The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art
By Maria Popova
“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) 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.
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.
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.
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 Life exhibitions, 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 one of a handful of women portrayed, among them 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.)
Moss, who teamed up with Plath scholar and Smith Rare Book Room curator Karen Kukil, was particularly interested in Plath’s curious power over the popular imagination — how she has remained so relevant even to people who know little about her, why so much of the mythology that surrounds her stems from a place of misunderstanding, what it is about the combination of her poetry and her personhood that so enchants. Moss tells me of her fascination with Plath’s visual art:
Her impulse to draw and sketch was as strong as her instinct to write.
In the context of a museum of art history and biography, Moss set out to explore the poet’s visual imagination and the way Plath performed her identity — how she made sense of herself in her art, how she deliberately revealed herself only in fragments. Half a century before Instagram and Facebook’s hyperconscious art direction of the self, Plath carefully curated her own image, sculpting before the camera a persona she felt represented her ideal self and destroying many of the photographs she didn’t like.
In her selections for the show, Moss sought to honor the full dimension of Plath’s person beyond the archetypal persona of the tragic genius into which popular culture has flattened her — to celebrate not only the undeniable darkness of her poetry, but also her sense of humor, her witty and whimsical sides. “To have the intensity that she achieved in her writing, she needed to experience a range of emotions,” Moss tells me — a sentiment Plath herself articulated in a poignant and precocious letter to her mother penned at the age of seventeen:
Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.
In consonance with this effort to illuminate Plath’s multitudes, the show highlights two of the poems she penned in the final days before taking her own life, both animated by an exuberant vitality and a benevolence toward life, and posthumously published in her Collected Poems (public library):
Kindness glides about my house.
Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke
In the windows, the mirrors
Are filling with smiles.
What is so real as the cry of a child?
A rabbit’s cry may be wilder
But it has no soul.
Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,
Its crystals a little poultice.
O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.
And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk
Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish —
Such queer moons we live with
Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,
The heart like wishes or free
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
Shred in his little fist.
When I asked Moss what most surprised her in bringing the show to life, it was this creative tension between fatality and vitality that she pointed to — “how much wonder and light is in [Plath’s] work throughout her life, even in her last days.”
Accompanying the exhibition is an arresting sound and light sculpture by Wellesley composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, titled Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) — a haunting homage to Plath, both physical and ethereal, in which visitors tap on glass jars to activate the sound of Wellesley college students singing Plath’s verses. The title of the piece is inspired by the parenthetical last verse of Plath’s first tragic poem:
(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
One Life: Sylvia Plath is on view until May 20, 2018. Complement it with Plath on what makes us who we are, her little-known children’s book written for her own kids and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and a rare BBC recording of her haunting reading of the poem “Spinster,” then revisit her ink sketches collected by her daughter.
All images courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Published August 17, 2017