How odd it is that the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida has given over its space to a solo show of Frida Kahlo works. The rightness of that is puzzling because there’s no connection between the two painters. Dali pictured his dream life and Kahlo pictured her actual life. Granted they were contemporaries, though she died at 47 and he lived to 85. But their differences went deep. He was a devotee of Surrealism and she rejected the style. In her words, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Missing link

So why did this treasure house boasting the largest collection of Dali’s works outside of Europe mount a Kahlo show?

In promoting it a clear effort was made to link her to the Surrealist. The museum website notes talk about how guest art is evaluated, saying that it “in some way can be compared or contrasted” with Dali. Of course, if the requirement for guest art is merely to contrast with Surrealism, pretty much all of art history would make the cut. But director Dr. Hank Hein appears to lean on the rationale for comparing rather than contrasting by characterizing Kahlo’s work as “dreamlike images” – a description she wouldn’t have liked. Hines also compared her to the Surrealist by saying she “constructed an eccentric identity” as he did, and dressed herself like “the personality she created in her art.” Kahlo wouldn’t like that, either.

Her Mexican identity wasn’t an eccentricity or affectation as was, say, Dali’s ermine headwear, wax mustache with the tips curled up, and silver-handled walking stick.

In the looking glass

Another difference between the two artists can be seen when it comes to self-portraits, which are all that Kahlo painted and Dali avoided - unless you count one with his head propped up with crutches - his way of putting himself on a pedestal.

Exhibit notes seem to concede that the museum’s presentation of Kahlo “doesn’t really seek to reconcile” their differences, except to say that they shared “a common predilection for using symbolic iconography.” Is that right? Let’s consider that aspect of their work.

The eyes have it

Dali’s symbolism came in the form of pocket watches melting over desolate lands of scattered decomposing tree trunks – his view of life when time stops.

Kahlo’s visions were far from philosophical. Her lower bone structure had been mashed in a trolley accident in adolescence and the result of the 35 surgeries endured over her short life became her subject matter. She didn’t paint symbols. She painted herself either from a bed or from a wheelchair using a mirror to describe not only her crippled form, but also her identity as a Mexican down to using a Mexican folk art style. And to stress her lifeless body, she added contrasting life forms like foliage and butterflies. It’s manifestly clearly that she didn’t paint her dreams, but rather the nightmare that was her life