Tinsima by Elena Poniatowska, Faber pounds 15.99. Tina Modotti, of whose life this is a fictionalised account, was a photographer who explored the sensuality of lilies 50 years before Mapplethorpe. Madonna bought her Roses for $165,000 - the highest price ever commanded by a print at auction. Like Madonna, Modotti came of impoverished Italian stock and scandalised numerous detractors with her many lovers.

Initially, Modotti was more known as model than artist: she features in many of Diego Rivera's murals (paradoxically, for a woman who couldn't bear children, symbolising fecundity) and in Edward Weston's nudes. The Californian pioneer of Modernism in photography taught her how to operate her heavy Graflex camera; how also to operate her inner eye, first visiting the site, mentally placing and framing each image, only later returning to capture it on film. Modotti's greatest pictures are those which capture the stillness and sensuality fused in her spirit.

Not that Modotti was permitted to enjoy either stillness or homeland for long. Born in 1896 to an Anarchist militant - a machinist by trade - and a seamstress of Udine, she and her numerous siblings came first to Austria and then to the United States, working from the age of 11 as a silk-weaver. She was pulled from amateur Italian dramatics in the Los Angeles of the 1900s into the nascent film industry where her beauty won her excruciating roles and her intelligence kept her sane.

Next came a period of bohemianism and a brief marriage to a North American illustrator, the self-styled "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey. It was he who drew her down to Mexico where, in the wake of the 1910-20 Revolution, radical politics also began to beckon. When Mexico outlawed the Communist Party in 1930, it also expelled Tina - accused (although then acquitted) of complicity in the assassination of her lover, the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, she was too marked a character to tolerate.

There followed peregrinations, usually on Red Aid missions: to a dour and dark Berlin on the eve of the Reichstag's burning; to Moscow where, as a convinced Stalinist, Modotti was nonetheless subjected to a show trial; to the horrific rout of Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War; and finally, after further ports of call in Europe and the Americas, return to a Mexico which Modotti scarcely recognised. Frail from overwork and constant smoking, she suffered a fatal heart attack in a taxi in the middle of the 1942 New Year celebrations, leading the press to speculate that she had been poisoned by her companion, Vittorio Vidali.

Her early professional life (and in particular her long correspondence with Weston) has been previously well-documented, mainly by western biographers. The latter part of her life, as Modotti despaired of artistic survival in a Europe suddenly overcrowded with professional photojournalists, has never received serious attention. Elena Poniatowska, a foremost Mexican novelist and journalist who has previously collaborated closely with other women photographers, is Modotti's ideal biographer. She is also the only one who has bothered to take Modotti's politics, including her defence of Stalinism, seriously and to explore the impact of her life and work.

Poniatowska calls Tinsima a novel, not a biography. And yet it includes far more research and information, much of it based on personal knowledge of first-hand sources (including Vidali and Neruda, who wrote Modotti's poetic epitaph), than the earlier attempts of Margaret Hook and Mildred Constantine. The interviewing skills Poniatowska exhibited in her books Massacre in Mexico and The Voices of the Mexican Earthquake, the imaginative reach of Dear Diego (the fictitious letters of Rivera's Parisian lover) are here combined in a labour of love stretching back over 15 years of continuous research and rewriting. It is the definitive work on the artist.

Yet Tinsima is true to Modotti in more than content. Its form enters her very consciousness, moves back and forth in time, integrating not simply the work and the life, but the beliefs and the loves. As such it transcends its subject and provides one of the most absorbing discourses by any writer on what are arguably the most vital artistic medium and the most influential political system of our century.

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