SMARTEN UP @ THE ADULT SCHOOL
Column for NEWS-RECORD, March 14, 2019
Rose Bennett Gilbert
Ask Janet Mandel to name her favorite artist and you'd better pull up a chair for a long listen.
An award-winning art history educator, Janet is on fond and on intimate terms with almost every artist who made history in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Van Gogh, Renoir, Andy Warhol — she's spent "hours and hours" with the major painters, she says, digging into their personal histories for the bio-details that bring them vividly to life in her popular series of lectures.
Who knew, for example, that Frida Kahlo, the famously crippled Mexican artist, feminist icon and enigmatic painter, designed her own prosthetic leg? Or that she carried on with Soviet communist leader Leon Trotsky when he and his wife moved into Frida's family home in 1937? And that was she was married to fellow communist and fabled muralist Diego Rivera, just before Trotsky was assassinated (by someone else) in 1940!
Janet knows a wealth of such bio-bits, and in her lecture series at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School beginning Mar. 21, she'll reveal even more about the stormy Kahlo-Rivera relationship. That they married in 1929, for example, were equally given to extra-marital affairs, divorced in 1939, but remarried the next year.
"Frida painted her biography," as Janet described Kahlo's life. It was a life of pain and suffering that began when at age 6 when polio left her with a deformed leg. Then, as an l8-year-old, she was involved in a horrendous bus accident that made her unable to bear children — a lifelong sorrow, Janet points out — and confined her to bed in a full-body cast. "Frida was a brilliant student. She'd wanted to be a doctor," Janet reports. The bus accident and long confinement rewrote her life's plan.
"Frida's parents rigged up a mirror over the bed so she could at least paint herself," Janet tells. It was the beginning of the unflinching self-portraits, including her unibrow and mustache, for which she would became famous.
As Frida herself commented in l938, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
Kahlo is only one of the artist subjects whom Janet has come to know best since she and a co-teacher developed the art history curriculum as part of a special-ed program at Columbia High School. "Retired" after 32 years of teaching in local schools, Janet's minutely researched and illustrated biopic-ish "Art Talks" now attract enthusiastic audiences of art fans and artists' groupies. Her Adult School series also includes Elaine de Kooning (Apr. 25), wife of Willem and a celebrated Abstract Expressionist herself; Edouard Manet (May 23), the French painter often credited as the originator of modern art; and Chaim Soutine (June 13), a radical colorist known for "painting emotion," as inimitable Janet would describe it.