Two Fridas is a portrait of love, heart-break and duality. This double self portrait was painted by Frida Kahlo in 1939 as an oil on canvas, shortly after her husband Diego Rivera asked her for a divorce. The original Two Fridas was almost life-sized and was Kahlo's largest painting. Most of Kahlo's work was much smaller as she was often confined to her bed because of ill health. It also achieved the highest fee for a painting during her lifetime as it was purchased for four thousand pesos by the Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1947. They paid an additional thirty six pesos for the frame.
Although Kahlo painted a number of self portraits following her divorce and illustrated her feelings through them, this piece is particularly striking, revealing two sides of her self and her identity. Although a lot of symbology appears within her paintings. Kahlo tended to reject the label "surrealist" as she claimed that she painted her own reality. This picture features the two Fridas, sitting upon a bench holding hands. Dark,stormy clouds dominate the background of the painting and set the mood and the tone. Kahlo's marriage to Rivera, who was also an artist, was known to be stormy and filled with infidelities.
The Frida on the right wears a European style wedding dress whereas the Frida on the left is wearing a traditional and colourful Tehuana skirt and blouse. Frida herself was of mixed heritage. Her father was a German, possibly Jewish, and her mother was Mexican with Spanish and Indian background. Given the approaching events in Europe, it is also an interesting exploration of her dual identity at the time. The European Frida's white bodice is torn open exposing her broken heart. In her hand she holds a surgical tool which has cut the vein and attempts to clamp off the blood which spills down her dress, almost blending into the design at her hem.
This Frida represents the side of her which has been betrayed, rejected and unloved by Diego Rivera. As the viewer's eye follows the vein across the picture it joins the two Frida's together and flows down to a small portrait held in the traditional Frida's hand. This tiny oval portrait is a picture of Diego as a child. Following Kahlo's death, the original portrait was discovered and is now on display in the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico. Although traditional Frida's heart is also exposed and vulnerable, this Frida represents the Frida that Diego loved and that still loved Diego. Kahlo's work often used human anatomy and graphic images.
The family portrait she completed in 1936 uses blood to depict the family ties. Although the heart clearly represents how hurt Kahlo felt, the bleeding heart in Aztec culture was often symbolic of sacrifice. In addition to portraying her dual identity, the choice of clothing is interesting as Diego encouraged Kahlo to wear more traditional, indigenous clothing yet prior to their marriage she wore more Western clothing. A portrait of her in Velvet Dress (1926) illustrates her wearing European clothing. Despite the sadness and loneliness that she felt and portrays, the Two Fridas still appear as strong women. Initially, Kahlo said this painting was inspired by a childhood memory, later she said it portrayed the loneliness and desperation she felt.
According to one of her friends, it may have been inspired by viewing Chasseriau's Two Sisters while she was in Paris for her exhibition. Whatever the inspiration, it is a remarkable painting by a remarkable artist. Frida Kahlo painted The Two Fridas in 1939, the year of her divorce from Diego Rivera after ten years of marriage. Kahlo often made herself the subject of her art, but this is a highly unusual painting - not just a self-portrait, but a double self-portrait, showing her divided self. The painting is full of contradictions, which also suggest mixed feelings and even confusion. Whilst being one of Frida Kahlo's career highlights, you might also want to check out other key works such as The Broken Column, My Birth and Frieda and Diego Rivera.
For instance, is the painting inside or outside? The pose, the regular floorline, and the plaited straw bench suggest an interior, but behind the figures is a stormy sky, clearly suggesting emotional stress. The pose is very formal, like a studio photograph, yet the exposed hearts of the two Fridas and the fact that they are both the same woman - though holding hands like twin sisters - introduce a surreal note to the picture. One Frida wears traditional Mexican costume; the other wears a more modern, European style outfit.
That reflects her status as an artist working between a European art tradition and Mexican traditional culture. While the Frida on the right holds a tiny locket, a traditional accoutrement for a portrait, the other Frida is instead trying to clamp her exposed artery closed before it can spatter more blood on her skirt. Again, two worlds clash - the art portrait with its mannered conventions and raw, bloody symbolism that might reflect Kahlo's own acquaintance with bodily pain and the messiness of surgery, or Aztec human sacrifice (which involved the cutting out of the victim's still beating heart).
The two Fridas are not only linked by their hands and by the formal symmetry of the painting. One huge loop of artery connects the two women's hearts. They are divided in many ways, but they are also identical, connected by their blood. This is a painting that conveys deep emotion, and yet the faces of the two Fridas seem almost blank - another of the contradictions that makes it such a fascinating work of art. It was Frida Kahlo's first truly large scale piece and it remains one of her most intriguing and celebrated images.