Two Nudes in a Forest
Frida Kahlo’s Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939, is a dream-like love scene painted with meticulous loyalty to concrete realities of texture, color, shape, and light. Two nudes in a landscape should be idyllic, but the idyll is disturbed, and by contrast enhanced, by the agitated terrain around them. The nudes, one dark-skinned and seated, the other light-skinned and recumbent, are hemmed in on one side by wild jungle foliage that turns abruptly into a vast, barren desert. The jungle could thus be an oasis or even a mirage. In front of the nude women is a canyon. It is as if the earth had been split open by a quake. For all that, the women maintain a semblance of repose.
The body language of the two nudes tells the story of their intimacy. The seated nude is a figure of compassion. She looks down with sorrow at the pale nude whose head rests in her lap. The pale nude stares straight ahead, her outlook is bleak, but, like Frida Kahlo’s image of herself in her many self-portraits, this woman refuses to let her face show pain. These figures are not portraits. Both women are intentionally anonymous. The dark seated woman consoles the white woman by laying her right hand gently over her neck. With her left hand she toys with a lock of her companion’s hair. To emphasize this sensuous touching, Kahlo depicted the dark woman’s right foot settled on the light woman’s inner thigh. The women’s bond is indicated also by the way the white woman’s left arm lies over the dark woman’s thigh and calf, also by a long strand of her hair squeezed between her pale arm and her friend’s dark leg.
Who are these nude women? They are, I believe, two aspects of Frida Kahlo and, at the same time, they are two different women—Frida being comforted by a woman she loved. Kahlo recognized the duality of her personality. Both her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera and her close friends noted that there were many Fridas. First of all there was Frida’s dual heritage. Her mother was a Mexican of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. Her father was a German immigrant to Mexico. Among other dualities that are revealed in Kahlo’s paintings and that Kahlo saw as underlying both herself and all of life are: day/night, sun/moon, male/female, and life/death. Two Nudes in a Forest focuses on the duality of the comforter and the comforted. The Mexican film star, Dolores del Río, to whom Kahlo gave this painting, made it clear, “the indigenous nude is solacing the white nude. The dark one is stronger.”This duality appears again in Tree of Hope, a double self-portrait from 1946 in which Frida the heroic sufferer holding an orthopedic brace sits beside Frida the helpless victim—a woman lying wounded and unconscious on a hospital trolley. Similarly, in The Two Fridas, a double self-portrait from the same year as Two Nudes in a Forest, Frida gives strength to herself by holding her own hand. Indeed, all three double self-portraits are images of self-nurture.
The consoling woman in Two Nudes in a Forest wears a long red shawl over her head. This may be a reference to the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son. Frida Kahlo identified her suffering with that of Christ by wearing as a necklace Christ’s crown of thorns in two self-portraits from the following year. A fold of the red shawl worn by the seated nude hangs down into the ravine and from its tip drops of blood fall into the shadows. More than once Kahlo painted herself with her own blood flowing into and fertilizing the parched Mexican earth. Of the many Kahlo self-portraits in which her body is bleeding, this one is perhaps the most delicate and most subtle.
The two nudes in this painting appear in mirror image in What the Water Gave Me, a depiction of a bathtub reverie from the previous year. Here the miniature nudes float on a sponge. Close by are Kahlo’s parents, her mother dark-skinned and her father white. In What the Water Gave Me the women’s postures are not as loving as they are in Two Nudes in a Forest. The recumbent woman’s head does not fully rest in the seated woman’s lap and her arm does not lie across the seated woman’s thigh. Also missing in the earlier painting is the tender detail in which the dark woman fondles a lock of the white woman’s hair.
If the women in Two Nudes in a Forest are seen as two different women, the dark one probably refers to Dolores del Río with whom Kahlo is known to have had an intimate friendship. Like The Two Fridas, the two female nudes may allude to Kahlo’s bisexuality. As Kahlo’s health worsened, she had a number of relationships with women. Rivera condoned this, but he was violently jealous of Kahlo’s affairs with men. In any case, in 1939, when she painted both Two Nudes in a Forest and The Two Fridas, Kahlo was in great need of a comforting companion. That spring her marriage fell apart and by the end of the year Rivera had divorced her. In October, after Rivera started divorce proceedings, Kahlo wrote (in English) to a friend: “I have no words to tell you how much I’ve been suffering and knowing how much I love Diego you must understand that these troubles will never end in my life.”In that same month she wrote about The Two Fridas to a critic friend: “The fact that I painted myself twice, I think, is nothing but the representation of my loneliness. What I mean to say is, I resorted to myself; I sought my own help. This is the reason why the two figures are holding hands.”What Kahlo explained about The Two Fridas in this letter could apply equally well to Two Nudes in a Forest. In both paintings she succors herself.
She had to. Not only was there the misery of losing Rivera, there was also the agony of her deteriorating health. The skeletal problems that stemmed from a terrible bus accident that almost killed her when she was eighteen, worsened in 1939. Her doctor ordered a twenty kilogram weight to stretch her spine. A photograph from that time shows Frida in traction with a look of agony on her face. In spite of all her emotional and physical pain—or maybe in part because of it—Frida Kahlo painted some of her most powerful and poignant self-portraits during the year she was separated from Rivera. (They remarried in December 1940.)
The subject of sorrow and resilience is concentrated in the two nude figures, but feeling is not revealed in their faces. In Kahlo’s work, emotion is communicated by injuries to the body and, as in Two Nudes in a Forest by the atmosphere in which the bodies reside. Everything that surrounds the two nudes—earth, vegetation and sky—amplifies their hidden anguish. In contrast to the apparent calm of the two loving women, there is menace in the ravine-cut earth, the over-large and overly animate jungle leaves, the twisting tree, and the tumultuous El Greco sky. Even the endless expanse of flat empty desert speaks of Kahlo’s relentless loneliness.
As in several of her self-portraits, for examples Roots, 1943 and Tree of Hope, 1946, the two nudes are close to the edge of a precipice, a clear warning about the precariousness of life. Roots, a favorite motif in Kahlo’s art, usually suggest her belief in the connectedness of all things, but here the roots growing out of the side of the ravine and dangling in the open air bring to mind a freshly dug grave. Another of Kahlo’s favorite motifs are leaves with prominent veins. Sometimes, as in Roots the leaf’s veins allude to Kahlo’s own circulatory system. Sometimes the veins resemble or turn into roots. The veins in the huge and preternaturally white leaf that stands up in the center of Two Nudes in a Forest looks like a skeleton’s rib cage. Death was never far from Kahlo’s mind and it haunts her art as well, so do love and sex. The veined leaves directly behind the two nudes have pronounced clefts. In Kahlo’s paintings this kind of detail usually has a sexual connotation. Here it may refer to her attraction to a woman. To the left of these vulval leaves, a group of olive green pods—some partially open—confirms the erotic allusion. These pods appear again in a 1947 still life called Sun and Life, where their vaginal connotation is much more obvious.
Half hidden by these pods, a monkey, symbol of lust, bears witness to the love scene. But the monkey is not just a symbol. He is also one of Frida Kahlo’s pet spider monkeys—animals that may have served as substitute children but that only accentuated Kahlo’s despair at being childless. In addition, the monkey peering out of jungle foliage is a clear statement of Frida Kahlo’s love for the jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau. The monkey’s tail winding around a branch of the tree is echoed in the tree winding around itself. Similarly, the rents in the sky echo the gashes in the earth, and the tangled tree echoes intertwined veins and roots. The feeling of constriction created by the tree’s strangled branches, adds to the drama enacted by leaves, roots, crevasses, and wind-swept clouds. All of these natural elements speak of the commotion raging inside of the painter’s head. The nude lovers ignore their threatening environment. But for the barely visible dripping blood, they seem to enjoy an almost pastoral peace.
For all its small size, its delicate, almost miniaturist handling, and the quiet stillness of the women, Two Nudes in a Forest packs a powerful emotional voltage. As we enter into the image and examine each of its exquisitely rendered details, the intensity of feeling catches us more and more. This is a perfect painting, eloquent, beautiful, intelligent, contained, and yet, explosive. As the Surrealist poet, André Breton once said, Frida Kahlo’s art is like “a ribbon around a bomb.”
Frida Kahlo held her first solo exhibition in November 1938 at the Julien Levy Gallery located on 57th Street in New York City. The exhibition, which drew large crowds of influential artists, critics and writers, included twenty-five paintings by Kahlo, twelve of which were bought by eager collectors. André Breton had met Kahlo in Paris in 1937, and he marveled at her development upon his arrival in Mexico the following April, at the beginning of a months-long stay. With Jacqueline Lamba, he spent time with Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as with Leon Trotsky and his wife, who had taken refuge at the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s family home, the previous year. “My surprise and joy was unbounded when I discovered, on my arrival in Mexico, that her work has blossomed forth, in her latest paintings, into pure surreality,” Breton remarked, “despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself” (quoted in S. W. Taylor, trans., Surrealism and Painting, Boston, 2002, p. 144).Kahlo granted as much, allowing, “I never knew I was a surrealist till André Breton came to Mexico and told me.”And yet she remained wary of the surrealist tag: “And it is doubtless true that in many ways my painting is related to that of the Surrealists. But I never had the intention of creating a work that could be considered to fit in that classification” (quoted in H. Herrera, Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, New York, 1983, pp. 254-55).While the accuracy and, no less, the desirability of the surrealist appellation remains debatable for Kahlo’s work, the late 1930s witnessed early rumblings of surrealism in Mexico, led by Breton and advanced by the arrival of wartime émigrés, and her painting soon kept unexpected surrealist company.
Declared “the surrealist place, par excellence” by Breton, Mexico became a destination for European artists and intellectuals in exile during the Second World War (quoted in M. Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, New York, 1997, p. 454). “For the first time in centuries, we witness a heavenly combustion in Mexico,” Peruvian poet César Moro wrote in his introduction to the fourth International Surrealist Exhibition of 1940, which he organized with Breton and the Austrian-born painter Wolfgang Paalen for the Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. He beckoned to “a thousand luminous points that must join very soon with this line of fire of international surrealism,” alluding to the recent and coming arrivals of French poet and later painter Alice Rahon, French poet Benjamin Péret, Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo, German critic Paul Westheim, and English-born painter Leonora Carrington (Surrealism in Latin America, exh. cat., Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, p. 32). The exhibition met with mixed reviews—David Alfaro Siqueiros maligned the catalogue for the “aesthetic crime of Bretonism”—but Kahlo’s painting, Las dos Fridas, occupied a place of honor (quoted in ibid., p. 30). Still, her (and moreover, Rivera’s) paintings appeared unconvincingly surrealist to many local reviewers, who questioned the exoticizing, faintly neocolonial gloss of the Europeans and defended the entrenched identification of modern Mexican art with the social tradition of the muralists.
The strong autobiographical impulse in Kahlo’s painting has long seemed inimical to the surrealist fixation on the unconscious and the fantastic.”Yet Las dos Fridas, a particularly apt selection for this exhibition, suggests her familiarity with such Bretonian notions as “communicating vessels” and the divided self. That Kahlo chose to exhibit her work in contemporary surrealist contexts, from Julien Levy Gallery to Breton’s group exhibition Mexique (March 1939), at Renou et Colle Gallery in Paris, suggests her own, canny claims to the movement and its significance to her contemporary practice (not least, as a marker of her independence from Rivera). Kahlo traveled to Paris in January 1939 in advance of the exhibition and met many of the surrealist circle there. She quickly became exasperated by “this bunch of coocoo lunatic son[s] of bitches of the surrealists” and was generally fed up with the city by mid-February, writing to her friend and lover Nickolas Muray that she would “rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas” (quoted in Nickolas Muray papers, 1939 Feb. 16, Archives of American Art). She accepted only Marcel Duchamp, who “has help[ed] me a lot…he is the only one among this rotten people who is a real guy,” and his partner Mary Reynolds, who invited her to stay in their home following an illness (quoted in ibid., 1939 Feb. 27). Notwithstanding Kahlo’s disdain for the surrealists, she hardly shied away from the local fascination with the exotics of her dress and appearance, posing her hand for a cover of French Vogue in 1939. Kahlo returned to Mexico at the end of March; her marriage increasingly strained, she moved into the Casa Azul and agreed to Rivera’s request for a divorce, which became final before the end of the year.
The intersecting trajectories of transatlantic surrealism and Kahlo’s own, ever tortured biography mark this period of work, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, with poignancy and keen self-awareness. A strange, composite image, Two Nudes in a Forest combines Kahlo’s familiar mode of (self-)portraiture with a botanical landscape whose exaggerated fecundity stands in contrast to the barren plain stretching to the horizon. The intimacy of the two women, their bodies intertwined, hints at Kahlo’s bisexuality; this painting was a gift to the Mexican film star Dolores del Río, a lover. A feminine riposte to the more melancholic Las dos Fridas, in which Rivera is implicated (in a small cameo, held in the left hand of the Frida in Tehuana dress), Two Nudes in a Forest stages Sapphic love in nature. Here the wry, self-conscious conjunction of barren womanhood and verdant vegetation, as carefully cultivated by Kahlo in her own garden, resists the stereotyped (surrealist, masculinist) identification of woman as nature. As a spider monkey looks on, the two women caress each other with a familiar ease, freed from the mediations of male desire and even from the cultural signifiers of dress, so prominently figured in Las dos Fridas. “While I was in Mexico, I felt bound to say that I could think of no art more perfectly situated in time and space than hers,” Breton wrote of Kahlo’s work in 1938 (Breton, op. cit., p. 144). Notwithstanding her vexed relationship to Breton, Two Nudes in a Forest is indeed paradigmatic of Kahlo’s critical self-positioning at the time, in regard both to surrealism—in Mexico and in Paris—and to her storied, personal affairs.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park