IDENTITY IN ART: THE TRUTHS WITHIN SELF-PORTRAITS
As told through an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas”
Self-portraits are arguably some of the most illuminating works within the creative realm. Not only are we able to witness the personal style and approach of that artist, but we are granted access into how she views herself through the very work to which she dedicates her life. Intertwined with the slow brushstrokes and curving lines are loosened threads of the artist’s reality, how she sees herself, the world around her, life itself, humankind, etc. Some of these ‘breadcrumbs’ are intentionally included, while others are accidental or involuntary. Nevertheless, the audience can identify certain truths pertaining to the artist’s life or person, solely from an array of paint on a stretched canvas.
Analysis of The Two Fridas
A great example of the correlation between self-portraits and inner truths revealed can be found in the work of the extraordinary talent, Frida Kahlo. A majority of Frida’s paintings involve her in the composition in some form or another. If you are to study each of the self-portraits in relation to the period of Frida’s life, you may pinpoint artistic choices employed by Frida to allow the audience insight into how she sees the world and others, as well as herself.
Said choices include color scheme, composition, depiction of subject(s), and overall story: the “anatomy” of an artwork. These tools inform the audience, appealing to them with tangible indications of deeper meanings as they relate to the artist. One particular self-portrait that houses a myriad of symbols and significance is Frida’s 1939 piece, The Two Fridas.
From the outset, the audience can detect a gloomy, almost eerie tone, which is largely propelled by its cool hues and incorporation of blood. The painting features two representations of Frida herself, sat side-by-side on a wicker bench against a stormy watercolor background. The Frida on the left is seen in “modern European attire, wearing the costume from her marriage to Rivera” (1). The Frida at the right contrasts with the other’s fashion as she dons a traditional Mexican costume.
Perhaps the most eye-catching part of the painting, hearts are exposed on the chests of the two Fridas with the veins and arteries of both hearts intertwined. The European-styled Frida bears a bleeding, wounded heart, with the main artery cut by a pair of scissors in her hand. However, the heart of the other Frida is healthy and unscathed. The painting was inspired by Frida’s divorce from her husband, fellow painter Diego Rivera in 1939, an event that pushed her to further explore her cultural identity.
So, what can be found in the differences between Frida’s
two renditions of herself in The Two Fridas?
In short, a lot.
The significance of Frida’s choices as it relates to her portraits is extensive because each element is meaningful. First of all, the contrast of dress conveys how Frida views herself and the two cultures present in her family: German from her father’s lineage and Mexican with Spanish/indigenous roots on her mother’s side (2). The left Frida’s dress reflects European fashion and adheres to the white-centric beauty standards enforced at the time. This version of Frida has a diminished mustache, lighter eyes, and dresses in a more ‘feminine’ manner with white and pink hues, lace fabric, and floral embellishments. She maintains upright posture, her legs positioned closed and to the side.
Sitting beside her, the other Frida embraces her Mexican roots, wearing a traditional Tehuana dress of vibrant color. Moreover, some of her features return, including her mustache and dark eyes. Her dress is less constricting than that of the left Frida, which shows a tight lace turtleneck, and billowing long sleeves. She assumes a more open sitting position, with legs apart and facing frontward. While the left Frida holds scissors that pierce the heart’s artery, the right Frida grips a miniature portrait of Rivera.
Frida’s personal truths are illustrated by these very details. A significant choice in the piece, Frida depicting herself as two separate entities points to her internal struggle with cultural identity. She didn’t combine the two heritages to form one unified figure in the painting despite both being simultaneously present in her life, which makes for a ‘dual’ identity: one that clings to the Euro-centric beauty standards celebrated by society, and one that honors her Mexican heritage, which isn’t uplifted by society. This struggle between self and self in society corresponds to the notion of autonomy, specifically as it relates to the socially constitutive conceptions of autonomy.
As brought forward by philosopher Serene Khader in Philosophy for Girls through her example involving the protagonist Starr in The Hate U Give, there are sometimes repercussions of one’s divergence from the socially acceptable approach to autonomy. Khader illustrates this argument through her dissection of Starr’s reality as a Black woman in a white-dominated school environment: “She lacks autonomy or freedom to do otherwise because the choice not to censor her Blackness is sometimes punished at Williamson [School] and because not censoring her Blackness will cause her to lose certain educational opportunities” (Khader, pg. 35).
I believe that through The Two Fridas, Frida explores how her own autonomy has been influenced by societal tendencies and views, and how it has otherwise been informed by her multicultural upbringing. Her inclusion of a more Euro-centric version supports the idea that Frida experienced pressure to reject her indigenous heritage in favor of advancing in a white-catered society. Somewhat similar to the field of philosophy, the art realm fixates on white male artists more so than artists of other genders and races. Most of us can rattle off several white male painters quite easily: Van Gogh, Picasso, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, Pollock, Warhol, Degas, Rockwell, to name a few. However, we often fail to come up with more than two women or non-binary painters: Kahlo, and, on a rare occasion, O’Keefe.
As a woman of color in the twentieth century, Frida encountered bigotry at the intersection of race and gender; her identity strayed from the mythical norm and was not celebrated by fellow artists and society at large. The Two Fridas emphasizes the pressure she felt to create a version of herself that would be embraced in her career and her life, whilst suppressing another part of herself. Frida allows us into her reality, which may not always be recognized in day-to-day interactions as one’s true identity and reality is infinitely complex.
In a similar vein, I find the following quote of Frida’s to be reflective of the notion of individual truth: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Reality is sculpted by each person and is informed by a litany of social norms and views, as well as individually shaped values. Therefore, the truths we identify within ourselves may not always be observed by the surrounding world, but the world’s inability to see them does not dictate the validity of that particular truth or reality.
The Two Fridas serves to capture a multitude of emotions and truths attached to Frida’s self and her reality. By witnessing the way in which she views herself, we can more accurately understand the reality in which she exists and what it entails.
A note on the featured graphic: The cropped circular image at left shows the upper left corner of “The Two Fridas.” What struck me was the contrast in blue hue seen in that portion and the rest of the stormy blue background.
The corner’s shade of blue, bolder and lighter in tone, can also be seen in the shirt of the right Frida (at left), which I think indicates a hope for a happier future, one without the pain she experienced through the divorce.
- How can art succeed in capturing the truths and/or values of the artist? How can it fail?
- What factors determine whether an artwork is ‘realistic’?
- Is truth essential in creating art?
- In regards to the various artistic movements and eras throughout history, how might time interact with the truth(s) of an artwork?
- Is it possible for self-portraits to fail in accurately conveying truths of the artist? Why or why not?