By Carla Solorzano
She’s everywhere. People want to be her. She’s on shirts and tote bags. She’s a style icon and an influencer, but not the Instagram kind… and she just turned 110 years old. Frida Kahlo is a feminist icon enjoying a more mainstream popularity as of late and is known for being badass and bisexual, but also for showcasing the raw pain she felt in different times of her life. Kahlo’s earnestness in her art presents femininity in its true form. Women are often not treated as complex beings and instead are forced to fit into one of two molds. You’re sexy or smart. You’re easy or a prude. You’re too shrill or too meek. But being feminine isn’t just enjoying makeup and hair and clothes (which Kahlo did), it’s about existing in the dichotomies society has carved out for female-identifying people and even thriving. It’s about duality.
The Dallas Museum of Art drew 125,894 visitors to it’s recent exhibit “México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde,” according to a press release. The featured 27″ x 27” self-portrait by Kahlo titled “Las Dos Fridas” was placed toward the end of the exhibit as the grand finale. I had the great pleasure of visiting this very exhibit and the palpable excitement came to a head when entering that last room with the immense canvas. Let me be honest and admit that I cried. Never in my life did I think I would be mere feet away from such an honest and beautifully executed portrait. If you’re unfamiliar with “Las Dos Fridas,” firstly, I’m sorry. Secondly, allow me to explain: the iconic self-portrait features two Fridas sitting together; one who is dressed in more “native” garb and the other in a European-styled get-up. Their anatomical hearts are visible and are connected by a vein. The Fridas hold hands and stare directly at you. The two Fridas represent the two sides of herself that she struggled to reconcile. The European side, afforded to her by her German father, she often ignored. The Mestiza side of mixed indigenous Mexican and Spanish blood, given to her by her mother, was the side her lover, fellow artist Diego Rivera, preferred and encouraged. After their divorce in 1939 following his streak of infidelity (culminating in him sleeping with Frida’s sister), she painted this self-portrait.
The theme of duality comes up often in her work. In “Autorretrato en la frontera entre el abrazo de amor de el universo, la tierra (México), yo, Diego y el Señor Xólotl,” “Arbol de la Esperanza, Mantente Firme,” “Sin Esperanza,” and “Retrato de Lucha Maria, una Niña de Tehuacan,” Kahlo features the sun and the moon prominently on the same canvases. This star and satellite pair was often referenced in early Mexican folk art. Some attributes given to the sun are positivity, life, strength and the moon has been ascribed darkness, gentleness and femininity as the lunar cycle lasts about as long as the menstrual cycle. Some cultures bestow a male role to the sun. In these works, Kahlo exhibits her struggle to remain positive as a woman with depression among other ailments and as a woman incapable of having children. It also puts a spotlight on the first dichotomies we’re exposed to in life: day and night, man and woman. Kahlo experimented with gender expression as we’ve seen in a photograph of her as a young woman dressed in more masculine clothing, including pants, and in her self-portrait “Autorretrato con Pelo Corto.” She challenged the idea that femininity could only be expressed in ways that society had set forth.
Kahlo expressed her true femininity the only way she knew how, by painting her life as she felt it as a complex human being. Kahlo had to overcome incredible pain in her life, from her bus accident, to a husband who wasn’t loyal, to depression, to drug and alcohol abuse. “Femme ain’t frail,” as the Tumblr kids say these days.