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.
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.