A Sylvia Plath Retrospective Finally Puts Her Visual Art on Display

Little known fact: Plath was an art major before she switched to English.

by Cailey Rizzo
Jul 28 2017, 4:43pm

© Estate of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is regarded as one of the greatest poets and novelists of the 20th century. But as a teen, she didn't even want to be a writer. Plath enrolled at Smith College with the intention of studying studio art but switched to English under the conviction of teachers who recognized her talent for words.

And although during her lifetime she was never recognized for her visual work, Plath never stopped making art. Now, with an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Plath's visual art is getting a retrospective of its own.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, Tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951 Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

One Life: Sylvia Plath explores the writer's visual art through letters, drawings, and self portraits spanning her entire life. Paper dolls Plath made in childhood are displayed alongside collages of Eisenhower, pin-up girls, and fighter jets. One particularly impressive work is a Cubist-inspired self-portrait Plath made her senior year of high school.

"Sylvia Plath's fascination with images and imaging was a strong part of her identity," Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the Portrait Gallery, says in a statement. "The exhibition allows us to see what she described as her 'visual imagination' in all its complexity."

Collage by Sylvia Plath, Collage, 1960 Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

What Plath longed for in her writing was the ability to describe what she was seeing in a unique way. "What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination. When the sky outside is merely pink, and the rooftops merely black," she wrote in a journal entry when she was 24 years old.

Apart from the works of art, there are also plenty of objects and memorabilia on display for hard-core Plath buffs, including a lock of hair from her first haircut and one of her typewriters.

"Twas the Night Before Monday," by Sylvia Plath, Paper, No date Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath
"A War to End Wars" Self-Portrait by Sylvia Plath, Paper, February 26, 1946 Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath
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
Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, Photograph, 1954 Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. © Estate of Sylvia Plath

The exhibition will be shown at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery through May 20, 2018.


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mental health
visual art
Sylvia Plath
The Smithsonian