Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Mysterious Assassination of Julio Antonio Mella, January 10, 1929

This post was prompted by my find today of the below cover of Labor Defender.

Julio Antonio Mella, 1928. Photo by Tina Modotti. Labor Defender, February 1929.

Shortly after his assasination, Tina Modotti's 1928 photo of her post-Weston lover Julio Antonio Mella made the February 1929 cover of Labor Defender, the organ for International Labor Defense, a Communist Party led partisan defense organization but, with broad based support and oversight, designed to provide legal assistance for strikers and other workers imprisoned during labor struggles. Pauline Schindler was heavily involved with the ILD alongside Upton Sinclair and her estranged husband's clients, labor attorneys John Packard and Leo Gallagher and labor organizers Abe Plotkin and wife Jean Murray Bangs (later wife of Harwell Hamilton Harris), James Eads How, Job Harriman, parlor provocateur Kate Crane Gartz, Paul-Jordan-Smith and numerous others. (For much more on this see my "The Schindlers and the Westons and the Walt Whitman School"). 

Tina Modotti, 1923. Photo by Edward Weston.

After being expelled from the University of Havana, then arrested and released, Mella fled General Gerardo Machado's repression in Cuba. He escaped to Mexico where he wrote for a number of newspapers: Cuba LibreEl LibertadorTren Blindado ("The Armored Train", a Trotskyist symbol), El Machete and the Boletín del Torcedor which was published in Havana.

Mella's typewriter. Photo by Tina Modotti, 1928.

At the time of his death he was a Cuban marxist revolutionary in Mexico trying to organize the overthrow of the Cuban government of Machado. This cause was an embarrassment to the Cuban Communist Party which was trying to gain power by establishing a modus vivendi with Machado. What further disturbed the Cuban communists was that they felt he had fallen under Leon Trotsky’s influence. Mella was assassinated on January 10, 1929, while walking home late at night with former Edward Weston lover and photography protege, Tina Modotti. 

Edward Weston, Tina on the Azotea, 1924. From Weston's Westons, p. 124. Collection Center for Creative Photography. ©1981 Arizona Board of Regents.

The Mexican government tried to implicate Modotti in the murder, even releasing nude photographs of her by Edward Weston to try and generate public opinion against her (see above for example). 

Tina reading from her personal letters in court, 1929. 

Reconstruction of Mella's assassination with Tina and Diego Rivera, 1929. Enrique Diaz photo.

Muralist Diego Rivera (see above) played a very active role in defending her and exposing the Mexican government's crude attempt to frame her for this crime that the Mexican authorities felt correctly or incorrectly to have involved her. It is unclear whether Mella was murdered by the dictatorial Cuban government, if his death had been brought about by Trotsky-Stalin Communist Party feuding, or by combination of these mutual interests. It is widely speculated that he died by the notoriously bloody hand of Vittorio Vidale (see below).

Vittorio Vidali, 1927. Photo by Tina Modotti.

One of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, Vidali was expelled from the country when Mussolini came into power. He relocated to Moscow and joined the NKVD. He was sent by Comintern to discipline the Mexican Communist Party. Vidali’s interest in Modotti is believed to be related to the killing of her then current lover, Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the Comintern version of the Communist Party of Cuba. 

The famous operative is immortalized in Diego Rivera's mural In the Arsenal (see below). The extreme right of the mural shows Tina Modotti holding a belt of ammunition. Vidali's face, partly hidden, stares suspiciously from under a black hat, as he peers over her shoulder, while Modotti gazes lovingly at Julio Antonio Mella shown with light colored hat. Fellow muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros can also be seen at the far left of the mural. (For much more on Siqueiros and his 1932 Los Angeles murals see my "Richard Neutra and the California Art Club").

Diego Rivera, mural "In the Arsenal" (Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms), 1928, Ministry of Education, Mexico City. Photo by Tina Modotti, 1928. From Tina Modotti & Edward Weston: The Mexico Years by Sarah M. Lowe, Merrell, 2004, p. 32.

Given the closeness of Diego Rivera to the people involved, and the fact that the painting is said to slightly predate the murder, some consider it to be evidence of Vidali's and Rivera's involvement in Mella's assassination, also related to Rivera's subsequent expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party. Vidali is believed to have used the revolver he commonly carried to murder Mella, rather than the M1911 pistol that Modotti kept in her house. The assassination took place in Mexico City one month after Mella was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party for association with Trotskyists. Mella had rejoined the party just prior to his death, although this circumstance, like much else related to Vidal, is murky. Vidali's rivalry for Tina Modotti's affections may have been partial motive for the murder.

Tina speaking at Mella's memorial ceremony, 1929. Enrique Diaz photo.

The Mella assassination illustrates the complexity of the issues, and demonstrates Vidali and his superiors' skills at obfuscation and covering tracks. The police investigators were given conflicting eyewitness reports. In one version, Mella and Modotti were walking alone, whereas another stated that Vidali was walking together with the two. Since Mella's wounds were from point-blank range, neither Modotti nor Vidali were injured, and, as Modotti had given a false name to the investigators, the police were suspicious of her alibi, she was arrested, but released soon after. 

The official position of the present Cuban government is still that Mella was killed on Machado's orders, but it too admits that Tina Modotti was a Stalinist operative in a number of countries. Yet even in Cuba there are those who seem to believe that Vidali was responsible. How Machado’s men could have operated alone and independently in the highly politicized environment of Mexico City is not explained. 

(Author's note: Vidali and Modotti traveled to Moscow together on Communist Party business in 1931. Coincidentally, Schindler friend Leo Gallagher, the ILD's lead attorney in Los Angeles, also traveled to Moscow in 1931 with Schindler-Neutra architectural patron Philip Lovell the same time Tina and Vidali were there and likely made a connection. This is evidenced by a 1942 pamphlet in Spanish on the death of Modotti that resides in Gallagher's papers at the University of Kansas).

Much of this post was gleaned from Wikipedia and many of the images were scanned from Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary where a much more detailed account can be found.

For much more on the relationship of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti see my "Edward Weston Remembers Tina Modotti, January 1942."