The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Lifeexhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is only the third woman portrayed, after pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)…

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