It wasn’t until artist Lauren Brincat moved to Mexico City in 2012 to live and work that she truly understood the passion, vibrancy and urgency of Frida Kahlo and her artwork.

Brincat, a Sydney-based artist whose work ranges from video art to sculpture and installation, moved at the encouragement of Mexican art critic, curator and historian Cuauhtémoc Medina. He felt her work would benefit from being exposed to the grit and vitality of Mexico. Her decision to move changed her life and work forever.

“Frida has been an icon since I was in high school, one of her famous quotes is: ‘I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.’ I think it’s quite a beautiful reason to paint, and a lot of my video works are like self portraits,” Brincat says.

She visited Casa Azul, the studio Kahlo shared with husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, numerous times.

“If you’re an artist living in Mexico City you can’t avoid the colour and the street watermelons and how much it makes you feel love and feel so alive. I’ve never felt so close to death, it’s such a crazy city and I got myself in some seriously dangerous situations. You have to be alert, but the other side of that is they know how to celebrate life; they know how to eat; they know how to listen to music and they know how to move.”

Brincat will speak about her experiences of Kahlos’ work and Mexico City as part of the Art After Hours series that accompanies the exhibition Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibition opens tomorrow.

The largest-ever collection of works by Kahlo and Rivera to be seen in Australia, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is made up of works from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection and features more than 30 paintings and 49 photographs of the pair shot between 1911 and the 1950s. None of the photographs have been seen here before.

The collection is considered the world’s most significant private holding of Mexican modern art and was amassed after the German-born Gelmans moved to Mexico in the late 1930s and befriended Kahlo and Rivera.

The exhibition takes in such well-known works as Kahlo’s 1943 self-portrait Diego on my mind and another work from 1943, Self-portrait with monkeys. Both feature Kahlo’s inscrutable and intense stare, hallmark brow and braids. Some of Rivera’s large-scale political murals also feature.

While the pair is broadly regarded as two of the 20th century’s greatest artists, the acclaim for Kahlo’s work didn’t come during her lifetime. Today though, 62 years after her death, Kahlo and her iconic paintings continue to captivate the public.

Born in 1907, Kahlo married Diego, who was 21 years her senior, in 1929. It was considered by her family to be a bad match. The pair had a passionate, fiery relationship, and both of them had extramarital affairs – Leon Trotsky and Kahlo’s sister Cristina were two of the people Kahlo and Rivera turned to respectively.

But their obsession with one another endured, as strong as their determined independence.

“Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s private lives were inextricably linked to their work, all meticulously chronicled in their paintings and also highlighted in the photographs in this exhibition,” says AGNSW director Michael Brand.

A very literal painter, Kahlo wasn’t afraid to portray her innermost thoughts and the ugly side of life. Kahlo was born with polio, and was later involved in a horrific, near-fatal bus accident that left her with severe, life-long injuries.

“She’s so obviously a survivor. She paints every day and you almost don’t need to know her history, but you can feel what she’s gone through. And I think everyone can relate to that in some way,” says Brincat. Her Art After Hours talk will take in the three major works she created during her year in Mexico City. She will also talk about how Kahlo has influenced her.

“She was an incredible painter and what should have killed her didn’t. Yes [they both had affairs] but like lots of things in Mexico, what makes it so amazing is there was a flipside, where you feel everything and nothing. It’s either the best or the worst, and there’s no in between.”

Frida Kahlo and Diego River is on display at the AGNSW from June 25 to October 9.

Lauren Brincat’s talk, An unconventional union: Frida and Diego through an artist’s eyes, will be held on July 6. Free admission.

artgallery.nsw.gov.au/art-after-hours