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.
Leigh Robb in conversation with Fiona McMonagle
Educator Briefing with Tansy Curtin
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
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.
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.
“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.”
- 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?
Rebecca Evans, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design discussing Virginia Leonard's work
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.