Frida Kahlo’s art was often a raw and unflinching visual diary. In “The Two Fridas,” painted during a period of personal upheaval,  she dissected her own identity with startling honesty. This large-scale work reaches into the complexities of Kahlo’s mixed heritage, the profound pain of heartbreak, and the ways in which her physical suffering became inseparable from her artistic expression.

The Meeting of Two Selves

“The Two Fridas” presents a startling duality. Two women, mirror images of each other, sit side-by-side on a bench against a barren, cloudy backdrop.  They share Frida Kahlo’s features, yet their attire and postures dramatically contrast. One Frida, in a vibrant Tehuana dress symbolizing her deep connection to Mexican culture, sits assertively, almost defiantly. The other Frida, clad in a white European-style dress, the lace delicate and almost ghostly, sits in a more traditional, reserved pose. Their hands clasp, suggesting an inseparable bond, yet their expressions are distinct—one stoic, the other mournful. At the center of the image are exposed hearts, both connected by a single, pulsating blood vessel. This blood vessel becomes a lifeline, yet it’s also a point of vulnerability, visually representing the delicate balance within Kahlo’s being.

This image is a painting titled "The Two Fridas" by Frida Kahlo from 1939. It depicts two versions of the artist sitting side by side, with their hearts exposed and connected by a vein. The Frida on the left is dressed in a white European-style Victorian gown while the Frida on the right wears a traditional Mexican dress. The sky behind them is tumultuous, with swirling dark clouds, suggesting emotional turmoil. The exposed hearts and the blood vein, which one Frida cuts with scissors, symbolize the pain and divided identity experienced by the artist.
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939, Museo de Arte Moderno

The stark background, featuring ominous storm clouds, intensifies our focus on the two figures and underscores the emotional turmoil within Kahlo’s inner world.  The bench, unremarkable in its simplicity,  forces the viewer to confront this emotional duality without any distractions.  This visual choice amplifies the raw, internal conflict central to the painting.

This visual dichotomy speaks volumes about the internal conflict Kahlo grappled with. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was of German descent, while her mother, Matilde Calderon, was Mexican.  The two Fridas become representations of this dual heritage, a constant negotiation between her European roots and her fierce embrace of Mexicanidad. It’s important to note that this embrace was likely intensified by the rise of Indigenismo, a post-Mexican Revolution ideology that championed the country’s indigenous heritage. Kahlo adopted this outlook, reflecting it in her artistic style and choice of clothing, including the iconic Tehuana ensemble.

Kahlo herself has offered insights into the painting, suggesting it arose from memories of an imaginary childhood friend but also references her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Their troubled marriage was marked by infidelities on both sides.

The Frida in Tehuana costume, with the intact heart, is believed to represent the Frida that Rivera loved, while the Frida in white, whose heart appears wounded, symbolizes the Frida that Rivera rejected. Here, it’s worth noting the blood vessel leading to a miniature portrait of Rivera held by the Tehuana Frida, further emphasizing this connection.  The composition subtly echoes Frida’s earlier wedding portrait, “Frieda and Diego Rivera” (1931), where the couple also holds hands, but with an underlying emotional distance that is amplified in “The Two Fridas.”

Monumental Scale

This image shows a person viewing "The Two Fridas" painting by Frida Kahlo on display at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. The viewer is standing with their back to the camera, providing a sense of scale to the artwork. The large painting features two self-portraits of Frida Kahlo sitting side by side against a stormy sky background. The person observing the painting is dressed casually in a white t-shirt and black pants, focusing intently on the details of the artwork.
The Two Fridas and the viewer, photo by Mister Blur

Kahlo typically worked on smaller canvases, creating intimate, often self-focused works. The decision to execute “The Two Fridas” on a large (5.69 × 5.68 feet or 1.74 × 1.73 meters), nearly life-sized scale, marked a significant departure. This dramatic shift amplifies the emotional intensity of the subject matter. The figures become monumental, forcing the viewer to confront the duality and pain within Frida. This suggests that she considered this exploration of identity, heartbreak, and suffering to be a profound experience – one that transcended the intimacy of her usual work and demanded a grander presentation.  “The Two Fridas” was the first large-scale work Kahlo created and remains one of her most recognized and celebrated paintings.

Blood Veins and Heart: Physical and Emotional Pain

Close-up detail from Frida Kahlo's painting 'The Two Fridas,' highlighting the interconnected hearts of the two figures depicted. The heart on the left is anatomically intricate and visibly wounded, belonging to the Frida in a white Victorian dress. In contrast, the heart on the right, held by the Frida in a traditional Mexican outfit, is less detailed and more robust. A solitary artery links the two hearts, representing a bond of shared emotions and identity. Against the backdrop of a turbulent and stormy sky, the scene is imbued with a sense of deep intensity
Close-up detail from Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas”, 1939

The exposed hearts within “The Two Fridas” are potent symbols on multiple levels. The strong, whole heart of the Tehuana Frida represents resilience and connection to her Mexican heritage. In contrast, the European Frida’s heart is cut, bleeding, symbolizing both the emotional pain of her divorce from Rivera and the toll of Kahlo’s lifelong physical struggles.

The blood vessel that connects the two Fridas is a complex visual metaphor. It reinforces the idea of an unbreakable bond between these two aspects of Kahlo’s identity, yet it also becomes a source of vulnerability as the European Frida bleeds out. This could be read as a commentary on the relentless pain that Kahlo endured due to illness and numerous surgeries, a pain that became inseparable from her emotional identity.

Some art historians have drawn parallels between the exposed hearts and the tradition of human sacrifice within Aztec culture. This contextualizes Kahlo’s work within broader themes of Mexican heritage and offers a lens through which to understand her depiction of suffering.

The Scissors: Loss and Severance

A close-up detail from Frida Kahlo's 1939 painting "The Two Fridas," focusing on a hand holding a pair of scissors, severing a vein. The cut vein is dripping blood onto the white fabric of a dress, creating a stark contrast and symbolizing emotional pain and separation. The image captures the intense and raw emotion that is characteristic of Kahlo's work.
Close-up detail from Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas”, 1939

The surgical scissors held by the European Frida introduce a chilling yet powerful motif. These instruments of cutting and severing take on a deeply symbolic role, implying Kahlo’s desperate attempt to sever her emotional bond with Rivera, to excise the part of herself that remains painfully attached to him. This Frida, clad in a pristine white Victorian dress – a symbol of purity and tradition – reflects her European lineage, yet also perhaps the independent artist she sought to be.

The futility of her action is made heartbreakingly clear. The blood continues to flow, a haunting image that the wounds of loss cannot be neatly severed but remain an ongoing struggle. The splatters of blood staining the immaculate white dress further emphasize the inescapable impact of emotional trauma. The exposed hearts of both Fridas, connected by a single vein, underscore their unbreakable bond. However, the European Frida’s attempt to cut this lifeline highlights the inner turmoil and profound pain Kahlo experienced in the wake of her divorce.

The Portrait of Diego Rivera: Unbreakable Ties

Close-up detail from Frida Kahlo's painting "The Two Fridas" from 1939, featuring a small portrait of Diego Rivera held in the hand of one of the Fridas. The portrait is encased in an oval locket, which rests in the Frida's lap, indicating Rivera's significant presence and emotional impact in her life. The background is a simple depiction of the fabric of her traditional Mexican attire.
Close-up detail of Portrait of Diego Rivera from Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas”, 1939

Within the intricate symbolism of “The Two Fridas,” the miniature portrait of Diego Rivera held by the Tehuana Frida carries a powerful significance. While the European Frida bleeds out, seeking to cut away her attachment to Rivera, the Tehuana Frida clasps his childhood image. This miniature suggests that even amidst the pain of separation, a certain bond remains unbreakable.

The choice to depict Rivera as a child could have multiple interpretations. It might represent the innocence of their love before its complexities, or the part of Diego that Frida continued to cherish despite their tumultuous relationship. The placement of the portrait close to the Tehuana Frida’s heart underscores the deep, and perhaps inescapable, connection between Kahlo’s Mexican identity and her love for Diego.

This portrait further highlights the tension within Kahlo’s being. Despite the emotional wounds represented by the European Frida, she cannot fully deny the enduring connection to Rivera, a key figure in her life and a fellow artist deeply intertwined with Mexican artistic movements.

Surrealism or Symbolism?

“The Two Fridas” invites viewers to consider whether it aligns strictly with Surrealism or represents a unique blend of symbolism and realism. Surrealism, as an artistic movement often focused on dreamlike imagery, tapping into the subconscious mind, and employing unexpected combinations – elements echoed in Kahlo’s work. Artists like Salvador Dalí epitomized this style.

While “The Two Fridas” possesses some dreamlike qualities, the symbolism primarily stems from Kahlo’s personal life experiences. The two Fridas, the exposed hearts, and the connecting blood vessel are not archetypal symbols found in Surrealist works but deeply personal motifs relating to her identity, heartbreak, and physical suffering.

Therefore, “The Two Fridas” could be considered more accurately as a work of symbolism infused with Kahlo’s own brand of expressive realism. It exposes the complexities of a specific individual rather than exploring universal concepts, a hallmark of Surrealism.


“The Two Fridas” invites layers of interpretation. It is at once a reflection of Kahlo’s dual heritage, a raw expression of emotional pain, and a visual confrontation with physical suffering.  This complexity is precisely what makes the painting so compelling. Kahlo refuses to present a simplified view of herself, embracing the contradictions and exposing the vulnerable core of her being.  As such, “The Two Fridas” remains a timeless work of art. Its unflinching honesty speaks to the complexities of identity, the pain of loss, and the resilience of the human spirit–experiences we all share. This universality is why this iconic painting continues to resonate so deeply with viewers.

For those wishing to experience “The Two Fridas” firsthand, it is currently housed within the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.