Why Is This Famous?: The Two Fridas
The oversimplification of a feminist icon
In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)
If art historians cringe when faced with a magnet, tote bag, or beer bottle donning Frida Kahlo’s face, it is because they are being confronted by a hard fact: one of history’s most daring female artists is famous, but her artwork is not. Kahlo’s paintings are hardly ever interpreted or explained as works of art. Instead, they are used as illustrations of a romantically tragic life that is, ultimately, largely fabricated by not just Kahlo but the journalists of her day and the biographers of ours. The Two Fridas (1939), probably her most famous work, serves as a window into this problem.
The classic interpretation of the painting comes from MacKinly Helm’s 1939 story on (and interview with) Kahlo, who photographers and journalists knew as the young, beautiful, exotic wife of the eminent painter Diego Rivera. Kahlo painted The Two Fridas the year of her divorce from Rivera (they would rewed the following year). Helms, like many of her contemporaries, knew the relationship to be hotheaded and adulterous (and that Kahlo had been crippled by childhood polio, as well as a gruesome traffic accident as a teenager). The interpretation resulting from Helm’s story sees the painting as a sorrowful self portrait of the “European Frida” Rivera rejected (on the left in Victorian European clothing), and the “Mexican Frida” Rivera adored (on the right in a traditional Tehuana dress)—both sharing blood and heartbreak.
Kahlo met Rivera, a staunch Mexican nationalist, when she joined the Mexican Communist Party just after the Mexican Revolution. About half his age, she married the incredibly famous muralist the following year and embarked on a life of paparazzi and attention from the trend-setting elites in the U.S. She quickly became a style icon. Although she was acknowledged as a painter, her first solo show in New York City was not covered by serious art publications or reviewers, but instead by Vogue and Vanity Fair; these articles barely mentioned her actual paintings. Persistently self-critical, Kahlo fed this view of her, offering in a 1938 interview, “I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other considerations.” Quotes like this play into today’s “Fridamania,” propagating the idea that the potency of her art relies on a sort of carnality. It also aids her revival narrative: that she once saw herself as a failure, but now she is venerated.
While Kahlo’s personal troubles surely migrate onto her canvases, the idea that her works’ interpretation must singularly be linked to a monolithic, compelling, Hollywood-ready biography is in direct contrast with the common idea that great artistic works speak to larger issues of the human condition and society. Kahlo’s work did serve that wider function, but this is rarely ever scrutinized. For example, the wall text that accompanies one of her still-life paintings in an American art museum explains her lifelong longing for motherhood (she had long suspected pregnancy would be impossible because of her injuries, and ended up tragically miscarrying). In reality, Kahlo’s letters and diaries show a more complicated relationship to motherhood that reveals a desire to remain childless. They also divulge that she had an abortion shortly before her miscarried pregnancy, and that the miscarriage may have resulted from her disobeying her doctor’s prescription to remain bedridden. The misleading wall text disservices the viewer by demanding an interpretation born out of false narrative and rumor. The Two Fridas similarly suffers. Its interpretation—that it was about her relationship with Rivera—comes from a journalist more interested in celebrity gossip than art; Rivera, of course, was the celebrity.
Kahlo’s work became truly celebrated in the 1970s, just as feminist art historians began to revise the historical exclusion of female artists from the canon. Today, some art historians suspect that in order for feminist art critics of that period to make the case for female art, they had to prove that the artists in question were as biographically interesting as their male counterparts, that they fit just as well into the “tortured artist” stereotype. Kahlo, as well as others, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, serve as prime examples of this practice. Art historians find this problematic; if we never revere female artists for their contributions to art history, they will eventually be written off.
And so what gets left out of interpretations of Kahlo’s work is close visual analysis and historical context. Rather than a split identity seen from the point-of-view of her famous husband, we can view The Two Fridas as the artist grappling with the contrast between her political beliefs and life as an international sensation. Half German, half Mexican, Kahlo was loyal to the nationalistic communist movement in Mexico, embracing traditional Mexican style (as well as her own facial hair). She painted small-scale images on metal to emulate the small devotional paintings sold on her country’s streets. But her life with Rivera was Eurocentric; she frequently traveled to the U.S. and Europe, and was embraced mostly by Western culture. The Two Fridas is her first large-scale work, and was based on two European works she saw in Paris at the Louvre: Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses sœurs (unknown artist, c. 1594) and The Two Sisters (Théodore Chassériau, 1843). The painting’s Western qualities betray her devotion to nationalism; the melancholic nature of The Two Fridas may be attributed to this turmoil.
Allowing a simplified narrative to encapsulate Kahlo’s tragic life doesn’t leave room for a more nuanced understanding of her work. Kahlo’s position as a role model and t-shirt-worthy symbol for radical left politics doesn’t align with the complexity of her life. Although she once fought for Marxist politics, she eventually adored Stalin even after he had killed millions of people (including her former lover Leon Trotsky). Although she rejected beauty standards and pursued queer affairs, she doted on and deferred to Rivera in ways that would make modern feminists cringe. If this complicates her image, it also allows for more intricate interpretations of her work—ones that require looking at it.