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Sunday, 11 July 2010

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) and Edward Weston's Nudes

Though best remembered as Edward Weston’s model, Tina Modotti was a fine 20th century photographer and activist who fought on behalf of Mexican peasants in the 1930s. She was a woman who "chose to identify herself with the arts, with the poor, and with the solidarity of the revolution."

By Alexandra Jopp

In Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life, Mildred Constantine describes Modotti as: “Tina Modotti was many things: a gifted photographer, passionate companion of artists and revolutionaries. Fighter for the cause of humanity, "Maria" (her nom de gnerre) who succored the children and wounded in Spain, the tempestuous beauty of unabashed sensuality. Who was she? Dead, she is a legend poeticized and victimized by conjecture, anecdotes and, where fact is lacking, imaginative embellishments.”

Looking for clues in Modotti’s early life, that might have led to her artistic development, the art critics cite her youthful identification with the class struggle. Following her from childhood as a daughter of a Socialist laborer in Italy, to a textile factory in San Francisco, to her youthful romantic marriage to a poet-painter Roubaix de I'Abrie Richey and to her brief career as a silent- film actress in Hollywood where she was typecast as gypsy and harem girl.

TINA ON THE AZOTEA, WITH KIMONO: Edward Weston’s portrait of fellow photographer Tina Modotti

The amount of Italian-born Tina Modotti’s small but exceptional oeuvre was created in Mexico during a six-year stay from 1923 through 1929. She began photographing under the tutelage of her companion, the quintessential modernist photographer Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958.) She met Weston in Los Angeles in 1921, and according to Weston’s biographer, Ben Maddow, she "soon became his pupil, his model, his admirer, and his mistress, all ... more or less at the same time." Maddow described her effect on Weston: "Tina hit Edward like a tempest; she had about her a magnificence and a nobility no one who knew her could ever after- ward forget." She was deeply influenced by his aesthetic sense of form and purity of vision. Under Weston’s guidance, Modotti soon became a skilful photographer. Her photographs from the mid-1920s of doorways, staircases, telephone lines, wine glasses, and flowers, each a carefully controlled study of tone, shape, and pattern, emphasize formal design and echo Weston's style. She gave to everyday objects "an almost exotic prestige."

Glasses, Mexico 1924.
Calla Lilies, 1924.
Telephone Wires, 1925.
Staircases, 1925.
Roses, 1925.
Weston accompanied Modotti to Tepotzoltan and reported in his Daybooks that she was particularly pleased with this interior view of a church tower.  Of her 1924 abstraction of a church tower in Tepotzotlan, Weston commented: "She is very happy over it and well she may be. I myself would be pleased to have done it." The stucco ceiling seems almost Cubist in its abstraction. Modotti accentuated the ambiguity of the space by using the platinum printing process, which registers an exceptionally broad range of gray tones. The subtle gradations of light and hue that result enhance the transcendental quality of the image. Modotti also made a negative print of this exposure to register forms and shapes in greater clarity, suggesting her interest in the abstract composition of the tower interior.

Interior of Church Tower at Tepotzotlán. 
Deeply immersed in Mexico’s cultural and political life from the beginning of her stay, Modotti became even more involved in revolutionary activities after Weston’s departure in 1926, and was, in fact deported from Mexico in 1930 for Communist activity. "I want to capture the dynamic tension in my photographs," says Modotti. "Politics are screaming from the walls." Scenes of Modotti taking pictures have all the tension and passion of a kid with a point-and-shoot. Same goes for the evolution of Modotti's political views.

She returned to Mexico in 1938, and resumed photographic work, only to die four years later from heart attack.


In 1923, Edward Weston embarked upon a new life in Mexico, leaving California behind him. He set up a portrait studio with his muse, lover and apprentice, photographer, Tina Modotti, who introduced him to such artists as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Simulated by the vital Mexican culture, as well as by his previous contacts with three other great photographers - Sheeler, Stieglitz, and Strand - Weston's soft-focus, painterly style underwent a radical change. "The camera must be used for a recording of life," he wrote in his Daybooks during this period, "for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself." Weston  was stimulated to work with the nude body, because of the infinite combinations of lines which are present with every move. 

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Thomas Moran (1837–1926)

Hudson River School painter famous for landscapes of the American West

By Alexandra Jopp

An Arizona Sunset Near the Grand Canyon (1898).
Thomas Moran was one of the best-known and most influential painters of the Hudson River School working in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. His iconic watercolors and oil paintings of the American West not only made him one of the country’s preeminent landscape artists, but also helped to convince members of Congress to establish the United States’ first national park at Yellowstone in 1872. While he was best known for these works, his subjects also included literary, marine, European and Mexican themes, among others.

Thomas Moran Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, 1859.

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

Golden Gate Thomas Moran No date.

Glorious Venice, 1888
Private collection.

Moran was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, on February 12, 1837. His father, also named Thomas, was a master weaver who worked long hours in the Lancashire textile mills. Dreaming of a better life for his two sons, Thomas and Edward, he saved enough money to bring his family to America in 1844. They settled in a part of Philadelphia known as Kensington.
Moran was educated in the Philadelphia public schools and showed an early inclination toward art. As a youth, he worked as a wood engraver but soon, inspired by his older brother, Edward, an internationally-known marine painter, he began to study art. Edward taught a teenage Thomas the techniques of drawing and painting. Later, Thomas was encouraged and tutored by James Hamilton (1819-78) and other local artists. At the age of 18, Thomas started working more in watercolors, and three years later, he was painting full-time in Edward’s studio. His first solo exhibition of watercolors was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1856. Living in Pennsylvania gave Moran the opportunity to see landscape exhibits by American and British artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; however, there was little opportunity for formal artistic training in the United States.

Thomas Moran, View of Venice, 1888

Hot Springs of Gardiner's River, Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran, watercolor and gouache, 9 3/4 by 14 inches, circa 1874.

Vera Cruz Harbor, 1884 Oil on canvas, 40.64 x 76.20 cm. Private collection.

In the 1850s, many young artists seeking new approaches to landscapes were influenced by the philosophies of the Hudson River School, an important movement in American art with roots in Romanticism. Moran was one such artist, making trips into the country outside of Philadelphia to paint rural scenes. He followed the standard seasonal landscape artist’s schedule, sketching outdoors during the summer and working in the studio in the winter.
In 1861, Thomas and Edward Moran sojourned to London to study the works of J.M.W. Turner, whose atmospheric and luminous effects greatly inspired Thomas.. As a student at London’s Royal Academy, Thomas was enchanted by the works of Turner; his admiration of the Romantic artist’s colors and landscapes would later be manifested in his own works and earn him the title “The American Turner.”

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone II.

Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, 1899
Oil on canvas, 121.92 x 182.88 cm
Private Collection

 Fantastic landscape
Oil on canvas, 51.44 x 46.36 cm
Private collection.

Fantastic landscape
Oil on canvas, 51.44 x 46.36 cm
Private collection
After returning from Europe in 1862, Moran married Mary Nimmo, and the couple moved to Newark, N.J., where they had three children. With his wife, who became an accomplished etcher, Moran played a leading role in popularizing printmaking during the etching revival that peaked in the 1880s.

In 1866, Moran went to Europe again. During a year abroad, he mainly lived in Paris, where he met Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), but also visited Italy, where he studied the works of the great masters. In the spring of 1867, Thomas exhibited his first major work, Children of the Mountain (1867), in the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Moran’s introduction to the American West came in the early 1870s when he traveled to Yellowstone, Wyo., with the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, which was headed by Ferdinand Hayden. In 1873, Moran’s visited the Grand Canyon with John Powell’s government survey, and in 1874, he went with Hayden to see the Mountain of Holy Cross in Eagle County, Colo. These trips formed the foundation for much of the rest of Moran’s career. He produced three major oil paintings that were inspired by his experiences with the surveys: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Chasm of the Colorado (1873-1874) and the Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875).

Although he painted many other subjects, including panoramic images from Europe, Mexico and Long Island, Moran’s depictions of the western United States remain his best-known works and his most important contribution to American art. Robert Allerton Parker wrote that Moran’s “expression has passed into our very culture. Perhaps more than any other American painter of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Moran compelled the American people to appreciate the beauty of its own continent, to look upon its wonders through his eyes, and to save these resources of natural beauty.”1

Zion Valley, South Utah, 1916. Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 107.3 cm
Private collection
Sunset near land’s end, Cornwall, England, 1909. Oil on canvas, 76.20 x 101.60 cm
Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, Spain.

1: Robert Allerton Parker, “The Water-Colors of Thomas Moran,” in Thomas Moran: Explorer in Search of Beauty, ed. Fritiof Fryxell, (East Hampton, N.Y.: East Hampton Free Library, 1958), pp. 82–83.