Who knew that Sylvia Plath had a connection to Gertrude Stein? “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” the intense exhibition at the National Portrait
Gallery of Washington, DC running through May 20, 2018 sports a copy of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that is annotated with an almost self-portrait of Sylvia Plath. At the end of the book, which Plath read from December 1955 to January 7, 1956 while visiting Paris and her British boyfriend Richard Sassoon who was a literature student at Yale but taking a course at the Sorbonne, Plath penned into the back pages of The Autobiography a drawing of a French cafĂ©. What makes the drawing compelling is in the lower portion of the scene Plath depicts the hand drawing the cafĂ© scene.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Given that this exhibit works its way up to Ted Hughes’ betrayal
and her subsequent suicide, Plath’s shadow presence in her cafĂ© drawing speaks to the relationship she had with Sassoon at that time. According to Andrew Wilson in Mad Girl’s Love Song:
Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Sassoon was key to catapulting Plath into the relationship with Hughes. Plath had gone to Paris
to confront Sassoon about his feelings for her. Apparently, Sassoon was her intellectual equal but he had reservations about
her tempestuous behavior. Her unscheduled visit was not appreciated. So Sassoon left Paris and thereby ended their relationship.
Since the emphasis of this exhibition is on Plath’s visual art, something the Steiny Road Poet knew nothing about, she got a
different perspective of this poet. Plath’s cubist self-portrait, emphasizing the head and neck, shows her light and dark sides
(facial) but predominately the painting is about pattern and color. Instead of hair, a headdress of colored shapes (mostly
green with navy and yellow accents) that include flowing yellow dashes or red dabs. The painting reinforces her childhood interest in fashion.
On exhibit is a set of paper dolls with her fashion designs. Commentary from organizing curator Dorothy Moss of the
National Portrait Gallery and guest curator Karen Kukil of Smith College indicate that Plath colored her paper doll clothing with
newly developed felt-tipped pens. The Dresser pauses here a moment because felt-tipped markers became widely available in
the 1960s. The felt-tipped pens that Plath used when she was around 10 years old (1942) were not generally available and most
likely came from an art supplies store. Further research on Plath and her art reveals a portfolio much larger than this exhibition
suggests. As exhibition notes state, Plath studied drawing and painting at Smith College.
What the Dresser particularly likes about the NPG exhibition is how things fit together and help make clear what happened to
Plath or rather what path Plath chose for herself. The exhibition includes letters, journal entries, and poem drafts (e.g., “Lady
Lazarus”) that are remarkably easy to read and some of these are in her handwriting. Harder to see are tiny photographic snapshots.
Chilling oddities include her Marilyn Monroe photographic portrait, pony tail clipped from her head when she was thirteen
years old, and a wooden desktop presented to her by her brother Warren and formerly meant to be a coffin lid.
by Sylvia Plath
Tempera on paper
Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England
by Harry Ogden
Photo by Harry Ogden, Courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College,
"Lady Lazarus" Holograph (1 of 6 pages)
Author: Sylvia Plath (27 Oct 1932 - 11 Feb 1963)
October 23, 1962
Sheet: 27.9 Ă— 21.6cm (11 Ă— 8 1/2")
Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
Sylvia "Marilyn" Shot
Gordon Ames Lameyer (8 Jun 1930 - 12 May 1991)
Sheet: 8.9 Ă— 12.7cm (3 1/2 Ă— 5")
Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana