Tina Modotti, photographs and various documents related to Modotti’s political activities
Tina Modotti (Udine, Italia, 1896 – Mexico City, 1942)
Many of the stories surrounding Tina Modotti, photographer and agent of the Communist Party, have been based on the letters she exchanged with Edward Weston and on newspaper articles. Modotti first became a public figure when she was linked, in 1929, to the murder of Julio Antonio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party. She would later be absolved of this crime when suspicion fell on the Cuban government of the time and on Communist agents from Moscow. Some of those who have written her story have done so slanting it to clear one’s own name, as did Vittorio Vidali, Modotti’s last partner, who lived in Mexico at the end of the 1920’s and worked for different agencies of the Soviet Communist Party. It was he who accompanied Modotti on the boat that took her to Europe after being implicated in the attempted murder of President Elect Pascual Ortiz Rubio in 1930, for which she was expelled from Mexico. Modotti settled briefly in Berlin and, following Vidali’s advice, moved to Moscow in 1931. There she gave up photography in order to pursue her activities as an International Red Aid agent, a Soviet organization that supported persecuted or jailed communists around the world. With Vidali, and under the name “Maria,” she also participated on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War as a Soviet envoy. Modotti returned to Mexico in 1939 under a false name. Local newspapers mentioned her again in 1942 when she was found dead of a heart attack while in a taxi, a natural death that has been widely questioned.
Harun Farocki, Respite, 2007 (left) - Han Van Meegeren, Christus en de overspeligevrouw (right)
Harun Farocki, Respite, 2007
Harun Farocki, (born in Neutitschein, in the Czechoslovakian territory annexed by Germany in 1944.)
Respite consists of a silent black and white movie that was filmed in Westerbock, originally a Jewish refugee camp established in 1939 in Holland that was turned after the Nazi occupation of 1942 into a “transit camp” where prisoners where sent to concentration camps all over Europe. In 1944 the camp’s director commissioned the imprisoned photographer Rudolph Breslauer to film a movie that would document daily life in the camp. The movie inscribes itself in the genre of corporate movies shot to enhance the images of economic efficiency and harmonious work. Harun Farocki recovers and re edits part of this material, contra positioning it with the images of concentration camps that are now anchored in the collective imaginary in order to speculate about the objectives underlying this particular documentary. Convincing German authorities to keep the camp open? Or manipulating the facts to display a positive image for the advancing allied troops to see?
Han Van Meegeren, Interieur met paar aan clavecimbel (left) – Christ with the Adultress (1930-1944) (right). Documents related to Van Meegeren’s trial (vitrine)
Han Van Meegeren, (Deventer, 1889 – Amsterdam, 1947)
Upon not achieving recognition for his own artistic work, the painter Han Van Meegeren chose to forge and sell paintings by great Dutch masters of the seventeenth century in order to silently devote himself to his talent. In 1932 he painted Man and Woman at a Spinet, a work similar to the compositions and themes of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), which was claimed by art historian Abraham Bredius to be one of Vermeer’s greatest works, and for which Van Meegeren charged a great sum. In spite of the fact that with this work Van Meegeren perfected the baked Bakelite technique that simulated with great precision the aging surface, the painting raised suspicion among specialists and wasn’t considered a masterpiece. Therefore, the painter reassessed his strategy and decided to create a series of paintings that would fill a void in the religious period specialists maintained existed in Vermeer’s work. Among others, he painted Christ with the Adultress (1930-1944), which he sold, at the beginning of the Second World War, to Herman Goering, a high ranking officer of the German Nazi army and a compulsive art collector. In 1945, not long after the end of the Great War, Han Van Meegeren was accused of looting Dutch cultural heritage in order to benefit Nazi officers when Christ with the Adultress, attributed to Vermeer, was found in Herman Goering’s possession. Faced with the possibility of the death penalty, Van Meegeren confessed to having forged that painting and many more. During the trial, in view of the disbelief that he could create a Vermeer, he painted a new piece which absolved him of the accusation of being a Nazi collaborator. He was, however, charged with forgery and fraud.
Domingo Malagón Alea, View of Prague, Charles’ Bridge (left) and forged documents (vitrine) – Simon Starling, Musselled Moore (right)
Domingo Malagón Alea, Forged French identity document, 1959
Domingo Malagón Alea,(Madrid, 1916. Lives in Madrid)
"Look at how things have turned out, when after enduring more than a few hardships, I could have been a successful artist, if by success we understand public recognition and general applause. In the end, I don’t know if I have truly become an artist, but of course I do know that besides other technical considerations, the success of my production came about because of my ability to maintain the greatest possible discretion." Sixteen days, 14 hours a day is the time it took Domingo Malagón Alea to create one of the false documents that would allow members of the clandestine Spanish Communist Party to live and travel in defence of their cause. From 1939 to 1975, the years that Francisco Franco governed Spain, Malagón Alea carried out this labour in a secret room in an apartment in Paris. Hoping that once the dictator was overthrown he would be able to take up his career as a painter again (which he had interrupted at the outbreak of the war), the artist painted small landscapes of the places he had visited on his various missions. Malagón Alea’s art does not only centers on these paintings, which he longed to paint again in a larger format when he would be able emerge from underground and return to Spain, but also on the safe-conducts, work permits, passports, stamps, and seals that he copied by hand—including watermarks and paper marks—and creating forgeries that are less imperfect than the originals.
The Museum of American Art (MoAA), Dorothy Miller American Painting
(The MoAA is a project based in Berlin)
The Museum of American Art (MoAA) in Berlin is an educational institution dedicated to assembling, preserving and exhibiting memories of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its circulating exhibitions in Europe during the 1950’s. From the beginning, MoMA was locally perceived as being almost entirely pro-European and indifferent towards American art. To deflect this criticism the museum organized a series of exhibitions of contemporary American art, curated by Dorothy Miller. These exhibitions, which began with 14 Americans (1946), first introduced Gorky, Motherwell, Pollock, Gottlieb, Rothko, Kline and de Kooning into the museum context. These artists constituted the most attractive and radical segment of the works introduced to the European public in the early 1950’s by the International Program of Circulating Exhibitions, established by the MoMA, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation with the aim of “promoting greater international understanding and mutual respect”. Those were strange years in art and politics. On the one hand Modern Art had to be defended from the criticism from the right (see Alfred Barr Jr., MoMA’s Director from 1929 to 1943, “Is Modern Art Communistic?”). On the other, it became apparent, especially to people like George Kennan (North American diplomat, political scientist, and historian, known as “the father of containment” during the Cold War), that American Modern Art could be used in the “cultural Cold War” as an expression of Western creativity and freedom. Nevertheless, these circulating exhibitions helped establishing the first Post- War common European cultural identity based on Modernism (abstract art), Internationalism and individualism, finally establishing Alfred Barr Jr.’s narrative—constructed in the mid 30’s, as defined through his famous diagram and later through the MoMA permanent exhibit— as the dominant history of Modern Art until today.
Nedko Solakov, Top Secret, 1990
Nedko Solakov (Cherven Briag, Bulgaria, 1957. Lives and works in Bulgaria.)
Top Secret, created between December 1989 and February 1990, consists of an index box, filled with a series of cards detailing Nedko Solakov’s youthful collaboration with the Bulgarian state security, which he stopped in 1983. In Bulgaria, twenty one years after the changeover, the official files remain closed, and there are no publicly known documents on the artist’s collaboration. The work caused great controversy when it was first exhibited in the spring of 1990, at the height of the political changes to the long-standing Communist rule. The self-disclosing gesture in this artistic project is still unique in the context of post- Communist Europe, and since its appearance Top Secret has become an icon of its time. The forty-minute long video, which shows the artist rereading the index box’s contents, was shot in his studio in Sofia in 2007.
Simon Starling, Project for a Temporary Public Sculpture, 2009
Simon Starling, (Epsom, UK, 1967. Lives and works in Berlin and Glasgow.)
Sculptor Henri Moore and British spy Anthony Blunt are among the protagonists of a recent body of work by Simon Starling. Project for a Temporary Public Sculpture (Hiroshima) balances the weight of three half-sized replicas of Moore’s sculptures: Atom Piece, Fallen Warrior and Three Piece Reclining Figure no.2: Bridge Prop. As an early public sponsor for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Moore ambivalently accepted commissions like Nuclear Energy (1964-66) which commemorates Enrico Fermi’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction (Chicago, 1942). From it, he created the smaller working model edition titled Atom Piece. The Hiroshima Museum acquired one in 1987 and displayed it until 1991 when the Japanese Hydrogen Bomb Survivors Committee objected to the fact that it was a miniature of the celebratory Chicago monument, being incongruous with the tragic history of the city’s 1945 nuclear bombings by the US. The other two sculptures, Fallen Warrior and Three Piece Reclining Figure no.2: Bridge Prop, were sold by Moore to New York businessman Joseph Hirshhorn who made his fortune by selling uranium and oil during the frenetic activities of the atomic energy commission and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. A big collector of Moore’s work, Hirshhorn donated much of his collection to the US government, whose Smithsonian Institute then established the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1966. Also included in the show are some preparatory sketches for a script that uses the traditions of the European masquerade and Japanese Noh theatre, and conflates a number of interrelated stories and characters, in an attempt to look behind Moore’s “Nuclear Energy / Atom Piece sculpture” (the latter being a smaller working model derived from the former). The script is a piece about double identities–a sculpture that was a monument to the beginnings of nuclear energy in one place (Chicago) and a memorial to the bomb in another (Hiroshima); an art historian who was also a spy, a Cold War villain, Auric Goldfinger, named after a real life architect, Erno Goldfiinger; a sculpture that was at once a reference to an elephant skull and a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament poster of a human skull and a mushroom cloud, and many other double lives besides…
Melvin Moti, No Show, 2004
Melvin Moti, (Rotterdam, Holland, 1977, Lives and works in Holland)
During World War II the Nazis conceived a master plan designed to systematically loot artistic works from all over Europe. These were plundered from museums, collectors’ houses (mainly Jewish) and then sent to Germany where they were to engross the European art museums that Hitler intended to build. With the Wehrmacht’s entrance into Russia in 1941, the Hermitage’s works were evacuated through railways to Sverdlovsk in the Urals. In No Show (2004), Melvin Moti recreates the guided visit of San Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum held by Pavel Gubchevsky for Red Army soldiers in 1943. Through his own narration Gubchevsky evoked the grandeur of the museum and its masterpieces. The gesture displayed a scenario in which spoils of war became the plot’s protagonist and the ideological value of every nation’s heritage was brought to light.
Hito Steyerl, November, 2004
(Munich, 1966. Lives and works in Berlin.)
November deals with what was once known as Internationalism but is nowadays considered terrorism. The video is centered on the figure of Andrea Wolf, a friend of the artist who participated in her first movie (a feminist martial arts feature) and who later became an active member of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) women’s army. Even when November’s starting point is a fiction now represented as a document, it is not a documentary about Wolf or the situation in the Kurdistan. It deals with the responsibility that accompanies both recuperating such libertarian gestures and postures and valuating the way in which these are employed, reflected and often manipulated by popular culture –particularly cinema-through the circulation of images.
Jill Magid, Becoming Tarden, 2009
Jill Magid (Bridgeport, USA, 1973. Lives and works in New York.)
“The secret itself is much more beautiful than its revelation.” Becoming Tarden In 204, artist Jill Magid was commissioned by the Dutch secret service (AIVD) to create a piece that would reveal the “human face” of the institution. During the next three years she met with 18 spies who volunteered to be interviewed, but remained anonymous even to her. The project resulted in a variety of forms, among them a novel called Becoming Tarden—Tarden being a character in Jerzy Kosinski’s book Cockpit, an agent (a “hummingbird”) whose real identity is kept from other agents and is often disguised as a cultural official, a business man, an artist or writer. Up to forty percent of Magid’s manuscript was censored by the AIVD, as they felt the identities of their agents were being exposed. After negotiations with the organization, she agreed to let them seize the body of the novel after being exposed—under glass and out of reach—at Tate Modern in London. She kept for her self only the Epilogue and Prologue.
Francis Alÿs’s participation at Emergency Biennial in Chechnya. February, 2005
Francis Alÿs, (Belgium, 1959. Lives and works in Mexico )
When, in 2005, Francis Alÿs sent to Chechnya a piece of embroidery by Alighiero Boetti which he had obtained from a private collector in exchange for a drawing of his own, the artist thought that Boetti “might have been pleased to see a work of his return to the land his ancestor fought for three centuries ago.” Alÿs was referring to Giovanni Battista Boetti, a self-styled prophet who went by the name of Mansour, and led the Chechnyan resistance against the imperial expansion instigated by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. Alÿs’s gesture raises the question of how a work finds its proper place once the artist puts it into circulation, since there is nothing to guarantee that the Boetti piece will remain in Chechnya and become part of its artistic legacy. Furthermore, by focusing on the circulation of cultural values, Alÿs’s action leads us to reflect on how an artwork is dislocated and relocated until it safely reaches a destination. Since there is not a lot of evidence as to Alÿs’s act, nor to the current whereabouts of the piece, this seems to suggest that the creation of a flow of information and the conditions for its intended journey may be more significant than its ultimate destination.
A Place Out of History
Museo Tamayo, Mexico City
September 25, 2010-March 6, 2011
A group exhibition featuring artworks by Francis Alÿs, Harun Farocki, Jill Magid, Domingo Malagón Alea, Tina Modotti, Melvin Moti, The Museum of American art (MoAA), Nedko Solakov, Simon Starling, Hito Steyerl and Han Van Meegeren.
Curated by Magalí Arriola in collaboration with Magnolia de la Garza.
In 1939, Carmen Ruiz Sánchez, formerly known as Tina Modotti, disembarked at the port of Veracruz. As a final gesture, the actress-turned-photographer abandoned her spot behind the camera, alleging other kinds of political priorities.
On October 29, 1947, Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren was tried for collaborating with the Nazis—a crime that was punishable by death in Post-War Netherlands—and sentenced to a year in prison for forgery.
In 1979, Sir Anthony Blunt, a member of the British intelligence service, and respected art historian was revealed to be the fourth man in the “Cambridge Five” — a group of spies that worked for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In the spring of 1990, amid all the political changes brought about by the fall of the Communist regime, Nedko Solakov exhibited his work Top Secret, a kind of public confession detailing his collaboration with the Bulgarian Secret Police.
In 1998, Andrea Wolf (alias Sehît Ronahî), a friend of Hito Steyerl’s who starred in one of her early films, was killed in action as she fought for the Kurdistan liberation movement.
Between 2005 and 2008, the artist Jill Magid interviewed several undercover agents from the Dutch secret service, after receiving an invitation from that country’s Security and Intelligence Service to create a work of art that would give the agency a human face.
On January 25, 2009, Milo Rau asked a certain Walter Benjamin, the selfproclaimed official spokesperson of the Museum of American Art, “If there is a place out of History (even if it is just the history of Art), what kind of stories are told there?”
A Place Out of History emerges as a kind of platform or stage set where there converge a whole series of stories in which false identities, secret agendas, official versions and half-baked truths all played an active role—though almost always from behind the scenes—in the definition of specific political scenarios and movements. The exhibition explores the exploits, mishaps and setbacks in the life and work of legendary figures, covert individuals and key institutions in art history, including Tina Modotti, Domingo Malagón Alea, Anthony Blunt, Han Van Meegeren, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
The undercover operations and hidden agendas in which our characters participated draw on concepts such as identity and authorship, authenticity and forgery, infamy and glory. They spotlight the convergences and discrepancies between art practice and political acts, as a tool for activism and resistance, as well as for the instrumentalization of a history that at times seems to have been written in advance, the narrative reconstructions and mediatic restitutions of which have blurred the lines dividing the inside and outside, and also dividing fiction and reality.
This dialogue among contemporary artists, historic pieces and archival documents falls into a line of research that questions the neutrality and autonomy of artistic expressions, as well as art history’s constructive strategies and forms of enunciation —and, one should add, those of the curatorial practice and discourse as a reconnaissance tool which contributes to the writing of a historic moment.