Kahlo wearing a Tehuana headdress

Kahlo wearing a Tehuana headdress. 
Photo: Edward B. Silberstein. Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art, New York

In perhaps her best-known work, The Two Fridas 1939, Kahlo paints a double self-portrait. It was created during her separation and divorce from Rivera. On the right-hand side Frida sits in traditional Mexican costume, representing the woman that Diego loved. She holds a picture of him as a child in her hand, and her heart is exposed but whole. On the left is the unloved Frida, dressed in a colonial-style wedding dress; her heart is broken and an artery drips blood into her lap. Kahlo once said that The Two Fridas showed the ‘duality of her personality’. Whilst presenting an image of a divided self, the painting is also emblematic of a cultural divide: the conflict implicit in the mestizo race, neither fully European nor fully Mexican Indian.

Kahlo made The Two Fridas for the International Exhibition of Surrealism held in Mexico City in 1940. Although some of Surrealism’s leading figures, including André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, championed her work, she preferred to keep her distance from the movement. Elements in Kahlo’s work that might be considered surreal such as dualism and metamorphosis, can also be traced to traditions in both Aztec and contemporary Mexican culture.

Frida Kahlo The Little Deer

Frida Kahlo
The Little Deer 1946
© Banco de México and INBAL Mexico, 2005

Later in her career, Kahlo added another element to this blend of Mexican and European influences: an interest in Eastern religions and mysticism. The Little Deer, from 1946, is an example of this complex assimilation of sources. Kahlo’s head is conjoined with the body of a stag, which is pierced with arrows. No doubt the work relates to Kahlo’s suffering due to her failing health and turbulent relationship with Rivera, but it is also a summation of a world view in which different cultures and belief systems combine. 

At the bottom of the canvas in The Little Deer, Kahlo inscribed the word ‘carma’, a reference to the Eastern concept of reincarnation; while the arrows allude to Christian images of St Sebastian. In Aztec culture, the deer symbolised the right foot – Kahlo’s injured limb – and relates to the animal alter-ego, a subject that fascinated Kahlo. Another painting in this room shows Kahlo with one of her Itzcuintli dogs, a breed that can be traced back to the Aztecs, who believed that they accompanied the dead to the underworld.

The alter-ego, or split identity is likewise a focus in Two Nudes in a Forest 1939. Two women lie entwined on the fringes of a lush jungle. One is light skinned, one dark skinned. They might represent two aspects of a single nature, or the mixed racial origins of the Mexican people. The painting also touches on Kahlo’s bisexuality – the pair are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust – and could equally be interpreted as Kahlo herself and a woman she loved.