Nick Hackworth

Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, Barbican

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Tina Modotti and Edward Weston

The Barbican Art Gallery has emerged from an 11-month closure with subtle transformations.
The purpose-built humidity and temperature control system has enabled the loan of fragile vintage prints for the inaugural exhibition in the upper gallery.

This intriguing combination of works by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti during their shared Mexico City years (late Twenties to late Thirties), reveals two very different approaches to the same surroundings: his realist's accuracy and fascination with the characters and always the erotic potential around him; her artist's eye, which eventually became politically directed.

The show follows their brief love story during the period they described themselves as "Modernists".
Given the context is Mexico, the photographs are surprisingly muted. Frida Kahlo's Technicolor palette makes us expect explosions of colour, but of course photographers weren't yet blessed with that possibility, and Modotti and Weston were committed to exploring the spectrum between black and white, and the manipulation of light, shade and tone. Some of Weston's early portraits are as delicate as etchings.

Newly widowed, Modotti had arrived as the older man's assistant, and became his student - and lover (a 1921 portrait of her curled-up nude, radiates a tender calm).

At first, Modotti captured the abstract in ordinary situations, and they both experimented in shots of the same circus tent, cactus or stone steps. Hers reveal a fashionable angular modernism, his are beautifully precise.

Mexico clearly charged his imagination, and eventually made possible the irritating series of erotically entwined vegetables.

Modotti's still-life experiments included the iconic Roses (1924), and the palpably erotic Calla Lily (which points to Mapplethorpe).

Weston's nudes of his lover on a patterned rug reveal meticulous manipulation of light - and her body - into shapes; a century of nude photography doesn't diminish their power.
But the most powerful pictures in the show are Modotti's documentaries of life of the working Mexican people.

When politics guided her eye to gnarled hands and feet, people asleep in the street, and a woman carrying a flag, the poignancy never overwhelmed her artistry - as shown in the pattern of sombreros seen from above during a worker's parade.

Opens tomorrow and runs until 1 August. Information: 0845 120 7550.