night I dreamed I was falling into the picture, the rose petals soft and clinging to my skin.  I woke up hot, damp, and breathless.

That magazine picture stayed with me for several years—tapped above my desk, or folded into the pages of whatever journal I was haphazardly keeping at the time. Sometimes, I would unfold it and stare at the roses before I would go to bed, in the hopes of having that dream again.  I looked up Tina Modotti, of course, but the Internet was still a few years off, I believe we still relied upon clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. I could find nothing written about an obscure female photographer whose claim to fame seemed to begin and end with one expensive photograph and the fact that she was Edward Weston’s model, apprentice, mistress and muse.

Tina-Modotti-Hooks-Margaret-9780044409250It took a couple of years before a freelance correspondent living in Mexico named Margaret Hooks published a biography of Modotti, with the forthright title Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary. I remember taking the book out of the box and immediately flipping through it, stopping at all the pictures, enjoying the shivery flush that crawled over me when I came to Roses, used as the frontispiece to the book.  Enjoying also, the sense of the future strung forth in “Telegraph wires”, its implied promise in “Doors”, and “Stairs” and “The typewriter.”  In Modotti’s photographs—in her many portraits but also in her photographs of buildings, objects, flowers, even her self portraits and nudes—I felt the sense of a rising tide.  Whether that tide was her rising creativity and artistic vision, her hopes for an oncoming socialist revolution to sweep the world, or simply my own flooding sense of creative purpose and erotic awakening is hard to say—a reader brings only himself—herself—to a book.  All I can say is that I had the book for over a week before I stopped just looking at the pictures and actually read it.

Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary—the title sums up everything a reader can expect to find in this book.  Margaret Hooks was determined to write a comprehensive account of a woman whose contributions—both to photography and to history—had been until then sidelined and eclipsed by the men in her orbit—the early pioneers of photography, the early leaders of the socialist and communist movements.  A feminist scholar at heart, Hooks undertook to shift the spotlight from Modotti’s many lovers and teachers onto the woman herself—a woman who, we are convinced by the end of the story, effected events as often as she was affected by them.

Tina Modotti was born in Italy, moved to California as a young woman where she had a brief but vivid career in the silent movies. She became interested in photography and through a series of fortuitous events, established herself in the studio of Edward Weston, where she quickly became his favorite model, and eventually his lover and his apprentice.  It was the early twenties; the age of the avant garde, of artistic and sexual exploration, a time when art was no longer expected to imitate life—rather life was to be lived as art.

Modotti and Weston traveled to Mexico in the early 1920’s.  Mexico City was becoming a center of cultural and artistic revolution, attracting an international collection of artists, poets and philosophers.  Ultimately, though, revolution was not as interesting to Weston as art, and he returned to California. Tina Modotti stayed, however, finding something in the political foment that inspired her.  Modotti’s apartments became a gathering place for radicals and writers, a salon of sorts although that word does little to describe the furious political and sexual intrigues that the gatherings seemed to spawn.

Hooks gives a careful account—citing a bewilderingly large number of names, places and dates in rapid succession—of Modotti’s time in Mexico from her first visit with her famous photographer mentor to her eventual exile with the then equally famous radical communist mentor Vittorio Vidali. As a biographer, she is careful, perhaps overly so, to document every point in Modotti’s life than can be reasonably documented.  And it was a fantastic, colorful life, filled with great passion and idealism, at least two political assassinations, several frightening acts of espionage, not to mention a number of turbulent, headline-producing affairs. So perhaps the rising sense of frustration I felt as I read was irrational—but I had a persistent feeling that being told what had happened in Tina Modotti’s life was not the same thing as knowing how it happened. The problem with careful documentation is that it can’t talk about what can’t be documented—her attempt to live as though her art, her desires, and her political beliefs were all things that would compliment, not conflict:

“You may say to me then,” she once wrote to Weston, “that since the element of life is stronger in me than the element of art I should just resign to it and make the best of it – but I cannot accept life as it is – it is too chaotic—too unconscious –therefore my resistance to it –my combat with it –I am forever struggling o mould life according to my temperament and needs…I put too much art in my life”

Hooks tells us about Modotti’s lovers, but not about how she falls in love.  She records how she learned to take a picture, but not how she learned what to photograph. The phases of Tina Modotti’s life are laid out like a well organized file, a dossier worthy of any secret service organization. But nowhere was there any hint for an electrified and frustrated reader at what made her take a picture like Roses.

Sometime in 1931, two years after her Cuban lover Julia Antonio Mella was shot at her side while they walked down a dark street (so close, Tina could taste gunpowder in her mouth when she gasped), and one year after the Mexican government had her deported for her Communist activities, she lost the struggle to keep her love, her politics and her photography serving the same cause.  She was ready to sacrifice her life for the cause of the proletariat, but she couldn’t sacrifice her artistic standards or her aesthetics. When it became a choice of a good picture or the good of the people, Tina Modotti put her camera down.


Part II—The Dove

Sometime in 1923 Tina Modotti gave one of the parties that had become a focal point for the artistic and radical set in Mexico City.  It might be said of most of the men who came that they came for Tina, not the politics or the conversation. But one man for whom that was not true was Diego Rivera, the muralist with a rising reputation for his art, his socialism and his many affairs. By the time of the party, however, his brief affair with Tina was long over, ending amicably on both sides when they realized they enjoyed talking politics and art with each other more than they enjoyed sex. The party got a little wild: “[it was] a period when people carried pistols and went around shooting the street lamps on Madero Avenue and getting into mischief,” recalled one of the people at the party. “Diego shot a phonograph and I began to be very interested in him in spite of the fear I had of him.” The speaker was a young painter named Frida Kahlo, who had just seen Rivera for the very first time.

Like Tina Modotti, my first encounter with Frida Kahlo, was through her art. It was, in its way, just as shocking—an angry boyfriend sent me a postcard of a painting called “Broken Column.”  It was the picture of a woman split down the middle, weeping, the two halves of her body held together by nails and surgical tape. In between, a cracked and ruined stone column ran from her head down to her hips. On the back of the card was scrawled the words “fuck you!”


Kahlo and Modotti were good friends, until Tina Modotti’s politics finally resulted in her exile to Europe. The women had a lot in common—they believed in art as a political force. They felt that desire was a form of creativity. They struggled to keep their own artistic existence separate and distinct from works of the men in their lives.  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married not long after they first met, and the marriage lasted until Kahlo’s death in 1954, despite their tempestuous natures, and frequent, tumultuous affairs on both sides. He was called The Frog Prince. She was often called The Dove. Kahlo found in Rivera a mentor and teacher, but whereas Rivera’s work was large scale, historical, and even epic, her own was more internal, folkloric, and intimate—often only 12 or 15 inches wide.  It is pretty well known that Kahlo survived a terrible accident when she was only eighteen—her school bus was rammed by a streetcar in Mexico City, and Kahlo was impaled on a metal bar. Her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, her foot broken. That she survived at all was a miracle, but she survived to live forever in constant pain and illness, unable to ever bear children, and to the certain future of ongoing medical procedures and operations and battles against her body’s disintegration.  “She lived dying” said one friend. She learned to paint, to really paint, laying on her back in a hospital bed. “Death dances around me” she wrote in a letter to a lover. Death would dance around her for the next twenty-nine years, until she finally gave in, and took his hand.

For a long time Kahlo, like Modotti, was known as much for the men she loved as she was for her own art. Also like Modotti, her own work has since become to be regarded as critically significant in its own right.  Oddly enough, although her husband’s work marched across buildings, portraying historical events and people and symbols of industry and agriculture, it is Kahlo’s galaxy of self portraits—sad eyed, weeping and bleeding, broken, cut apart, littered across desert scapes and dream-like jungles—that have endured.

9780810959545During the last ten years of her life Kahlo kept a journal (The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait)—a vivid scrawling volume of sketches, poetry, letters and appeals that I have read and stared at over and over again.  It is a diary like none other in the world of letters. Not the quiet, considered reflections of an artist or philosopher sitting at their desk at the close of the day. Not the safe haven where she might indulge her wit and write down all the things she thought, but did not say, to the company she kept.  No, this is a document that seems to have been written in fits and starts, as though she put brush and pen to paper because she simply couldn’t help herself.  Turning the facsimiled pages—reproduced in full color, every marred sketch and crossed out word intact—I felt like I wasn’t seeing writing  at all, but a process of spontaneous combustion.  (“The art of Frida Kahlo,” said Andre Breton, “is a ribbon around a bomb.”)

The first pages of the book are neater, filled with incantations (“no moon, sun, diamonds, hands—fingertip, dot, ray, gauze sea. pine green, pink glass, eye, mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming.”). But as the years progress, the neat penmanship gives way to more impulsive scrawls in many different colored inks and paints.  Sometimes she writes about revolution, confronting the same issues Modotti faced—the ferocious tug between politics, revolution and art. “Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless” she writes on one page. “A despair which no words can describe,” She says two pages later “I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again.”  And further on, under a watercolor sketch of a woman’s body floating among pale circles like soap bubbles “Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep I’m falling asleep.”


He’d hate to hear it, but I have always secretly been thankful to that angry boyfriend. He meant only to scare me, but I was too captivated by the woman in the painting to be frightened. Kahlo and Modotti have been called “muses” to the men in their lives—the sources of inspiration for other men’s great works. But the women I discovered were muses in the classic sense—women who embody the arts and inspire the creation process.  I decided, as paged through a book of Kahlo’s paintings, turning over that card over in my hands, that this was a goal worth pursuing—to take your life and make it art.

There is a poem by Pablo Neruda on Tina Modotti’s gravestone:

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.

“Fragile” was a word often applied to her, but rarely to Kahlo. There are many ways to describe woman with the broken column holding up her cruelly split body but “fragile” isn’t one of them.   Kahlo’s inner steel led her to a different destiny from her friend’s.  Tina Modotti put away her camera  and sent away most of her lovers to stay devoted to the cause. Kahlo never put away her paint brushes, and she never fell out of love with Rivera.  That magic balance that eluded the photographer, the one that would allow her to be woman, artist and instrument change—Kahlo discovered it in between medical crises and surgical procedures, political rallies and art exhibitions.  “They have amputated my leg” she wrote in February, 1954 “I still feel like committing suicide, Diego prevents me from doing it in the vain belief that maybe he will need me.” And then less than a month later (and only three months before  her body at last shuts completely down)–“I have achieved a lot…Confidence in walking. Confidence in painting. My will is strong. My will remains.”


Wandering Among the Muses Part III–Lou

In the spring of 1937 Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera went to meet a ship.  On the ship was a man and his wife, forced into exile by a regime that no longer viewed them as friends, and indeed had begun to consider them as enemies to its future. The man was Leon Trotsky—one of the three architects of the Russian Revolution. The founder and former head of the Red Army stepped off the ship onto a dry, sandy shore in a brave new world he had never foreseen.  And there to greet him was the Dove. The Aztec Goddess. The force of nature that was Frida Kahlo. History does not say whether he found the exchange satisfying—the leadership of the military might of a new country for a brief but passionate affair in a new land. Certainly Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, did not. Trotsky kept nothing from his service in the nascent Soviet Union’s first Central Committee except a nervous habit of paranoia that would ultimately be justified. He had nothing from his time with Frida except one small portrait she painted with herself in a pink dress.  It is one of the few self portraits from that era that does not include a monkey.  She called it “Between the Curtains.”

To Americans, who associate Communism with red scares, spy novels and fanatic right-wing politicians, Leon Trotsky’s name rings only the faintest of bells. He is perhaps best known as the pig Snowball in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It is less commonly known that Trotsky was the inspiration for one of the characters in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, making his influence on great literature rather more successful and enduring than his influence on his own country’s politics.  He triumphs over Stalin in this sphere, at least.

The Trotsky character in Doctor Zhivago is Pavel Pavlovich Antipov (“Pashenka”) , the son of a railway worker, childhood friend and later husband of Yuri Zhivago’s beloved, Lara.  Lara and her huband move to the country after marrying to teach the poor, but Pashenka becomes dissatisfied and joins the army on the eve of World War I.  After the October Revolution, he reappears as “Strelnikov” (“The Shooter”) a hated and feared commissar in the new regime. Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago in 1957, and the Soviet Union refused to allow its publication.  It was published in Italy in 1958, translated into Russian by the American CIA, who used the book as anti-communist propaganda.  Pasternak also was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, so never let it be said that the Nobels don’t have their political side.

But before the October Revolution which sent so many writers and intellectuals (although not Pasternak) to fleeing their country, before World War I exhaled the last gasping breath of the czar’s regime, Pasternak was the son of a Jewish painter at the Moscow School of Painting. His mother was a pianist and their home was a place of literary and artistic congress, a gathering place for the great writers and intelligentsia.  On a summer day in 1900, when Pasternak was only ten years old, one such couple arrived for a visit. The man was short, dark, nervous and wore a large cape with a rather affected air. The woman was tall, composed, beautiful, and intimidating.  They were Rainer Maria Rilke and his mistress, Lou Andreas-Salomé.

letters_summerThe heirs to history can only speculate about things like fate. Pasternak’s meeting with Rilke was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Rilke’s death over twenty-five years later. In the summer of 1926, while Pasternak was in Moscow struggling to be a poet under the Bolshevik regime, he wrote to Rilke, who was then struggling to be a poet in Berlin (and suffering from leukemia).  He wrote ostensibly to say “Happy Birthday”, but the letter is a veiled plea. Revolution had “. . .caught all of us up…cut off from Europe and the world of culture in the nightmarish conditions of our Russian life.”  Pasternak tells Rilke that his poetry has become “cherished” by them.  This letter set off a series of correspondence between the dying Rilke, the persecuted Pasternak, and the exiled Maria Tsvetayeva, then living in France.  The exchange, collected in a volume with the unassuming title of Letters: Summer 1926, portrays a brief but intense discussion of the role of poetry and the poet in an era torn asunder by war and revolution. “It is the poet who matters” writes Tsvetayeva to both Rilke and Pasternak “not the martyr.”  Rilke took this philosophy and wrote The Duino Elelgies.  Pasternak took it and wrote Doctor Zhivago.

It might be argued that Pasternak would not have become Pasternak if he had never met Rilke. But Rilke would not have come to Russia if it weren’t for that tall, mysterious and intimidating woman at his side—Lou Andreas-Salomé.

51YuNDTKt0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Men fell in love with Lou. It had been happening all her life. As a young girl in Russia in the late 19th century (her father was a general in the army) she convinced her tutor to teach her French and German philosophers and literature that her father had banned her from reading. The tutor, who was twenty-five years older than her, begged the seventeen year old to marry him, despite the fact he was already married and had two children. Lou was not impressed and soon after convinced her mother to take her south, ostensibly for her health. Lou Salomé eventually ended up in Rome, where her apartment became a salon of sorts for many of the exiled and drifting intellectuals of the era. She continued her studies, met and fell in love with the philosopher Paul Reé, met and fell in love with Reé’s own tutor, an intense young man named Friedrich Nietzsche, and became mistress to them both. Each proposed to her. She said no. In fact, she suggested instead that the three of them live together in a kind of mariage a trois. In the only in depth biography that has ever been written about her, My Sister My Spouse by H.F. Peters, she relates her dream: “[I] dreamt that we were sharing a large apartment. There is a study and a library in the center, filled with books and flowers, and bedrooms on either side. We all lived and worked together in perfect harmony, and it made no difference at all that I was a woman, and you were men.”  Paul Reé was somewhat astounded by the proposal, but allowed himself to become convinced. Madame von Salomé, Lou’s mother, was appalled.

Lou Andreas-Salomé is sometimes accused of being one of those femme fatales who uses her sexuality to devour men. Nietzsche had moments where he felt this, but even he, as self centered and despairing as he was, knew it not to be true. Salomé had no desire to be any man’s muse. She did not want to appear in their paintings or their poetry. She did not want to be known only for warming the beds of artists and writers.  She was an accomplished writer herself, and more concerned with the pursuit of art than the pursuit of love.  (“I was glad,” she once told a friend about Nietzsche, “when he said that he hated all creative work unless it was excellent.”)

The “mariage a trois” as Reé and Nietzsche called it, eventually fell apart. As odd as it sounds, the two men were ultimately too conservative for Lou. They neither one ever abandoned their hopes that she would marry one of them, and hence grew bitter when they were forced to conclude she would never do so. They might have been consoled, however, to know that they had been fortunate. When Lou Salomé finally agreed to marry one of her ardent suitors, it was only with the stipulation that there would be no sex. Her marriage to Carl Friedrich Andreas was completely celibate. Peters’ biography tells us that he was unhappy about this.

Lou met Rilke at a party in the spring of 1897, but although he was a rising young poet (he was twenty-two at the time), she didn’t really notice him.  It wasn’t until he wrote her a letter—a rather intense and overboard letter—on an article of hers he had read that she began to sit up and take notice of this young, effeminate man.  The article was called “Jesus the Jew” and Rilke claimed to find “a devout fellow-feeling walked ahead of me along this solemn path—and then at last it was like a great rejoicing in me to find expressed in such supremely clear words, with the tremendous force of a religious conviction, what my [Visions of Christ] present in dreamlike epics.”

Flattery, it is said, will get you everywhere. That latter started of a correspondence between the two that would blossom into a deep friendship, a deeper lover, and a few passionate weekends.  The passions flared and subsided, but the friendship remained, and grew so deep that, in Rilke’s last few days as he lay dying from leukemia, he refused to see either his wife or his mistress, but he would read Lou’s letters.

9780520229235Rilke has been called the first “modern” poet.  In an age of war, revolution and upheaval, he wrote poetry of the internal life, not outer events.  Diego Rivera painted canvases of worker industry. Tina Modotti took photographs of protest marches. Boris Pasternak wrote books about oppressed intellectuals.  Rilke wrote

But to have been
once, even though only once:
this having been earthly seems lasting, beyond repeal.

All that we
can achieve here, is to recognize ourselves completely
in what can be seen on earth

Duino Elegies (#9)


Modotti and Kahlo worried about reconciling their art and their life. Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé did not draw the distinction. It was the art that was real.

Early in their relationship, Rilke proposed publishing a book of love poems written to Lou. She squashed that idea, and told him to get a grip. She wrote to him about his poetry, his moods, his many despairing moments and manic periods. She identified in him a creature she called “the other one” whose destructiveness was both the energy and the enemy of his art.  (Freud would latter tell her she had identified the subconscious).  She also told Rilke to change his name.  It was Rene, which she thought sounded girly. Lou started calling him “Rainer.” In a very real sense, the Rilke who visited the Pasternaks in 1900 was creation of Lou Andreas-Salomé.

9780393049763There is a lovely collection of the letters between Rilke and Salomé, (Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Correspondence) that, unlike most collections of letters between friends is remarkable for its lack of the little mundane details of life.  The weather is rarely mentioned, and only then to some purpose (“Today it is raining,” writes Rilke in a farewell sentence, “No doubt also on Kufstein and Pushkin.”).  The reader who is curious about the progression of either writer’s outer life will find very little to satisfy him here.  But as a record of their inner lives, it is remarkably complex and captivating:

Rilke to Salomé on August 10, 1903:

“Somehow I too must find a way of making things; not plastic, written things, but realities that arise from the craft itself. Somehow I too must discover the smallest constituent element, the cell of my art, the tangible immaterial means of expressing everything…”

Salomé to Rilke, August 10, 1903:

“[The artist] works day and night on that space within him, so that nothing would pace around in it any longer like a phantom, restless and demanding. . .Perhaps when he succeeds in that he will then create just the one hand of which you speak in your words about Rodin, but “all around it will be pure splendor”; for only then will it be the hand, the hand that exists as if it were all there is.”

When Rilke published The Duino Elegies in 1923, he inscribed a copy with the words “For Lou, who has owned it with me from the first, this now in its ultimate form. Rainer”

It is too much to say that Sonnets to Orpheus, the Duino Elegies, Doctor Zhivago, and even Thus Spake  Zarathustra (written by Neitzche in a fit of despair when he realized Lou would not come back to him) may never have existed without her, one can’t help feel grateful that she was there—to inspire when inspiration was called for, to criticize when inspiration turned to folly, and to love, when love was so desperately needed.