Juanita Garciagodoy breathed the same as-yet-unpolluted air of Mexico City that Frida Kahlo breathed for two years before the latter died. She wrote a book about Mexico’s Days of the Dead, and now she reads and writes mostly about Iberian romances of chivalry. Juanita Garciagodoy holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Languages and Literatures, is a visiting assistant professor emerita at Macalester College, and lives with novelist George Rabasa by the Mississippi.
I was twelve when the Museo de Arte Moderno opened in Chapultepec Park in 1964, and my family went to admire the curious architecture of Pedro Ramrez Vzquez and the marvelous opening exhibition. That was the first time I saw Las dos Fridas (1939). I was and wasn’t ready for it. I found the exposed hearts, the blood, and the veins very disturbing, though I was fascinated by the double self-portrait and compelled by the double gaze–still, steady, magnetic–to remain before the piece (though I really wanted to walk away from those painful hearts). It felt like the two Fridas were inviting me to be part of their ineludible dyad, calling me to know their silence, to reveal my thoughts and feelings to them, to open myself to the new acquaintance.
The painting made my heart ache for my best friend who had just been taken back to New Jersey by her parents. I’d met the sylph-like Monica Lee Schlick in fourth grade. Her brown eyes had jolted me into a friendship that made us long intensely to have been born twins. The best we could do was to become blood sisters, and that little ritual served partially to correct the incomprehensible cosmic error that had us born to different mothers in different countries, three weeks apart. Monica’s and my sisterness was evoked powerfully for me that first time that I regarded Las dos Fridas, which, as Frida wrote in her diary, was inspired by her imaginary friend.
In high school, the double self-portrait still evoked my blood sister even though she had stopped writing me. As I looked at the Fridas’ gently clasped hands, my mind filled with questions. I knew absolutely nothing about her. I was radically alone with this commanding painting, wondering at the metaphor for self and consciousness of self. What did it mean that Frida depicted herself as both prim and casual, European-Victorian and Mexican-timeless (because the dress of our Indigenous women does not change perceptibly until it’s given up)? What did she mean by the stillblood on the stage-right Frida’s lap and the tiny portrait on the lap of the stage-left one? Was it a third self-portrait? Had she once seen herself as male, as I had done (as Salvador Dal had, looking under the skin of the ocean in a girl’s body)?
In those years, my brother “ Manito,” my cousin Carl, and I spent countless hours in the ancient Bosque de Chapultepec, including in its museums. We were intent on knowing ourselves and each other as honestly as possible: docile and rebellious; obtuse and insightful; strong and kind, fragile and cruel. Pre-Columbian and modern art was helpful in our quest.
As an adolescent, I was sure–as I am to this day–that Las dos Fridas was also a metaphor for self-knowledge and for acceptance of one’s complexity and integrity. I was sure that Frida sought herself both in the looking glass and in her mental and psychological self-image, plumbing the mystery of who and what she was: docile and rebellious; mesmerizingly beautiful; strong and fragile; polymorphously sexual, sensual, playfully perverse…(I staunch the flow of adjectives with editorial hemostats).
The two women on the canvas, one with perfect posture, one slouching like me, gave me more of a sense of Frida Kahlo than one alone might have done. As a reader and a poet, I admired her artistic insight and inventiveness, her allusions to pre-Hispanic dualism and Christian trinitarianism. I admired the great skill that delivered the almost tangible skin; the sticky, hot and the cooled, dry blood; the rubbery conjoining artery; the smoothly combed hair. (Was it silky like Monica’s or coarse like mine?) Myriad encounters later, I can, for a few weeks, stand in front of Las dos Fridas in Minneapolis, as often as I did in Mexico City. On my visit last week, I saw the painting as I hadn’t before: Frida renders herself double, inescapable, practically life-size. There’s no mistaking her, and she serenely, softly, firmly holds her own hand, such that she accompanies herself completely, sufficient unto herself. The picture of the child Diego shows a sharp contrast. He is in such a wee format that it’s hard to recognize him, and he supports himself on a table. Frida, who wrote about Diego with mystical adoration, painted him dependent on her more than once, and in Las dos Fridas, while she is all there, twice, not reaching beyond herself at all, he is not even animate.
Sometimes I still ask questions of this painting, but soon enough, its beauty dissolves my questioning. Sometimes I feel vertigo before it, not exactly like that I feel before Las Meninas, but the two masterworks cast on me a mirroring spell.(Yet not the stupefying mirror-spell of poor Narcissus who lacked enough self-knowledge to survive his self-seeking.) Both Las dos Fridas and Las Meninas induce me to stand still and long in their presence and to seek the artists and to seek myself. Both canvases request that I give myself to their fullness, their inevitability. (Had Velzquez not painted the one, had Kahlo not painted the other, they must still have come into existence. But that’s the quandary that perplexed Monica and me as children: If we had been twins, whose parents would have engendered us? Could we still be who we are? Would we still be friends?)
Today, everything I know about Frida melts away as I contemplate this poetic work. Both Fridas feel as thoroughly present, warm, and vibrant as my husband and my friends, as the Frida-tattooed lady and the reverent students in the Walker’s Frida-enchanted galleries. That’s the power and the mystery of Art.
Many of us can remember the impact that seeing Frida’s work for the first time had on us. She is not for sale. But while seeing an exhibition of her paintings is a rare (wonderful!) privilege, we can buy, carry, or wear reproductions of them to remind us of the truth and the beauty of the vivid canvas; to continue to contemplate meanings; and of course, to honor an artist who has moved us so profoundly that we may experience her as very much nuestra Frida.