Fiona McMonagle was born in 1977 in Letterkenny, Ireland and emigrated to Australia with her family in the same year. She grew up in Melbourne and was influenced by her artistic brother Tim McMonagle. After high school she commenced studies at RMIT and at Victorian College of the Arts receiving an Associate Diploma of Visual Arts in 1997 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Painting) in 2000. In 2015, McMonagle was the winner of the National Self-Portrait Prize for One hundred days at 7pm, a moving image piece in which, as the title suggests, she painted herself at the same time each day for 100 days using a restricted colour palette, exploring the idea that we are all constantly changing.

McMonagle is best known for her distinctive watercolour portraits of people and pets. She is interested in pushing the boundaries of watercolour, by exploring its use in animation, moving image as well as creating large scale works. McMonagle’s subjects are at once powerful and vulnerable, with faint details and soft, transparent qualities, she captures ordinary life in the suburbs. Recently, McMonagle has been interested in depicting iconic and influential people, including celebrities, musicians, actors and royalty.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo by Fiona McMonagle

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo is larger than life such that the viewer looks up to the relaxed and confident gaze of Kahlo, an artist of famously small stature. Kahlo gathers her shawl around her with her arms lightly cradling her form. She wears a patterned dress, jewelled drop earrings and turquoise beads. In order to construct the composition, McMonagle completed numerous studies and surveyed all of the available photographic portraits of Kahlo, as well the artist’s painted self-portraits. Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo is an imaginary portrait which synthesises the various representations of Frida Kahlo. A striking yet subtle portrait of the iconic painter, McMonagle said that she wanted to capture Kahlo’s strength and power, but create an image that does not feel staged or performative.

This painting will be a legacy work for the Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution exhibition – capturing the enduring influence of Friday Kahlo on contemporary and Australian artists.

I was always fascinated by Frida Kahlo. As a young girl and young artist, Frida Kahlo was the first artist who changed how I understood art and what art can do, and make you feel. Frida is so influential, she is an icon and one of the most represented faces and figures, I wanted to capture a portrait which is slightly darker and captures her complexity, power and knowingness.
Fiona McMonagle

McMonagle often uses archival images and old photographs to start her painting process. This approach, a form of research, enables McMonagle to synthesis lots of information. Look at the following works online to see the range of McMonagle’s practice:

  • The Scheme; portraits of children who immigrated to Australia from 1920-1960
  • The Park located by the Jack Dyer Pavilion at Citizens Park, Melbourne; a large-scale mural which celebrates the diversity of sport within the community.
  • Family portrait no. 1, 2017 depicting a group of three children (see below)

Using your own family photographs create a series of portraits of a family member or friend. Try using both wet and dry materials. Like McMonagle, place the paper flat and experiment with pooling the colour onto the surface. Compare the different effects when the paper is wet versus dry. Compare your finished work with its photographic inspiration and discuss the similarities and differences.

McMonagle researched all available photographic portraits of Kahlo to create her portrait before completing numerous studies (sketches or smaller paintings). What iconic figure do you admire? It might be a sportsperson, musician or actor. Collect as many different images of that person as possible. Which image captures their character best? In the medium of your choice, create an imaginary portrait of this person that brings together representations of this person that you have found during your research.

As a young girl McMonagle was always drawing. Spend five minutes each day making a self-portrait. At the end of the term collate all of the portraits and make an analogue flip book or document the portraits to make a digital moving image. Tip: Take a look at One hundred days at 7pm

Fiona McMonagle, born Letterkenny, Ireland 1977, Family portrait no.1, 2017, Melbourne, oil on linen, 101.5 x 81.5 cm; Public Engagement Fund 2017, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide.

McMonagle is influenced by the work of Dutch artist Marlene Dumas and Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. Investigate these artists and compare their work to that of McMonagle.

McMonagle has stated ‘My portraits are a celebration of women, of their struggles, complexities and their power’. Using Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo or another portrait by McMonagle, explain how the artist has celebrated the subject’s power.

About the sitter

Five facets of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was a Mexican artist, best known for her portraits, and self-portraits inspired by Mexican culture and nature. Her works were largely autobiographical, exploring ideas of identity, class, and race in Mexican society.

Nickolas Muray, born Szeged, Hungary 1892, died New York, New York, United Stated of America 1965, Frida Kahlo on bench #5, 1938, New York, New York, United States of America, carbon print, 45.5 x 36.0 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

Frida was resilient

At the age of 18, Frida was involved in a serious trolley car accident (or tram as we would recognise today), which left her confined to a bed for months. While healing from painful injuries she began to paint. Her parents provided her with a modified easel that she could use from her bed and mounted a mirror above her so that she could paint her own image.

Prior to the accident Kahlo wanted to become a doctor, but her long-lasting injuries prevented her from pursuing a career in medicine. Instead, she turned to art. The permanent pain and suffering she endured as a result of the accident, as well as personal traumas that were to follow her throughout her life, became the source of inspiration for many of her paintings.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best. I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
- Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, Self-portrait with monkeys, 1943, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on canvas, 81.5 x 63.0 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation, © Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust/ARS. Copyright Agency, 2023..

Frida was from Mexico

The vast social inequalities between the wealthy elite and the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico were the major factor behind the Mexican Revolution in 1910 which gave rise to social and cultural change. Devoted to her country, Frida Kahlo changed her birthdate to 1910, so that it coincided with the year of the Mexican Revolution.

From 1920 with the installation of the new president, Álvaro Obregón, the social and political upheaval gradually stabilised, allowing for a consolidation of a new Mexican national identity, one linked to its indigenous heritage. The increased access to education and the arts inspired great artistic output, with new generations of artists looking to the past, present and future, for inspiration.

Through direct government support, indigenous cultures were celebrated. Artists were encouraged to take inspiration from Mexico’s long and rich history and embrace the indigenous people and the associated folk-art traditions, with the explicit aim of creating a new sense of national identity.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo is how Frida’s name appears on her birth certificate. Her father was a German Jewish immigrant and her mother was of Spanish and indigenous Mexican descent. During the 1930s when Nazism was on the rise in Germany, she asserted her German heritage by spelling her name Frieda, a honor to the German spelling peace (frieden).

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, The bride who becomes frightened when she sees life opened, 1943, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on canvas, 63.0 x 81.5 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation, © Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust/ARS. Copyright Agency, 2023..

Frida was a Modernist

Kahlo was interested in politics and art, which led her to join the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. It was here that she met fellow artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) who would become her husband in 1929. Together, Kahlo and Rivera helped to develop modernism in a postrevolutionary Mexico.

Rivera alongside other Mexican artists participated in the Mexican muralist movement which was a government-led initiative to create large scale murals that promoted social ideals and glorified the Mexican Revolution. Aimed to unify the country and build a national identity, the murals gave indigenous people, peasants and the working-class, pride of place in shaping modern Mexico.

The murals and paintings made during this movement combined a distinct fusion of folk art and international modernism. Ancient Aztec icons are set amongst abstracted modernist landscapes, portraits of Mexico’s indigenous peoples are given precedence, and folk arts and crafts abound in embroidery, weaving and sculpture.

As a modernist, Kahlo rebelled against the European forms of art that were popular before the revolution. Instead, she explored her personal psyche depicting portraits and self-portraits that were rich with symbolism, personal stories and bold colours and patterns.

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana), 1943, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on board, 76.0 x 61.0 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation, © Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust/ARS. Copyright Agency, 2023..

Frida and Fashion

Mexico City in the 1920s was truly cosmopolitan and people followed the latest in international fashion. For Kahlo, however, fashion became a bold political statement as she began to favour traditional Tehuana costumes similar to those worn by her ancestors in Oaxaca. Her indigenous costume served two purposes for Kahlo; it masked her physical injuries and, by aligning with Mexico’s ancient indigenous cultures, it provided a vehicle for reclaiming power and personal identity.

The traditional Tehuana attire commonly consisted of a tunic like garment called a Huipil which had a long skirt that was brightly embroidered. In Diego on my mind, (Self-portrait as Tehuana) 1943, pictured here, Kahlo wears a headdress from Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca. The starched lace folds that encircle her face draw attention to the portrait of Rivera etched on her forehead.

Frida Kahlo, born Mexico City 1907, died Mexico City 1954, Self-portrait with braid, 1941, Coyoacan, Mexico, oil on canvas, 51.0 x 38.5 cm; The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation, © Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust/ARS. Copyright Agency, 2023..

Frida was a Feminist

Kahlo did not conform to social norms and defied gender stereotypes placed on women at the time. She refused to alter her features including her ‘trademark’ single dark eye-brow and faint moustache – in fact, she exaggerated these features in her portraits. Kahlo wore carefully constructed outfits and elaborate hairstyles. Her body adornment was rebellious as she challenged the fundamentals of how women were supposed to dress and behave in contemporary Mexican society.

Kahlo’s subject matter often acknowledged women’s lived experience, including birth, miscarriage, abortion and breastfeeding, which were sometimes deemed as taboo topics to talk about or even explore in art making. Despite the physical and emotional suffering that Kahlo endured throughout her life, her intense gaze in her self-portraits consistently exudes strength and power.

  • Create a mixed media collage that expresses your personal identity. It could include images, symbols or patterns associated with your culture, family, friends and interests. What does your collage say about who you are?
  • After the appointment of José Vasconcelos as Minister for Public Education in 1921, alternative methods of art education began to emerge in Mexico including open-air painting schools in the capit
  • al and in the regions. These new art schools looked at the vibrancy of everyday life for inspiration. Be inspired by your local area – take a walk and observe the people and the environment. Spend time sketching and documenting what you see. Create a painting that captures the place where you live or attend school.
  • Kahlo uses her art and her dress as a way of fashioning her identity, an identity closely associated with her beloved country, Mexico. What do you love about where you are from or where you live? Design and create a wearable work of art or costume that makes a statement about who you are.

If you would like to know more about Frida, Diego and the Mexican Revolution see the ‘Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution’ catalogue available from the Gallery Store.

Contemporary versus historical

Like Kahlo, artists today continue to use personal experiences and trauma as inspiration for their art. The muse of New Zealand-based artist Virginia Leonard is pain. This unlikely and deeply personal subject is the result of a serious motorbike accident in London in 1986, which left Leonard hospitalised for two years and surviving thereafter with chronic pain.

Titled Such is the situation when one has a gammy leg, 2021, refers explicitly to Leonard’s injury and echoes her practice of precariously stacking hand-built ceramic forms upon each other to create the appearance of fragility and instability. Describing her vulnerable towers as resembling her human form, Leonard gives shape to that which is often rendered invisible and in doing so she invites her audiences through her warped, slumped and textured sculptures to ‘see’ pain.

Compare the works of Leonard to that of Kahlo. How have both artists explored and communicated their personal experiences with physical pain in their work?

Virginia Leonard, born Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand) 1965, Such is the situation when one has a gammy leg, 2021, Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand), clay, gold, resin, 82.0 x 60.0 x 60.0 cm; Edward Minton Newman Bequest and Ceramics Fund 2022, Art Gallery of South Australia, © Virginia Leonard.

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

Art Gallery of South Australia staff Tansy Curtin, Kylie Neagle, Leigh Robb and Dr. Lisa Slade contributed to the development of this resource.