The Two Fridas: Culture, Politics and Identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo

(Recap) During Frida Kahlo’s lifetime she created around 200 paintings, drawings and sketches related to her life experience as well as her physical and emotional pain she went through during her turbulent relationship with Diego. She produced 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. Frida’s paintings are influenced by her suffering a tragic accident at the age of 18 that changes her life forever.

The Two Fridas also known as Las Dos Fridas was made in 1939. The image shows Kahlo’s struggle she had with identity and shows the hearts exposed of both sides of her. She shows she has an undamaged heart because she is loved by Diego. On the other hand the other Frida has a bloody heart, which represents the side that side that Diego could never love. Therefore the painting shows a lot of emotion and struggle with her two heritages.

The writer of Culture, Politics and Identity Janice Helland gives credit to Kahlo for her self-portraits reflecting on her personal life and emotions but also as they relate to Mexican politics and culture. Kahlo utilized Mexican indigenista iconography to relate both a personal and political output in her paintings. Many of her paintings analyse her social affairs or personal health and are still relevant to Mexican nationalism and political views. In this reading I also feel that Diego Rivera has overshadowed just how powerful Frida Kahlo’s painting really stand in the social, cultural and political grounds of Mexico.

After returning home from an exhibit in paris, Kahlo divorced Diego Rivera. This painting illustrates a literal split between her two selves is from this period of turmoil and self-doubt. On the right of the painting is the Mexican Frida in traditional clothing. Whilst on the left there is an image of a European Frida in a colonial white dress which I think is intended to be a wedding garb (as its similar to her mothers wedding dress in “Family Tree”). In this image the two women are sitting on a green bench holding hands. The anotomy of their hearts is superimposed on them both; the European self is seen through a hole in her dress at the breast. A blood line originates at the cameo of Diego as a child held by the Frida on the right. This twines between them both and is ultimately terminated by a medical implement held by Frida on the left, whilst blood stains with red flowers intermingle at the hem of the dress. The clouds and look on the two Frida’s faces are juxtaposed with the graphic medical imagery to illustrate her internal conflict. The blood also shows us her pain she went through during all her miscarriages and abortions.

Kahlo’s work often refers to powerful mythologies of Mexican identity; the Tehuana woman represented for Kahlo a new positive future of a postcolonial state. The political message of this painting suggests that through adopting an anti-colonial position, a healing of the pains of the past can take place. In the analogy of self and nation, Kahlo characterises her own emotional and physical problems as symptomatic of the post-colonial condition. Thus the European-style wedding gown and the Tehuana dress of the ‘The Two Fridas’ reflect ideological positions as much as the historical realities of Mexico’s past. The famous painting is currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Frida Kahlo lived in a society that allowed her to aspire to be a listening wife and ideal mother. She used her weak points, her realization in life to gather more strength and stand up from every fall and produce one of the most valuable feminist paintings I have ever seen.

Colour was used to provide distinction between the two Fridas. The historical context helped in unveiling the semiotics lying within the artwork. The premises of art were all inscribed in a circle of real-life experiences, stating that this artwork is the outcome of the feelings evoked by an unfortunate women who only dreamed of becoming a wonderful person in her lifetime – which she achieved on her death. Frida Kahlo herself is considered by many as a symbol of strong will, headship and rough individuality.

Kahlo and the Public Sphere 

Diego Rivera sought to display his politics in the public sphere, in contrast Kahlo explored her political sympathies in much more private, intimate ways. A prime example of this is the Soviet hammer and sickle she painted over her heart on the plaster cast that she was forced to wear after one of the numerous surgeries she underwent during the course of her life. Frida’s personal life and professional career contrast starkly with those of her husband. While he received formal education and international acclaim, she taught herself to paint and remained largely unknown outside of her circle of friends until after her death.

The couple’s struggle to redefine their political and private lives and is shown through their exhibition “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting”. One gains a sense not only of Kahlo and Rivera’s respective artistic oeuvres, but of their lives, together and apart.

In public Kahlo played the role of the devoted wife and the suffering martyr, but in reality she was not the typical suffering Mexican woman. She often expressed her autonomy for societal double standards in her self-portraits.

 In “A Few Small Nips” she expressed her outrage at the imbalance in gender politics but also “because she felt murdered by life” as well as various other quotes about life and how lonely she was etc. To express her pain regarding their divorce she painted herself hairless and wearing a man’s jacket in “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair”.

Kahlo’s work is intensely autobiographical and can be seen as her own patriotic metaphor. Her work was able to transcend the personal to have political and national relevance. Frida held her self up, both in her art and her life as the ideal Mexican. She was politically active right up until her death in 1954. At home she surrounded herself with an an ever growing collection of Pre-Columbian folk art and indigenous crafts. Frida wrote her own role as the proto-typical Mexican and played it meticulously. Kahlo meant for her art and her life to serve as the example that her “split-personality syndrome” homeland desperately needed. In exploring and attempting to heal her own schism between worlds with her paintings, she helped Mexico to heal its own.

Kahlo presents herself as monstrous. I argue that it is through this element of monstrosity that Kahlo resists the patriarchal order by opposing the standards of classical beauty and ideal femininity. In so doing Kahlo steps out of the private sphere of the female artist and into the public, masculine sphere and creates an allegory of the Mexican nation that mirrors her own identity crisis and pain. She unapologetically addresses the pains of the country’s horrific past in a radically different manner than the idealized murals of her famous husband, Diego Rivera. She reconciles the duality of her heritage and the violent national past with the confused present to create communion between herself and all of Mexico.




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