Discover the Paintings, Drawings & Collages of Sylvia Plath: Now on Display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Plath was a study in con­trasts. Her pop­u­lar­iza­tion as a con­fes­sion­al poet, fem­i­nist lit­er­ary icon, and trag­ic casu­al­ty of major depres­sion; her mid­dle-class Boston back­ground and tor­tured mar­riage to poet Ted Hugh­es—these are the high­lights of her biog­ra­phy, and, in many cas­es, all many peo­ple get to know about her. But “she was much more than that,” Dorothy Moss tells Men­tal Floss. As Vanes­sa Willough­by puts it in a stun­ning essay about her own encoun­ters with Plath’s work, “this woman was not the sum of a gas oven and two sleep­ing chil­dren nes­tled in their beds.”

Moss, a cura­tor at the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Por­trait Gallery has orga­nized an exhib­it fea­tur­ing many more sides of the poet­’s divid­ed, yet pur­pose­ful self, includ­ing her work as a visu­al artist. Read­ers of Plath’s poet­ry may not be sur­prised to learn she first intend­ed to become an artist. Her visu­al sense is so keen that ful­ly-formed images seem to leap out of poems like “Black­ber­ry­ing,” and into the reader’s hands; like the “high green mead­ows” she describes, her lines are “lit from with­in” by a deep appre­ci­a­tion for col­or, tex­ture, and per­spec­tive.

Black­ber­ries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges, fat / With blue-red juices. These they squan­der on my fin­gers.

The black­ber­ries come alive not only in their per­son­i­fi­ca­tion but through the kind of vivid lan­guage that could only come from some­one with a painter­ly way of look­ing at things. Plath “drew and paint­ed and sketched con­stant­ly as a child,” says Moss, and first enrolled at Smith Col­lege as an art major.

The exhi­bi­tion, the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery writes, “reveals how Plath shaped her iden­ti­ty visu­al­ly as she came of age as a writer in the 1950s.” Unsur­pris­ing­ly, her most fre­quent sub­ject is her­self. Her visu­al art, like her poet­ry, notes Men­tal Floss, “is often pre­oc­cu­pied with themes of self-iden­ti­ty.” But as in her elo­quent­ly-writ­ten let­ters and jour­nals, as well as her pub­lished lit­er­ary work, she is nev­er one self, but many—and not all of them vari­a­tions on the sly, yet brood­ing intel­lec­tu­al we see star­ing out at us from the well-known pho­tographs.

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured some of Plath’s draw­ings and self-por­traits here, but the Smith­son­ian exhib­it offers a con­sid­er­ably rich­er selec­tion than has been avail­able online. The ink and gouache por­trait at the top, for exam­ple, seems to draw from Marc Cha­gall in its mate­ri­als and swirling lines and col­ors. It also recalls lan­guage in a diary entry from 1953:

Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not for­get it. It is a chalk mask with dead dry poi­son behind it, like the death angel. It is what I was this fall, and what I nev­er want to be again.

The hands thrown up in defense or sur­ren­der, the black life­less eyes… Plath emerges from the ring of dead trees behind her like a suf­fer­ing saint. Anoth­er por­trait, fur­ther up also resem­bles a mask, call­ing to mind the ancient ori­gins of the word per­sona. But the style has total­ly changed, the tumult of brush­strokes smoothed out into clean geo­met­ric lines and uni­form patch­es of col­or. Three masks com­bine into one face, a trin­i­ty of Plaths. The poet always had a sense of her­self as divid­ed, refer­ring to two dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties as her “brown-haired” and “plat­inum” selves. The brown-haired young girl made sev­er­al charm­ing sketch­es of her fam­i­ly, with humor­ous com­men­tary. (Her trou­bling father is telling­ly, per­haps, absent.)

Hers was an epit­o­me of stan­dard-issue 50s white, mid­dle class Amer­i­can child­hood, the kind of sup­pos­ed­ly idyl­lic upbring­ing which no small num­ber of peo­ple still remem­ber today in a glow­ing, nos­tal­gic haze. In Plath’s exca­va­tions of the iden­ti­ties that she cul­ti­vat­ed her­self and those she had pushed upon her, she gazed with rad­i­cal inten­si­ty at America’s patri­ar­chal social fic­tions, and the vio­lence and enti­tle­ment that lay beneath them. The col­lage above from 1960 presents us with the kind of lay­ered, cut-up, hybrid text that William Bur­roughs had begun exper­i­ment­ing with not long before. You can see more high­lights from the Plath exhib­it, “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery. Also fea­tured are Plath’s fam­i­ly pho­tos, books, let­ters, her typewriter—and, in gen­er­al, sev­er­al more dimen­sions of her life than most of us know.

“One Life: Sylvia Plath” runs from June 30, 2017 through May 20, 2018.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Sylvia Plath: Revis­it Her Sketch­es, Self-Por­traits, Draw­ings & Illus­trat­ed Let­ters

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 15 Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in 1962 Record­ing

Sylvia Plath’s 10 Back to School Com­mand­ments (1953)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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