What the Iconic Painting, “The Two Fridas,” Actually Tells Us About Frida Kahlo

I nev­er paint­ed dreams. I paint­ed my own real­i­ty. —Fri­da Kahlo

You may be for­giv­en for assum­ing you already know every­thing there is to know about Fri­da Kahlo.

The sub­ject of a high pro­file bio-pic, a bilin­gual opera, and numer­ous books for chil­dren and adults, her image is near­ly as ubiq­ui­tous as Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s, though Fri­da exer­cised a great deal of con­trol over hers by paint­ing dozens of unsmil­ing self-por­traits in which her unplucked uni­brow and her tra­di­tion­al Tehua­na garb fea­ture promi­nent­ly.

(Whether she would appre­ci­ate hav­ing her image splashed across show­er cur­tainslight switch cov­ersyoga mats, and t‑shirts is anoth­er mat­ter, and one even a force as for­mi­da­ble as she would be hard pressed to con­trol from beyond the grave. Her imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able coun­te­nance pow­ers every sou­venir stall in Mex­i­co City’s Coyoacán neigh­bor­hood, where Casa Azul, the home in which she both was born and died, attracts some 25,000 vis­i­tors month­ly.)

A recent episode of PBS’ dig­i­tal series The Art Assign­ment, above, exam­ines the dual­i­ty at Frida’s core by using her dou­ble self-por­trait, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), as a jump­ing off place.

Kahlo her­self explained that the tra­di­tion­al­ly dressed fig­ure on the right is the one her just-divorced ex-hus­band, mural­ist Diego Rivera had loved, while the unloved one on the left fails to keep the unteth­ered vein unit­ing them from soil­ing her Vic­to­ri­an wed­ding gown. (The vein, orig­i­nates on the right, ris­ing from a small child­hood por­trait of Rivera, that was among Kahlo’s per­son­al effects when she died.)

It’s an expres­sion of lone­li­ness and yet, the twin-like fig­ures are depict­ed ten­der­ly clasp­ing each other’s hands:

Bereft but com­fort­ed

Frac­tured but intact

Lone­ly but not iso­lat­ed

Bro­ken but beau­ti­ful

Humil­i­at­ed but proud

Kahlo’s bound­aries, it sug­gests, are high­ly per­me­able, in life, as in art, draw­ing from such influ­ences as Bronzi­no, El Gre­co, Modigliani, Sur­re­al­ism, and Catholic iconog­ra­phy in both Euro­pean reli­gious paint­ing and Mex­i­can folk art.

As for the new thing learned, this writer was unaware that when Kahlo mar­ried Riveraher elder by 22 yearsin a 1929 civ­il cer­e­mo­ny, she did so in skirt and blouse bor­rowed from her indige­nous maid… a fact which speaks to the end of her pop­u­lar­i­ty in cer­tain quar­ters.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life and Work of Fri­da Kahlo

Dis­cov­er Fri­da Kahlo’s Wild­ly-Illus­trat­ed Diary: It Chron­i­cled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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