The Art Assignment

S6 E24 | FULL EPISODE

What This Painting Tells Us About Frida Kahlo

The artist Frida Kahlo is a larger-than-life icon, known for the masterful self-portraits she made during her turbulent life (1907 - 1954). We take a close look at her painting The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), and consider what it tells us (and doesn't) about her as a person and her wider body of work.

AIRED: April 03, 2020 | 0:09:26
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TRANSCRIPT

Is this Frida Kahlo? Or is this? Maybe this is the real Frida. Or this.

Actually maybe this is she. This is definitely not she. Neither is this. Nor

this. Or even this, although it's brilliant. While the artist passed away

in 1954, when she was still with us Frida Kahlo propagated her own image in

numerous ways through her distinctive style and commanding presence in front

of the camera, and of course through her artwork, which includes a significant

number of self-portraits. This one she titled Las dos Fridas or The Two

Fridas. It's one of her largest and best-known works, and it gives us a

revealing glimpse into the inner life of Frida the person (or persons). But we're

talking about it because it allows us to see beyond the compelling presence of

Frida the icon, the persona, the legend, and begin to appreciate the singularity,

power, and magic of the actual art she left behind. Let's better know Las Dos

Fridas. The painting depicts two Fridas sitting side by side. The Frida on the

left wears a Victorian-style lace wedding dress, and the Frida on the right

wears a Tehuana ensemble, the traditional dress of Zapotec women in

the Oaxaca area of Mexico. The artist herself had begun to wear clothing in

the style of indigenous peoples of Mexico on her wedding day in 1929, to

famed muralist Diego Rivera. She borrowed from a maid a skirt, blouse, and rebozo

shawl to wear for their ceremony at City Hall in Coyoacán, the borough of

Mexico City where she lived. Diego preferred this style of dress, but

it also served to express her Mexican identity both at home and when traveling

abroad. It also demonstrated her political endorsement of

post-revolutionary Mexico, during a time of widespread effort to cultivate a

sense of national identity following the country's hard-fought independence.

Government-commissioned murals by Rivera and others were part of that,

literally painting the contributions of Mexico's indigenous peoples back into

its history and its present. Before her marriage to Rivera at the age of 22,

Kahlo wore a variety of styles of dress, including upon occasion a men's suit. Her

father was Jewish and born in Germany, her mother Catholic and born in Mexico.

Kahlo's childhood was marked by illness. She contracted polio at the age of six

and emerged with a right leg shorter than her left and a limp.

At eighteen, she was riding a bus when it collided with a tram and left her

severely injured. She spent over a year convalescing, and it was during this time

that she began to paint. Her mother had an easel made that attached to her bed,

and a mirror was installed on the underside of the canopy, allowing her to

see herself as she painted. The artist would be physically impaired, undergo

numerous surgeries, and suffer great pain for the remainder of her life.

Kahlo's sartorial choices not only expressed her identity and ideals, but

also accommodated her disabilities, covering the braces and plaster cast she

often had to wear and distract it from them. Our right hand Frida holds a small

portrait of Rivera as a child, an amulet she had in real life that was among her

belongings when she died. An artery flows from the photograph and entwines

around her arm, connecting to her exposed heart and extending across the canvas

towards the even more exposed heart of our left-handed Frida. This Frida is

trying to stem the flow of blood from the artery with a pair of surgical

forceps, but isn't entirely successful. The blood

loss continues and forms stains that mimic the embroidered red flowers that

decorate her skirt. Kahlo made the painting in 1939, following her divorce

from Rivera, which he had asked for. About the work, she explained the Tehuana

Frida is the one Rivera loved, and the wedding dress Frida the one he no

longer loved. The two would remarry the following year, but their relationship

was extremely volatile for its duration. He had numerous affairs with other women,

including Kahlo's sister Christine. And she in turn had extramarital

relationships of her own with men as well as women.

Kahlo's paintings chart the ups and downs of their relationship, whether

depicting she and Rivera, or gory stories of murder drawn from the news, or

self-portraits exploring her inner life as well as outer life. Still Kahlo and

Rivera both maintained that they were the loves of each other's lives. She

shared in a 1939 interview "Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but

he's a great comrade." The two Fridas are otherwise very much alike. One with

slightly paler skin, but with identical braided hairstyles, similar expressions,

and the close knit eyebrows that Rivera once described as seeming "like the wings

of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes." The

Fridas gaze out to us as they sit on a simple woven bench in a spare desert-

like space. A dramatic stormy sky takes up most of the space behind them,

contributing to a sense of doom and unease, much like the skies of famed painter

El Greco. Kahlo's work fuses elements of many artistic styles from different

times and disparate parts of the world. When she was young she admired the 16th

century portraits of Italian artist Bronzino, made in the Mannerist style

with clearly delineated, elongated forms. Some of her early paintings bear traces

of this style, along with aspects of the work of more recent European painters

like Modigliani. Kahlo's Catholic upbringing surrounded her with the

iconography of the church, and that imagery suffuses her work. She and Rivera

actively collected Mexican art from a variety of traditions, Pre-columbian

objects, folk art, and a large number of retablos, small devotional paintings on

wood or metal that venerate Catholic saints. These were inexpensive paintings

used in home altars that were very much part of life in 19th and 20th century

Mexico. Rivera once referred to Kahlo's paintings as "unconventional retablos

imbued with a monumental realism." But it was Surrealism that Kahlo was

frequently associated with, a label given by the movement's French leader André

Breton. While she never saw herself as a Surrealist, he viewed her as one,

championing her work in Paris and New York and famously referring to her as a

"ribbon around a bomb." The Surrealists were influenced by the work of Sigmund

Freud and sought ways to free themselves from the strictures of the conscious

mind. They experimented with ways to tap their dreams and access subconscious

thoughts. But this came naturally for Kahlo.

It was never something she set out to do. In her work, there is never a clear line

between interior and exterior, conscious and subconscious, real and imagined. She

once explained, "I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality." The Surrealists

did loved the technique of doubling, though. A way to destabilize the self and

present identity as something fractured and in flux. We see double portraits in a

number of moments in art history- a tactic used towards a variety of ends. We

also see it in other works by Kahlo, like in the double self-portrait titled Tree

of Hope, painted after she underwent spinal fusion surgery in 1946. But for

this work, the artist described the two Fridas as being "nothing but a

representation of my loneliness. What I mean to say is, I resorted to myself; I

sought my own help." The two figures are holding hands, after all. Loved and

unloved Frida are distinct entities, but united. The cultures of Europe and

Mexico, as expressed through each Frida's clothing, are

separate but conjoined. While for art historian Hayden Herrera, "the doubling in

this portrait deepens the chill of loneliness," another reading sees these

two Fridas as suffering and fractured, but self-supporting, and despite it all

intact. Their bared hearts relate to the loss of Diego, to be sure, but they are

also a symbol found often in the art and culture of the Aztec peoples, who

referred to themselves as Mexica. In Mexica mythology, the capital city of

Tenochtitlan was founded on the buried heart of Copíl, which was thrown into the

middle of Lake Texcoco and from which grew a prickly pear cactus with an eagle

perched on top. We also know that the Mexica did actually extract the hearts

of captive warriors taken in battle and give them as offerings to their gods.

So there's that, too. But in Mexica art and culture, the heart represented the

life center or as archaeologist and ethnologist Laurette Séjourné put it,

"the place of union where the luminous consciousness is made." But you don't need

to know all of this history for the work to be intelligible. After her death at

the age of 47, following years of declining health, Kahlo remained a

popular and influential figure in Mexico. But she only rose to international fame

and to the fever pitched Fridamania that exists today after her work was

reconsidered and resurrected by feminist scholars in the late 1970s. While Kahlo's

work explores the artist's own highly individual and specific life, lots of the

issues she represented speak to the concerns of many. With unrelenting

honesty, her work records and reveals experiences of pain both physical and

psychological; experiences of fractured identity and the negotiation of

nationality; of miscarriage; of love; of betrayal; of loneliness. We are fascinated

by Kahlo for good reason. It's impossible to separate her remarkable

and tragic life from her work, and she didn't want us to. Her beauty and

resilience can make it hard to fully recognize the complexity and importance

of the artwork that communicates it. But Kahlo stares straight at us and shows

us again and again her persistence and resolve. The scenes around her shift, but

there she remains, serious, steadfast, confrontational. Fragile but also strong.

Of course we love her. Kahlo created her own myth, her own persona. She made

herself into a sacred figure to be venerated, an icon fixed in time.

Not vain, aware. Alive to her transience and multiplicity. She looks at us and we

at her. We acknowledge her, bear witness to her

suffering, and affirm that--for a time--she was indeed here on earth. The real Frida

Kahlo may be gone but The Two Fridas, and the many Fridas, are still here. And

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