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An Exhibition Offers a Visual Biography of Sylvia Plath, Including Her Little-Known Art

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is opening a visual biography of the author Sylvia Plath, including her rarely-seen artwork.

Elinor Friedman Klein, Sylvia Plath with typewriter in Yorkshire (September 1956) (Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts)

Since her suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, Sylvia Plath’s literary recognition has only grown, whether the ubiquitous assignment of her lone novel The Bell Jar in American high schools, or her posthumous Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982. Yet the shroud of her young death has meant she is often perceived solely from that moment, as a tortured writer who channeled her depression into confessional prose and verse, when her identity was much more complex. Her image was something she constantly augmented as she juggled being an author, mother, wife, and artist, in an era that was societally restrictive for women. As she once wrote in the 1950s, as included in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath:

What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.

Rollie McKenna, “Sylvia Plath” (1959), gelatin silver print (printed later) (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna, © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation)

One Life: Sylvia Plath, opening June 30 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, will be a visual biography of Plath’s life, bringing together objects from the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College, her alma mater, and Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Many of the items have never before been exhibited. (Some of the work was exhibited in the 2002 Eye Rhymes: Visual Art and Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath at the School of Fine Arts Gallery at Indiana University.) Along with manuscripts showing her detailed writing process, photographs, and even Plath’s ponytail saved by her mother, are examples of her little-known artwork.

“I wanted to do an exhibition on Sylvia Plath as she’s never been shown before in an art and history museum, and when she went to Smith College she had planned to major in studio art, so she was as much an artist as a writer,” Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the Portrait Gallery, told Hyperallergic. Moss organized the exhibition with Karen Kukil, associate curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College.

From a young age, Plath kept a sketchbook, drawing her observations, and herself. She created collages, and sometimes drew right in the books she was reading, like her copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein in which she illustrated a woman sitting in a Parisian cafe. “She said she had a visual imagination, and I think this will really come through in this selection of the artwork,” Moss said. Indeed, her writing was often sharp with images, as in The Bell Jar when her autobiographical character describes “melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I’d never seen before in my life.”

Gordon Ames Lameyer, “Sylvia ‘Marilyn’ Shot” (1954) (courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)

Plath also had a very visual identity, such as her fluctuating hair colors from brunette to blonde and back again, to alter her self-image in response to social pressures and settings. “If she was applying for a Fulbright scholarship, she dyed her hair darker; in Cape Cod she had bright blonde hair and looked like Marilyn Monroe,” Moss said. And in the exhibited images of her, combined with her letters and manuscripts, the curators aim to emphasize that she had a sense of humor and a light side that balanced out the dark.

“What we wanted to do is look at her story through the way that she presented herself visually, and photographs that people took of her and her family and friends, and her own self portraits and sketches,” Moss said. “We’re hoping that her visions will drive the exhibition, and her words will drive the narrative.”

Siv Arb, Sylvia Plath with Frieda and Nicholas (April 1962) (courtesy Writer Pictures Ltd., © Writer Pictures Ltd.)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription (August 1945), hair with ribbon (courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
Sylvia Plath, “Twas the Night Before Monday” (no date) (courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath, “A War to End Wars” Self-Portrait (February 26, 1946) (Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath, “Triple-Face Portrait” (1950-51), tempera on paper (courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Warren Kay Vantine, studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (1954) (Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath, collage (includes images of Eisenhower, Nixon, bomber, etc.) (1960) (Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Harry Ogden, “Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England” (1956) (courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts)

One Life: Sylvia Plath will run June 30 to May 20, 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, DC).

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