A Visual Biography of Sylvia Plath

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by  for Hyperallergic

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.

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 for the first time 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. 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.”

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