The Two Fridas: An Introduction to Frida Kahlo’s Famous Large-Scale Painting (1939)

One can appre­ci­ate the art of Fri­da Kahlo while know­ing noth­ing of the art of her one­time hus­band, the Mex­i­can mural­ist Diego Rivera. But the expe­ri­ence of cer­tain of her paint­ings can be great­ly enriched by some knowl­edge of their rela­tion­ship, the clear­est exam­ple being The Two Fridas, which Kahlo paint­ed in 1939 after their divorce. The largest of her numer­ous self-por­traits, it presents the artist as a set of dop­pel­gängers set apart by their attire: one wears a Euro­pean dress, and the oth­er a tra­di­tion­al Mex­i­can one. The result­ing tableau could, on one lev­el, reflect her dual her­itage; it also, as Kahlo her­self put it, shows “the Fri­da Diego loved, and the one he did­n’t.”

The Two Fridas is the sub­ject of the video essay above from Great Art Explained. “The dark­er-skinned Fri­da on the right is the indige­nous Mex­i­can Fri­da that was adored by her hus­band,” explains its host, gal­lerist James Payne.

“The lighter-skinned Fri­da on the left is the Euro­pean Fri­da that he reject­ed.” Pre­sent­ing her­self in the for­mer fash­ion “sent a clear mes­sage of cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, nation­al­ism, and fem­i­nism” — but it also con­cealed the “bro­ken body” that result­ed from a bus crash in her youth as well as var­i­ous oth­er phys­i­cal dis­or­ders lat­er in life. This por­trait, how­ev­er, expos­es the heart of “Mex­i­can Fri­da” in order to show that it “remains intact, sus­tained by the small por­trait of Diego” in her hand.

The heart of “Euro­pean Fri­da,” how­ev­er, is ren­dered as “dis­con­nect­ed from her beloved Diego,” and it “bleeds pro­fuse­ly onto her dress, a Vic­to­ri­an lace dress sim­i­lar to the one her moth­er wore.” The two Fridas are con­nect­ed through their exposed hearts by a sin­gle artery, one con­nect­ed to the por­trait of Rivera. Payne points out the par­tic­u­lar sym­bol­ic pow­er of a bleed­ing heart, a “fun­da­men­tal sym­bol of Catholi­cism” that “can also be seen as sym­bol­ic of Aztec rit­u­al sac­ri­fice,” in the case of a cul­tur­al­ly con­flict­ed artist such as Kahlo. In ret­ro­spect, The Two Fridas also seems to express the inevitabil­i­ty of Kahlo and River­a’s remar­riage, which would come the fol­low­ing year. They had “one of the most obses­sive and tumul­tuous rela­tion­ships in art his­to­ry,” as Payne puts it, but while both lived, they knew they could­n’t do with­out each oth­er.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Fri­da Kahlo: The Life of an Artist

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

The Inti­ma­cy of Fri­da Kahlo’s Self-Por­traits: A Video Essay

Home Movies of Fri­da Kahlo (and a Side Order of Roman­tic Entan­gle­ments)

Fri­da Kahlo: The Com­plete Paint­ings Col­lects the Painter’s Entire Body of Work in a 600-Page, Large-For­mat Book

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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