One of Frida Kahlo’s most famous works, The Two Fridas encompasses many threads that run throughout her entire oeuvre, from Mexican identity to the female experience and her own personal history. In her signature style, mixing fantasy and symbolism with realist detail, The Two Fridas is an enigmatic composition with enduring significance today. In this article Singulart deciphers the symbols and interpretations of this complex self- portrait.
Who was Frida Kahlo?
Frida Kahlo via fridakahlo.org
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist celebrated for her portraits and self- portraits which explore themes around identity, post-colonialism, nationalism, gender, class and race. Her paintings are characterized by their naive style and strong autobiographical references mixed with fantasy. She was born to a German father and a mother of Spanish and Native American descent. She spent most of her life in her family home, “La Casa Azul”, in Coyoacàn. Disabled by polio as a child, she was also in a crippling car accident at the age of 18, leaving her to suffer from chronic pain and severe health problems throughout her life. It was during her recovery from the car accident that Kahlo turned to painting and came to consider a career as an artist.
In 1927 she joined the Mexican communist party and met the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1928. Over the next few years she traveled around Mexico and the USA with Rivera developing her artistic style. Her paintings caught the eye of the surrealist artist André Breton, who organizsed her first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. The following year she exhibited in Paris and her painting The Frame was bought by the Louvre, making her the first Mexican artist to feature in the collection. Throughout the 1940’s she continued to work and exhibit in Mexico and the USA, creating a total of around 200 paintings over the course of her lifetime. She had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953, shortly before her death the following year. Today her work remains hugely popular as an emblem of Mexican and female identity.
What’s happening in The Two Fridas?
The Two Fridas is one of Kahlo’s most iconic works and her first large- scale oil painting, as she normally painted from her bed which restricted the size of the canvas. Here Kahlo has painted a double self- portrait: two Fridas are seated on a bench holding hands in front of a stormy graey sky. To the left, she is dressed in a white Victorian style dress and to the right she wears a traditional Tehuana dress. The Frida to the right holds a miniature portrait of Diego Rivera and to the left she holds a pair of forceps which cut into a vein, spilling blood onto her white dress. This vein winds around the two Fridas and connects their two hearts which are visible over their clothes. Both the Fridas stare blankly out at the viewer and this lack of emotion makes it hard to discern meanings contained in this self- portrait.
The Two Fridas: Multiple Interpretations
The Two Fridas consequently has multiple interpretations. Painted shortly after her separation from Diego Rivera, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship as they both committed infidelities during their marriage, one possible interpretation is an expression of her anguish at their separation. The presence of Rivera’s portrait in the hands of the Frida to the right, and the missing piece of the left-hand Frida’s heart alludes to Rivera’s rejection of Frida’s European connections due to his strong nationalist beliefs. This duality of her identity is indeed central to the painting which could simply be alluding to her heritage, the European influence of her father and the Mexican influence of her mother. It is said that Frida Kahlo also claimed that the painting references the memory of a childhood imaginary friend, bringing an element of fantasy to the painting that was central to her style.
Frida’s Signature Style & Symbolism
Frida Kahlo is celebrated for her unique, self- taught, naive painting style. She mixes realism with fantasy, and elements of Mexican folklore with influences from European art. The surrealist artist André Breton claimed her as part of the Surrealist movement, however Kahlo rejected the label as she considered her work more politically engaged. Her work can be best categorized within Mexican post-revolution nationalism, which revived folklore and traditional culture. It is also heavily tinged with feminist symbolism, as the female experience is woven into most of her paintings and certainly her self -portraits. The Two Fridas is a key example of Frida’s use of her body as a metaphor to explore the themes surrounding gender. She draws attention to the expectations placed on women by depicting herself with facial hair. The presence of blood is another symbol present in many of her works, often used in reference to mortality and fertility. Kahlo’s defiant depiction of her personal experience as a woman deeply rooted in Mexican culture and politics has made her a universal symbol for the feminist movement and Mexican identity.