Paintings You Should Know: ‘The Two Fridas’ by Frida Kahlo (1939)

The Two Fridas, Frida Kahlo, 1939

While Mary Cassatt and Tamara de Lempicka turned their artistic talents to depicting the external reality of women’s lives, Frida Kahlo used them most frequently to express her own internal reality, and particularly her physical and emotional pain.

Kahlo certainly experienced plenty of both. Left with a withered right leg after contracting polio at the age of six, at eighteen she was involved in a serious bus accident which left her with multiple injuries which would cause chronic pain for the rest of her life, including damage to her spinal column and a perforated uterus which prevented her from having children. She was married (twice) to the philandering artist Diego Rivera, and had affairs with both men and women herself.

‘The Two Fridas’ was painted shortly after Rivera and Kahlo divorced in 1939 (they would remarry a year later), and depicts the pain of that separation in vivid detail. Culturally, Frida felt herself to be caught between two worlds: her mother was a Mexican of mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent, while her father was German. Frida felt that her husband valued her ‘Mexican’ self (represented by the Frida in traditional Mexican dress on the right, whose heart is whole, but rejected her German heritage, represented by the Frida on the left in a traditional European wedding dress, whose heart has been torn. The Mexican Frida holds an amulet depicting Diego as a child, perhaps representing the children that she could never bear him. A vein runs from the amulet through both Fridas hearts, severed and imperfectly clamped in the lap of the rejected European Frida, suggesting that both the loved and the unloved woman are bleeding collectively to death. The sky in the background is stormy, and Frida hold her own hand: abandoned by her husband she is her only companion and comfort in the pain.

Frida’s work was rich in symbolism and has been described as both Folk Art and Surrealist, although she rejected the latter description, claiming that her portraits were an accurate depiction of her reality. The Two Fridas is painted in oil on canvas and measures 173.5cm by 173cm. It is held in Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) in Mexico City, Mexico.

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