Great Art Explained

Hi everyone, I hope you’ve all had a great week! A few days ago I stumbled upon a new Youtube channel called “Great Art Explained“. Run by a curator named James Payne, the channel features 15-minute-long videos about famous works of art, many of which I learned about this year. Payne takes one painting or sculpture in each video and provides background knowledge of the artist, gives insight into their influences, and ultimately explains the significance of the piece. He explains each in simple terms and avoids using “art-speak” so that he can engage with all kinds of art lovers. Payne has discussed artists ranging from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol. I recently watched his video on Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, which I found so interesting because of how in depth he went.

The Two Fridas, Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939

Looking at this painting and its title, it’s easy enough to understand that it represents two sides of Frida Kahlo. The Frida on the right seems to be healthy and whole with her heart in tact, while the Frida on the left has her heart hallowed out. In Payne’s video, he explained the circumstances of this painting specifically as well as Frida’s style in general, which helped me truly understand this painting. Payne explains that this painting was created after Frida’s divorce from her husband Diego Rivera, a relationship that is famous for it’s affairs and heartbreaks. Upon their marriage, Diego encouraged Frida to embrace traditional Mexican culture in the way she dressed. She dressed in this fashion for much of their marriage. However, upon making a name for herself and spending time in Paris, Diego felt she had changed, and divorced her soon after. In the painting, the Frida on the right is the one Diego had loved, dressed in Mexican attire, while the Frida on the left, who is dressed in Victorian era clothes, is the one Diego no longer wanted.

Payne goes on to point out that the Frida on the right is holding a small portrait of Diego, which is attached to the vein leading to her heart. In a very literal sense, Diego is her lifeline. The Frida on the left has this cut off and is bleeding, indicating the true loss she felt due to her divorce. This also explains the decay in her heart. Payne then explained that, although this piece is absolutely about her heartbreak, it is also empowering. Payne shows an earlier painting of Frida with Diego, where Diego is holding her hand in support. In The Two Fridas, Kahlo has the two figures holding each other’s hand, showing that she can be her own support system. Despite her heartbreak, Frida is acknowledging that she is strong and can move forward.

Kahlo's Ex-Votos
Frida and Diego’s Collection of Ex-Votos

If you’ve ever seen a Frida Kahlo painting, you’ll know that this exemplifies her style of direct symbolism, without much concern for accuracy or realism. What I didn’t know was why this was her chosen style. Payne uses his video to explain this, too. Frida was inspired by Ex-Voto paintings, which are small Catholic religious paintings that serve as a form of thanks or prayer. These would often be done as a way to thank saints for their help, such as for finding a lost pet or healing from a disease. Frida’s mother even commissioned one when she had been in a bus accident at eighteen years old. These paintings are also accompanied by writing, explaining the circumstances behind the painting. Ex-Votos utilize narrative, which Frida was inspired by. Looking at The Two Fridas with this in mind, you can see the story unfold. Frida’s tale of love and heartbreak followed by her self-redemption is on display as you follow the spiral from her right figure’s hand up the artery that connects the two hearts and down to their connected hands. Frida is not just a painter, but a storyteller.

Be sure to check of Payne’s channel for more of his videos! I think they’re a great way to provide insight on these famous paintings. Often times, we feel like we know the story of a painting because it’s so popular. Everyone knows Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, but maybe there’s more to it. That’s what I love about Art History – I feel like there’s always more to learn. With short but in depth videos, Payne provides a great basis for anyone with an interest in art history to learn and discover.

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