TINA MODOTTI was the Muse incarnate. In the course of her life, she met and was the guiding spirit to a series of painters, poets, writers, and one of history's most renowned photographers. Her beauty, intelligence, and intensity are legendary, and held suitors of all description in thrall.
No doubt this is one reason Modotti has not been taken quite seriously enough for the gifted photographer she also was. Not seriously, particularly in the United States, where the standard histories of photography, when they mention her at all, describe her predominantly as the model and lover of Edward Weston, that most Promethean of American photographers.
Now, some 53 years after her death, Modotti the artist has emerged from the shadow of Modotti the siren-muse. Setting the record straight is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose current exhibition, "Tina Modotti: Photographs," is the most complete retrospective of her work ever presented.
The show, funded in part by pop singer Madonna, does long-overdue justice to Modotti's brief but remarkable photographic career, and reveals a woman as passionate and poetic in her art as she was in her life.
Of the 100-plus images on exhibit, nearly all were taken in the 1920s, during an extraordinary period of creativity Modotti experienced while living in Mexico.
Born in Italy and naturalized as an American citizen, Modotti and other free-thinking West Coast artists found in 1920s Mexico what the writers of Hemingway's "Lost Generation" did in Paris - an escape from what they saw as stifling artistic provincialism in the US. The Mexican peninsula, gripped in the heat of revolution throughout the '20s, offered the added attraction of possible political adventurism.
In this atmosphere of art and politics, Modotti found her own creative voice. Before moving to Mexico from Los Angeles in 1923, she had pursued a lukewarm theatrical and film career in San Francisco and Hollywood. Married to painter and illustrator Robo de Richey, she traveled easily in California's demimonde of artists and radicals, where she was known to be both cultivated and unconventional. In 1921, she began posing for Weston, at the time a successful studio portraitist with artistic aspirations.
Weston is one of the founders of modernist photography, a technically polished, emotionally detached style of pure design and aggressive objectivity. It is impossible to overestimate Weston's influence on photography in America, or, at the outset, on Modotti, for when they met she had never worked with a camera.
In her mid-20s, however, it was Modotti who was the established artist, a fact that attracted Weston to her. The two quickly began an affair, and in 1923, after the death of her husband, moved together to Mexico.
There they set up a portrait studio, which Modotti supervised in return for photography lessons from Weston. This apprenticeship contributed to the look of Modotti's early work, which leaned heavily on abstracted elements in images of stairways, goblets, and telephone wires. Her modernist phase was short-lived, however.
Touched by the hardships of life among working classes in Mexico and the country's hybrid of European and native American cultures, her work gradually took a turn toward the political and the poetic.
At the core of Modotti's work is an extraordinary humanity, an intimacy and unguarded soulfulness that renders her images at once vulnerable and magnificent. Regardless of her subject - architecture, plants, people, street scenes, even propaganda she produced later as a committed Communist - Modotti infused her art with empathy and engagement in the world.
Her studies of the archways and passages of a convent are luminous with the presence of the faithful, while a series of flower still lifes ripen with fragility and an almost human pathos. Modotti's portraiture regards its subjects as welcome guests, with respect and affection, while her pictures of peasants and workers neither glorify nor diminish their labor, describing it with all its strain and dignity.
Weston, uncomfortable with the political ferment of Mexico, returned to California by 1925. Modotti, who rebutted her ex-mentor's commitment to "art-for-art's- sake" by telling him, "I put too much art in my life," gave herself to socialist causes, eventually creating images for communist newspapers, journals, and posters.
In 1929, she was with a companion, a popular revolutionary writer named Julio Antonio Mella, when he was assassinated on the street.
The murder drew a glare of publicity to Modotti's lifestyle and politics, and she was deported from Mexico, finally ending up in the Soviet Union.
The incident spelled the end of Modotti's photographic inspiration. She took few pictures of note afterward, finally abandoning photography to work as a propagandist and organizer for Stalin. She eventually returned to Mexico, living there under a false name until less than a year before her death in 1942. She departed unacknowledged for her contribution to photography. On her death certificate, her occupation was listed as "housewife."
* 'Tina Modotti: Photographs' remains in Philadelphia through Nov. 26. It then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Dec. 17 to Feb. 25, 1996), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (March 28 to June 2).